Africa’s Fossil-Fuel Trap
By Nnimmo Bassey and Anabela Lemos
The greatest share of the burden of addressing climate change lies with the major polluters—the wealthy countries of Europe, North America, and East Asia—that are disproportionately responsible for causing the crisis. Some governments, financial institutions, and companies in those countries have begun taking long-overdue action. They have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to boosting investments in renewable energies as part of a broader transition away from fossil fuels. Crucially, many of these actors have also pledged to divest from coal, oil, and gas projects around the world—even those in energy-hungry developing countries.
In August 2021, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo bemoaned these divestments in Foreign Affairs. “After decades of profiting from oil and gas, a growing number of wealthy nations have banned or restricted public investment in fossil fuels, including natural gas,” he wrote. “A global transition away from carbon-based fuels must account for the economic differences between countries and allow for multiple pathways to net-zero emissions,” he argued, concluding that “the transition must not come at the expense of affordable and reliable energy for people, cities, and industry.” In Osinbajo’s view, countries like his still need to rely on fossil fuels to speed development and to bridge the long-term transition to a green economy.
But far from generating prosperity and stability in sub-Saharan Africa, investments in fossil fuels cause real harm. Decades of fossil fuel development have failed to deliver energy to much of the continent and have built economic models dependent on extraction that have deepened inequality, caused environmental damage, stoked corruption, and encouraged political repression. Pouring more money into fossil fuels will not only perpetuate this dynamic but also delay the necessary shift to renewables. The likes of solar and wind energy are not just environmentally and ethically superior to coal, oil, and gas; thanks to advances in battery and energy storage, they are becoming cheaper and more practical alternatives to fossil fuels. African countries should avoid the fossil-fuel-burning habits of other countries not just because it is the right thing to do but also because it is the sensible thing to do.