January 23, 2022 Reading Time: 5 minutes

In 2021 20 countries pledged to no longer fund the development of fossil fuel power plants in other countries. This commitment threatens to keep millions of Africans from moving out of poverty by depriving the continent’s countries of the energy they need to develop, and can best be understood as a type of environmental colonialism.

Energy is the backbone of economic development, and Africa remains the most economically underdeveloped region on Earth. While global markets have brought billions of people out of poverty and into the middle class in Asia and the Americas over the last several decades, over 40 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty, a rate almost three times that of any other region.  

Every economy needs a steady and reliable supply of energy. A lack of power, or undependable power that results in frequent blackouts, blockades the ability to develop a modern economy, whether industrial or commercial. Even more, the lack of reliable electricity leaves hundreds of millions of households dependent on highly-polluting sources such as charcoal for home cooking and heating. Millions of people die each year from indoor air pollution, mostly women, and many because of the use of home cooking fuels.

What Africa, like the developed world, needs is a combination of a reliable base source of energy, always available, plus the ability to “load follow.” Load following is the capacity to adjust to changing energy demands across the course of a day and over time as events – often weather events – cause higher or lower peak demands. The energy must be available to be dispatched on demand. Unfortunately, wind and solar are not dispatchable on demand; they are neither reliable as a base load nor for load following.

This means that renewable energy sources are not a near-term solution for Africa’s economic development. Even the developed West is struggling to make renewables work as the primary energy source. Both Germany and Britain have found that they still need to use coal to provide reliability, making them miss their greenhouse gas reduction targets. Asking Africa to take on a task that nobody else has yet managed to accomplish is unrealistic.

The only renewable energy that is reliable – always there for base load and dispatchable on for load following – is hydroelectric power. And that comes with its own set of environmental problems, as well as being expensive to build and not suitable for every locale, particularly in the drier regions of Africa. It can also require the relocation of communities, which often comes at a high human rights cost.

Nuclear is excellent for base load, but less so for load-following (although it can technically produce enough base load to meet expected peak demands). But while generation IV nuclear power is likely to be a sought-after energy source for the future, it currently remains very expensive to build nuclear power plants. Africa needs to get energy as cheaply as possible, unless the West and/or China commits to building nuclear plants to provide it with clean, reliable energy.

Fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas are well-suited to both base-load generation and load-following. Natural gas in particular is outstanding for meeting short-term peak demand as individual plants can be turned on and off quickly. (Coal takes longer to ramp up, and so is capable of but less efficient for meeting peak demand). Coal plants are cheaper to build than large dams or nuclear power plants, and natural gas facilities are, overall, the least-expensive power facilities.

To develop, Africa is likely to use both coal and natural gas. And if it is prevented from using natural gas, it will rely more heavily on coal. As natural gas produces less than half the carbon emissions of coal, gas is the best option for spurring Africa’s economic development while minimizing its contribution to carbon emissions.

Africa has an estimated 624 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, about 1/10 of the world’s total, and more than the US’s nearly 500 trillion cubic feet. One cubic foot produces 0.29 kilowatt hours of energy. Annual per capita energy consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa is around 150 kilowatt hours. At that rate, the region’s 1.14 billion inhabitants use 171 billion kilowatt hours of energy, which would require nearly 590 billion cubic feet of natural gas, if it were the sole energy source. That means there is enough natural gas to power Sub-Saharan Africa at its current rate of energy usage for over 1,000 years.

That is a vastly long time at our current rates of technological and economic development. The transition from pre-industrial to developed economy once took a couple of centuries; now it takes only two or three generations. With its increased wealth from exploiting natural gas, Africa could be fully developed and transitioned to less carbon intensive fuels long before it runs out.

Unfortunately, the grid for efficient natural gas distribution in Africa does not yet exist. Sub-Saharan Africa has a larger proportion of people with no access to electricity than any other region, roughly half of the population (excepting South Africa). But economic growth and energy grid development go hand in hand. This is not a chicken-or-egg problem, but one in which the gains are mutually reinforcing.

Of course, Africa doesn’t have to rely solely on its own natural gas. The world has over 7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas available, and as with other fuel sources it does move in international trade. The argument here is merely illustrative. African countries without natural gas might import it from abroad, and those with substantial quantities of natural gas might find it more economically beneficial to sell the gas to other countries and rely on cheap coal.

For better or worse, environmental protection is a luxury good. The demand for reductions in carbon output grows with wealth. The global West and North may be able to afford it, but the developing world cannot.

Climate concerns are pointless in this respect. While Europe and North America make potentially serious efforts to reduce their carbon output, China and India are both committed to building more coal-fired power plants to drive their own growth. They have no interest in remaining at fractions of the West’s per-capital wealth. Nor does Africa, and imposing costs on them for mythical gains that are completely overshadowed by the carbon emissions of China and India cannot be justified.

Western environmental advocates will voice concerns for the effects of climate change in Africa. But in doing so they will not demonstrate concern for the harmful effects of poverty in Africa. Nor will they be eager to treat Africans as adult peoples competent to make their own decisions. It’s time to end environmental colonialism. Let Africa develop – quickly – and they, like people elsewhere, will choose more environmental protection as they grow wealthier.

James E. Hanley

James E. Hanley

James E. Hanley is a Senior Policy Analyst at the non-partisan Empire Center for Public Policy. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Oregon, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship under 2009 Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, and nearly two decades of teaching Political Science and Economics at the collegiate level. The ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer. He can be followed on Twitter at @empire_hanley.

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