Government and business leaders from across the African continent recently met in Washington, D.C. for the annual Powering Africa Summit. The summit, which looked to showcase energy, trade, and infrastructure investment opportunities, is a critical step in addressing one of the most formidable barriers to growth for African nations. As the most energy-starved continent in the world, over 620 million Africans lack any access to electricity, and attempts to develop a modern, industrialized economy are nearly impossible. But while the summit is an incredible opportunity to make headways in regional energy provision, there are other concerns. Rather than allowing African leaders the right to assess their energy investments on the basis of cost and availability, Western governments often pressure nations to adopt expensive renewable technologies. The Powering Africa Summit is a promising event, but if we are serious about achieving universal energy access, developed nations should stop advocating for policies that would compromise African development.
Today’s wealthy nations have all benefitted from utilizing affordable, plentiful energy. Unfortunately, many of those in the developing world struggle to enjoy the same privilege. In Africa, one-third of all health centers and primary schools currently go without power, while over half of all African businesses claim that lack of access is detrimental to their growth. Further, the Brookings Institution estimates that inadequate power diminishes the region’s growth by around 2-4 percent per year. Human flourishing depends on such economic growth, and in order to drive a modern economy of industry, agriculture, and services, African nations will need to supply extensive, reliable energy sources. This amounts to more than renewable off-grid solutions, as many development agencies like to promote. As the Powering Africa panel at the recent World Economic Forum stressed, it is “not just getting [Africans] a lamp and a cell phone charger. It’s getting them the productive demand so that… the manufacturing and industrialization takes place too.” Renewable energy fails to deliver this.
Alternatives to fossil fuel energy are fundamentally constrained by their high cost and relative technological immaturity. In developed nations, they remain hugely dependent upon government support, struggling to provide anywhere near the amount of energy needed to power modern life. While fossil fuels provide reliable and extensive power, renewable energies are notoriously intermittent and in need of support. Such characteristics do not bode well for developing nations. As the World Bank has begrudgingly admitted, wind, solar and other renewable sources are not yet able to provide the baseload power Africa requires to develop industrial capacity, conceding that “there’s never been a country that has developed with intermittent power.” If innovation could reduce the price and improve the capacity of renewables, then Africa should undoubtedly pursue them. But this is currently not the case. For now, the most effective energy source for moving out of poverty remains fossil fuels.
What many renewable advocates tend to neglect is that the economic growth that affordable, reliable energy would bring for Africa vastly outweighs the costs of a warming climate. A special report by the International Energy Agency found that Africa could become almost $7 trillion richer by 2040 through aggressively pursuing fossil fuels. This would amount to an extra decade’s worth of per-capita income as compared to a ‘business-as-usual’ approach. Perhaps more importantly, over 600,000 lives each year would be saved by mitigating indoor air pollution, a result of energy-deprived cooking, and thousands more would be saved by improving water and sanitation standards. Meanwhile, this phenomenal increase in living standards would raise the continent’s carbon output to a mere 4 percent of global emissions. Focusing only on the costs of fossil fuels entirely misses the amazing benefits that accessible energy brings. As Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, notes, “In wealthy countries, campaigners emphasize that a ton of CO2 could cost some $50. … But for Africa, the economic, social, and environmental benefits of more energy and higher CO2 run to more than $2,000 per ton.” Having some of the poorest nations increase their energy use through fossil fuels should be widely celebrated, not shunned.
If we really want to see the development of the world’s poorest, then Western leaders should quit meddling in the energy affairs of African nations. It is not the responsibility of an enlightened elite to determine the mix of energy that poor nations require for development. The Powering Africa Summit is a fantastic opportunity to drive investments in infrastructure and power, but these investments should be first and foremost about what is best for the respective nations. The extent to which millions of Africans are currently living in extreme poverty is surely more important.