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In 2019, for the first time, CO2 emissions in both the European Union and the United States declined. Much of the planet’s hope for maintaining a livable climate depends on that trend continuing, and the focus of emissions reductions skews heavily towards the actions of the world’s largest emitters, which are largely concentrated in North America and Asia. The actions of countries in these regions—especially the United States, China, and India—are key to global success on climate. But on their own, they will not be enough. 

In discussions of climate change, African countries are usually portrayed as victims of climate impacts, rather than as contributors to the crisis. Historically, the continent has contributed the least of any global region to fossil fuel emissions, yet it is already experiencing some of the world’s most dramatic changes in terms of drought, flooding, heat waves, and viable land use. Often missing from these conversations is the recognition that African countries are in fact critical partners for global climate change response.

Under President Biden’s leadership, the United States is working to reestablish its leadership on international climate action, and is taking steps to break with the previous administration’s foreign policy. As African countries take steps to grow their economies, ensuring that climate dialogues and decision-making are inclusive of the continent’s needs and priorities will be key to ensuring that future emissions from the region do not eclipse progress made elsewhere. It will take a global effort, enlisting the energy and contributions of Africa’s own youthful activists, skilled engineers, and patient leaders, spurred by investments and encouragement from abroad, to build a low-carbon future that nonetheless supports and propels Africa’s rapid economic growth. 

Africa’s Future Impact on Global CO2

Africa is both the world’s sole remaining region with a rapidly growing population, and the most rapidly urbanizing region. At the same time, it starts 2021 as the world’s least energy-consuming region per capita. That energy deficit needs to be addressed if Africa’s economies are to develop. Africans need and have a right to more consumer electricity use, more transportation, more energy input to agriculture and manufacturing, more housing construction.

There are vast differences in populations, economies, governments, and societies across the continent. What almost all African countries share today, however, are very low levels of greenhouse gas output, and very large, youthful, and rapidly increasing populations eager to build and share in the benefits of modern economies. Sub-Saharan Africa produces, on average, only .8 tonnes of CO2 per person per year, compared to a global average of 4.8 tonnes. However, highly developed and coal-dependent South Africa produces nearly ten times that per person, while the low-population but oil-rich countries of Libya and Equatorial Guinea produce nine and five times that much, respectively. But these are the exceptions; the largest country in Africa in terms of population, Nigeria, emits below the average level (.7 tonnes per person per year), while most other countries, whether giants like Ethiopia, the DRC, and Tanzania, smaller countries like Mali and Niger, or medium sized countries like Mozambique, all currently have CO2 output that is almost negligible, at .1 to .3 tonnes per person. For comparison, per capita CO2 emissions in the United States are 16.2 tonnes.

Africa’s continued transformation will involve both rapid increases in population and major increases in energy use per capita. The trajectory of how that energy is produced—whether Africa follows the fossil-fuel path taken by other developing regions, or embarks on a novel trajectory in which renewable energy dominates—will thus have a disproportionately large impact on our climate’s future. 

To date, Africa’s CO2 emissions from commercial and industrial activity have been minimal. In 2018 the continent’s largest emitter of CO2, South Africa, emitted only 6.6 percent as much of this greenhouse gas as the United States, and only 3.5 percent as much as China. That same year Africa as a whole emitted 1.45 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide total, less than Russia by itself. 75 percent of that comes from just five fossil fuel dependent industrializing countries: South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco. Even compared to India’s 1.9 tonnes per person per year CO2 emissions, Africa’s annual output per person of 1.1 tonnes per year remains modest (for reference, India’s population is comparable to the population on the African continent). In short, Africa’s fossil fuel consumption to date bears no responsibility for the world’s rapid climate change.[a]

Even on an income-adjusted basis, African countries are low CO2 producers, given that it is not only that their incomes are lower than developed countries, but the structure of their economies differs as well. In 2019, the income per person in the United States was USD$65,000 (PPP terms); in Ethiopia, it was USD$2,320. The difference is thus a factor of 32; yet CO2 output per person in 2019 in the United States was 160 times that of Ethiopia (16 tonnes per person per year versus 0.1). If we look at Nigeria, which is more urbanized and developed than Ethiopia, U.S. income per person in 2019 was 12 times higher, but the U.S. CO2 output per person was 23 times higher. In short, the inequity in energy consumption between Africa and the U.S. is even greater than the inequities in overall economic development and income.

But Africa’s CO2 output per person has been growing fast—much faster than its population.   That is to be expected as increases in income and urbanization lead to higher per capita fuel and electric consumption. From 1950 to 2016, Africa’s CO2 emissions increased by a factor of 14. Today, Africa is home to 1.3 billion people; this number is projected to grow to 3 billion by 2060. If CO2 emissions per capita by that date were merely to rise to the level of India today, Africa’s total CO2 output would quadruple to 5.8 gigatonnes of CO2 per year—the same level as U.S. emissions today. Put another way, if by 2060 African energy use produces the same emissions level per person as India does today, then even if China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, and Germany were ALL to cut their CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2060, it would not offset the increases to CO2 output from Africa. If in forty years, Africa’s population as a whole should reach the emissions per capita level of such countries as Egypt (2.5 tonnes per capita per year) or Botswana (3 tonnes) have today, then by 2060 the increase in CO2 emissions on the continent would be so large as to entirely offset even a 60 percent decrease from today’s levels in China.

In short, climate decision-making and investment that is not inclusive of Africa’s economic growth priorities and does not support a clean energy transition on the continent will undercut the world’s efforts to achieve desired global emissions reductions. Increases in African countries emissions per person to very moderate levels over the coming decades would produce total emissions growth so large as to overwhelm efforts made elsewhere by high-emitting countries to reduce global CO2 emissions. In other words, Africa’s trajectory on energy generation and fossil fuel use does not matter only to the region’s future—because of the low base of current energy use and its rapidly growing and youthful population, the continent’s future energy trajectory matters to the entire world, as much as that of any other major region.

Prospects for Green Growth on the Continent

To be clear, a massive rise in CO2 emissions from Africa cannot be avoided by policies aimed at curbing African population growth or energy consumption. Africa’s population growth over the next forty years is large “baked in” because most of the young women who will enter their reproductive years in that period have already been born and their numbers are huge. Any reasonable reduction in African fertility in the next few decades will only have a moderate impact on population levels in 2060; the difference between the United Nations’ “Medium Variant” projection for African population in that year, at 2.97 billion, and the “Low Variant” projection at 2.56 billion is less than 15 percent. Current reductions in fertility in Africa will mainly change projected population after 2060. Similarly, one cannot expect energy use not to increase with rising incomes in Africa; energy use per person is already so low that even modest increases in income will produce large rises in energy demand. No doubt a voluntary shift to smaller families and energy conservation will be valuable for Africa’s long-term future. But for the next forty years, the only way to avoid massive increases in Africa’s CO2 output will be for Africa to avoid a fossil-fuel dependent path of economic development. 

It is critical that income and energy use across Africa increase to address entrenched poverty and livelihood insecurity. At the same time, keeping greenhouse gas emissions from African countries low as they continue their economic growth is key to ensuring that the reductions in CO2 output in today’s high emissions countries serve to reduce global greenhouse gas output, and help us keep climate change within reasonable bounds. 

Fortunately, the prospects for doing so are excellent—certainly much better than they seemed a decade ago. Thanks to improvements in engineering and the scale of production, the costs of wind and solar electric generation have plummeted. University of Cape Town Professor, Carlos Lopes, notes that the cost of solar photovoltaics and onshore wind has fallen dramatically, from 81 percent and 46 percent, respectively, over the last decade, and that energy from new renewable facilities is already less expensive than energy from coal in the African context.

Some African countries also have major hydropower reserves. To be sure, dams can cause major displacements of population and even lead to geopolitical tensions, as with Ethiopia’s new Grand Renaissance Dam. Moreover, to distribute electricity from dams requires extensive, costly, and environmentally disruptive transmission grids. These countries would be wise to use hydropower selectively, and only where large-scale and high voltage power is essential.  In the continent’s many rural areas, where most of the population still lives, local wind and solar power would be far more efficient, as wind and solar power can be efficiently produced locally, avoiding the need to construct massive national power grids in regions with large land areas and low population density.

Avoiding large-scale dependence on fossil fuels to power growth across the continent is critical not only for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, but for the long-term resilience and economic prosperity of African countries. Coal-based electricity production is the worst pitfall.  It is the dirtiest and most dangerous energy source. Moreover, creating an infrastructure dependent on coal-based electricity creates terrible future incentives, as once established, the concentrated employment of thousands in mining and transportation of coal creates a constituency for coal use to continue and grow. Conversely, once the labor force is trained for the installation and construction of solar and wind energy, the growth of such alternative energy industries creates job opportunities that can spread across a region.

Fortunately, African leaders are already engaged, both individually and collectively, in developing strategies and policy initiatives to focus their development on renewable energy sources. Cooperative initiatives include the Africa Environment Action Plan, the Africa Clean Energy Corridor and the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative. International projects cooperating with African countries include the Switch Africa Green Project and the World Bank’s Climate Business Plan, just launched in 2020. Some countries are already global leaders in utilization of renewables; for example, Morocco currently derives 35 percent of its energy from solar, and had a goal of increasing this to 42 percent by the end of the year.[b] There is also an increasing level of green investment on the continent, responding to pressures in both donor countries and within Africa. 

China’s Investments in Africa

Unfortunately, there are constraints to the choices available to African countries. Many African countries lack the capital to rapidly expand their energy production so they leverage loans and other financing from companies and donors willing to invest in their infrastructure. Today, the leading contributor to infrastructure investments in Africa is China, and China’s government and corporations are largely promoting the construction of fossil-fuel projects on the continent. 

Chinese investments in Africa have been growing rapidly since the 1990s, and China has become Africa’s largest trade and investment partner. From 2005 to 2018, Chinese investments and contracts in African nations totaled nearly USD$300 billion, an amount that President Xi Jinping promised to increase by another USD$60 billion as part of the “Belt and Road Initiative.”

China’s investments are driven by both its supply and demand concerns. China looks to Africa as a vital source of raw materials, including minerals such as copper and cobalt, and especially oil and gas, as it seeks to diversify its sourcing of petroleum products away from the Middle East.  Across Africa, there are dozens of countries where Chinese investments have helped increase petroleum output and given China a privileged position as a customer. Sinopec, China National Petroleum Corporation, and China Offshore Oil Corporation are all actively expanding output from African nations.

China’s government has instructed its banks to provide credit, and Chinese companies to invest in Africa, to advance China’s goals of winning friends and expanding its role in the international economy. Yet, Chinese investments are not guided by a single national master plan. Rather, individual companies seek out opportunities to deploy their capital and expertise. In addition to the major oil and other mining and extraction companies, China has many construction companies with extensive experience and excess capacity after completing China’s enormous domestic programs of urban residential and commercial construction and transportation infrastructure. These companies are looking for opportunities to use their experience and capacity abroad. This creates the opportunity for Chinese firms to utilize a “projects for resources” approach, in which Chinese investment banks and investors finance a wide range of projects, including highways, railroads, residential housing, commercial office towers, electricity generation, hotels, mines, and oil production, that are paid for by giving Chinese firms long-term contracts for oil and other products and materials for export.

Naturally, the projects that Chinese firms prefer to finance are those in which they have excess capacity at home, and in the field of energy production, that includes construction of coal-fired electric plants. In fact, as China has cancelled plans for many of its own coal-fired power plants, seeking to clean up its dirty air and deploy more wind and solar power domestically, China’s power firms have sought construction contracts abroad. In Kenya, for example, just north of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lamu, Power Construction Corporation of China is building a 1.05 gigawatt coal-fired power plant, financed by Chinese, South African, and Kenyan capital. Overall, some 100 coal-generating plants are in various stages of planning or construction across the continent in 11 countries outside of South Africa, and half are being financed by China. 

To be sure, China is also financing hydropower projects in Africa, and some Chinese solar and renewable companies are seeking new markets abroad, including in Africa. Yet capacity for wind and solar generation is in great demand within China and in developed countries; construction of coal-generating plants, by contrast, has almost ceased in those areas, leaving plentiful capacity, especially among Chinese firms, for construction in low-income developing nations. Thus China remains the leading—and in many regions the only—country financing large coal-generation projects. As Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Centre for Energy Research and Clean Air, an independent research body, has observed, “China has enormous state-owned thermal-power manufacturing and engineering firms that rely on overseas deals to stay in business.” Offering such projects in exchange for African oil and gas and other materials is a logical step for China.

Fortunately, there is still time to take many of Africa’s planned coal-fired electricity projects off the board. In 2016, driven in part by local environmental activism led by Chibeze Ezekiel, an award winning environmentalist, Ghana cancelled a planned 7 gigawatt coal plant that was to be built by China’s Shenzen Energy Group. At present, China has plans to triple the amount of coal-fired electricity generation that it finances in Africa by 2060; most of these plans should also be scrapped or converted to renewables in order for international commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions to succeed. As China’s President Xi Jinping has promoted his plans for green and sustainable development in China, claimed a role in global environmental leadership, and begun to speak of a “green belt and road,” both African and international environmentalists should respond by demanding that these Chinese-backed coal generation projects in Africa be set aside in favor of Chinese support for wind, solar, and geothermal power generation.

A Role for the United States and International Partners

Of course, Africa needs energy and growth and it will not walk away from Chinese-backed investments in coal-powered generation unless it has alternatives. Here it is crucial to see that Africa’s energy needs are also creating new opportunities to foster innovation, entrepreneurship, and job growth across the continent. As noted, African leaders are already aware of the possibilities and are developing green development strategies. Through diplomacy and development assistance, the United States and international community have an important role to play in supporting Africa’s efforts to develop and adopt pathways designed to help African countries advance through clean energy growth.   

Ensuring that Africa’s largest and fastest growing countries do not experience rapid growth in CO2 emissions as they develop will require more than just stopping the construction of coal-fired power plants. It will require comprehensive planning to adjust to a low-carbon economy, including electrified transport, renewable energy generation for as many end uses as possible, energy-efficient design and construction (especially for rapidly growing cities in the region), and low-emission agriculture. 

Partnering with African countries to support the region’s energy development is good for global emissions, but it is also good business. One country already seeking to rapidly increase its investments in Africa is Japan—but it is doing so with a very different set of priorities than China. Although Japan’s investments, which totaled $20 billion over the three years 2016-2019, are just a fraction of those of China, Japan is seeking to leverage that investment through partnerships with private African companies that provide training and employment for Africans.  Japan has financed projects in agriculture, including biodiesel fuel production and production of fertilizers specially blended for African soils; local solar photo-voltaic powered kiosks to charge consumer electronics; and water purification systems designed to operate without high power consumption or expensive filters and maintenance. Japan has even invested in major infrastructure projects, including a bridge over the Nile in Uganda and port facilities in Kenya and Mozambique, as well as a geothermal power plant in Kenya and digital broadcasting stations in Botswana.

Japan does not see itself in zero-sum competition with China, but rather as simply providing diversification opportunities for African firms and governments. Indeed, small projects that nonetheless point to new directions and improvements in energy efficiency in areas ranging from agriculture to construction to consumer goods may do more to support economic growth and development in Africa than highly polluting mega-projects.

For the United States, the enormous success of health-care investments in Africa—such as the U.S. government-led PEPFAR plan to tackle HIV-AIDS, or the Gates Foundation’s efforts to reduce child mortality and malaria—may serve as models for innovative efforts in energy and urban design. Peer level engagement and participatory processes that engage decision-makers from local to national levels to pinpoint their priorities, and adaptive management that allows for effective solutions to emerge with local input, will help ensure success. Indeed, an Achilles’ heel of Chinese investors is their reluctance to engage with local civil society actors; whereas for U.S., Japanese, and European governments and firms, a willingness to team up with local civil society groups in identifying and meeting social needs provides greater opportunities and insights.

For too long, the world’s nations have neglected both the immediacy of the need to tackle climate change, and the crucial role that Africa’s future will play in determining whether efforts to reduce global CO2 emissions will succeed or fail. Despite their currently low level of CO2 emissions, Africans need to be welcomed as full and vital partners in global efforts to tackle climate change, as Africa’s energy future is of critical global importance.  

As the Biden administration takes office, one way to clearly show its commitment to global leadership on climate change is to pledge to work with African countries to map a pathway to rapid economic growth and job creation enabled by renewable energy, and to support that path with American investments. Ensuring that as America develops its own future as a cleaner economy, it enables other countries to follow that path, will help restore America’s global leadership role.

Jack A. Goldstone (PhD. Harvard) is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr. Chair Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, and a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program. Recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on revolutions and social change, Dr. Goldstone contributed to the National Intelligence Council’s “World 2030” report and the US Holocaust Museum’s Genocide and Atrocity Prevention Task Force. He led a U.S. National Academy of Sciences study of USAID democracy assistance, and has worked with USAID, DIFD, the World Bank, and the U.S. State and Defense Departments on developing their operations in fragile states. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Council on Stabilization Operations.

Sources: African Business, Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, BBC, Carbon Brief, CNN, Deep Insight for Earth Science Data, Global Carbon Atlas, International Renewable Energy Agency, Journal of Energy, National Geographic, Our World in Data, Project Syndicate, Quartz, The Japan Times, The Washington Post, Third World Quarterly, Union of Concerned Scientists, United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs Population Dynamics, United Nations Environment Programme, Switch Africa Green, World Bank.  

[a] To be sure, deforestation of Africa’s rainforests does generate a significant amount of CO2, perhaps in the worst years as much as the U.S. generates. That is a separate issue, however. This brief focuses just on how African CO2 output would grow with increasing energy consumption, which is far less appreciated as a global issue.

[b] Morocco is remarkable in its construction of solar plants, boasting the world’s largest concentrated solar farm among a host of solar power installations.

About the Author

Jack A. Goldstone

Jack A. Goldstone

Global Fellow;
Virginia E. and John T. Hazel Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University; Wilson Center Fellow
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