As the U.S. Abdicates Its Role as a Climate Leader, It’s Africa’s Time to Shine

Despite the fact that Africa accounts for only 3.8 percent of global emissions, seven of the world’s top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change are located across the continent. While US President Donald Trump has abandoned the Paris Agreement under claims that it undermines American competitiveness, for Africans, foregoing climate commitments is simply not an option. As the region most disproportionately affected by climate change, Africa assumed a leadership rule during COP21. Now, as the international community reacts to the United States’ controversial decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and some signatory countries may take the cue to similarly walk away, it is clear that Africa must step up as a leader once more in the pursuit of sustainable development without further damage to the planet. Africa must undertake aggressive adaptation and mitigation strategies by increasing access to clean energy.

Although more African nations are embracing renewables, the temptations of coal, the most polluting forms of power generation, are hard to resist. With the rapid growth of urban African megacities like Lagos and others such as Kinshasa, and Nairobi, the increased demands for energy across the continent are considerable. For countries facing acute power shortages, cheap fossil fuels are a quick fix, but they are a shortsighted approach. In the United States, coal may be a hot-button political issue, but the coal industry has a small economic footprint. Just 76,572 Americans are employed in the industry versus the 150,019 employed in car washes and 143,894 in theme parks – industries that don’t receive nearly as much attention. In contrast, solar energy makes up the largest proportion of people employed in electric power generation. The growth in renewable jobs holds true for other parts of the world, like Asia. In Africa, which holds one of the world’s largest reservoirs of renewable energy as well as high rates of unemployment, renewable energy is not only a climate-friendly option, but a job-friendly one too.

Despite these flirtations with coal, African governments have shown they know something the Trump administration has missed: economic development and environmental sustainability can –and should – go hand-in-hand. With extreme weather taking a toll on Africa’s largest cities, climate-resilient strategies are not a choice. They are imperative. As such, governments have explicitly made adaptation and mitigation a cornerstone of national policy. Ethiopia, for example, has been a trailblazer in incorporating climate change into macroeconomic planning. In 2011, the Ethiopian government developed a Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy and created a climate finance fund within its ministry of finance. Similarly, Kenya, home to some of Africa’s fastest-growing technology firms, has made large commitments to finance the expansion of geothermal and wind energy through investments like the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, the largest wind farm in Africa.

However, the ambition of these targets must be met with concrete plans that take advantage of Africa’s natural resources. With over 1,100 GW of solar capacity, harnessing the power of the sun could be Africa’s best bet to ensuring urbanization does not come at the expense of sustainability. At present, the region’s nascent solar industry is primarily comprised of small-scale, off-grid solutions that have primarily been a step towards rural electrification. While South Africa, Uganda, and Rwanda have pioneered utility-scale solar projects, they remain underexplored and under-valued across the region. Although Nigeria submitted a climate action plan in advance of the Paris Agreement that included a commitment to achieve 13GW of solar by 2030, its commitment is unrealistic as the country currently has an installed generation capacity of 12.5GW and renewables make up just 13 percent of Nigeria’s energy mix. To more rapidly achieve Africa’s solar ambitions at a scale that can grow its economies, African nations must shift their focus from only supporting a one-size-fits-all, one-time sales of expensive solar systems towards creating an enabling environment for innovative models that facilitate greater affordability through the provision of power as a service.

As Peter Ekai Lokoel, Deputy Governor of Kenya’s Turkana County said in 2015, “Climate change is here with us. We cannot stop it. The only way is to see how to work around it.” From catastrophic floods to famines, climate change has already had an impact on Africa. Climate damages as a percentage of GDP in Africa are higher than any other region in the world. As the United States abandons its role as a climate leader, African nations, for the sake of their people, have no choice but to step into the void. In the face of its ecological challenges, Africa cannot afford to adopt the crippling pollution goal for the sake of economic development. Rather, to rapidly tackle energy poverty, the region must embrace the transformative potential of scalable solar power if it has any credible hope at keeping the lights bright for its future.