Gas a dangerous distraction for Africa’s growth


An attendant arranges gas cylinders at a Nyeri petrol station on May 22, 2013. FILE PHOTO | NMG

When much of the developed world woke up to the dangers of smoking at the start of this century, Big Tobacco turned to Africa for new profits.

In my country, Uganda, and many others, foreign tobacco companies worked to undermine regulations designed to protect people against the industry. Tobacco companies now market cigarettes to schoolchildren in African countries.

As the world wakes up to the climate emergency, oil and gas majors are starting to lose their social licence to operate in Europe and North America. They are now, similarly, turning to Africa for guarantees of a few more years of extraction and profit.

Leaders in Africa are being persuaded that gas is needed for Africa's development, despite the United Nations Secretary-General warning that investments in new fossil fuels are "moral and economic madness".

Helping people switch to gas as a cooking fuel in the short term, and away from woodfuel, is crucial to avoid the damaging health effects of indoor air pollution. We need to invest in local storage and bottling plants for cooking gas.

However, such measures do not require new gas-fired power infrastructure and exploration. These are two completely separate issues.

Arguments for gas exploration and gas-fired power infrastructure ignore the reality of fossil fuels in Africa, while robbing us of crucial time to switch to clean energy.

Decades of fossil fuel development in Africa have failed to bring prosperity and reduce energy poverty. African countries whose economies rely on the production and export of fossil fuels suffer slower rates of economic growth — sometimes up to three times slower.

Gas prices are inherently volatile, as the consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine demonstrates. If they become reliant on gas-fired power stations for electricity, the poorest communities are the first to suffer from the fluctuations of global markets.

These are also not investments for the long term. As demand for clean energy accelerates in the coming years, the International Energy Agency predicts that there will be an estimated $1.3 trillion of stranded oil and gas assets by around 2050.

These projects may elicit short term profits for some elites, but in the long-term could lead to huge losses that will be shouldered by the taxpayer.

Renewable energy presents an unequivocally better alternative. Electricity from solar and wind are now largely cheaper than electricity from gas — and prices don't experience dangerous fluctuations.

However, while Africa possesses 39 percent of the world's potential for renewable energy, it receives just two percent of global investment in renewables. African countries need private and public investment from the Global North to meet this challenge and to replace the money flooding in for fossil fuels.

The rich economies that exploited these fossil fuels in the past need to provide finance for our transition.

Developing renewables now could provide the whole continent with electricity in a decade. And by 2050, Africa could completely phase out fossil fuels, new research shows.