Coal is a major contributing factor to climate change, taking up 70% of all energy sector CO2 emissions. Renewable Energy has economic potential to create more than just market-based growth in Africa but can pave the way for increasingly better quality of life.

Among the Sustainable Development Goals focussed on growth, is SDG 9 — driving sustainable industrialization, innovation and infrastructure. Generally speaking, Africa as a continent still has much to go through in economic development to pass the test of industrialization. Fortunately, the economic conditions are being staged in the much touted energy transition. Indeed, much of the UN has been calling for renewable energy in the same context of inclusive growth and sustainable development, especially for least developed countries (LDCs) vulnerable to trade and competitiveness risks. Yet African countries in the early and mid industrializing stages do are not forced to phase out coal — at least not in the short term — by adopting renewable sources. This short piece makes a case for turning towards renewable energy in African nations. Important negative impacts of coal use are also discussed.

Why do we need to push the energy shift further away from Coal?

Coal is a desirable input because of its energy-rich properties, meaning a large output of usable energy is directed to industrial applications that are energy-hungry, to power heating systems or even generate electricity in turbines. However, coal much like unrefined forms of biomass, has deleterious impacts on the environment. CO2 emissions have been linked to increase in global temperatures — with consequences on humans, animals as well as impacting weather patterns negatively. When looking at the total CO2 emissions in the energy sector globally, coal is the leading driver with 70% of the entire budget, based on a 2010 report by the World Bank. If coal-fired plants construction continues unabatedly, by 2100 it is likely global temperatures will pass the 5-degree celsius increase threshold, according to EndCoal.Org. This would translate into catastrophic impacts to ecosystems and species sensitive to temperature change.

What does Coal Do to Human Health?

With the stated facts above, African countries are undoubtedly getting the short end of the stick with coal. Let’s remember that the Sustainable Development Goals aim to better the quality of life and health conditions of women and children, two gender groups particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of dirty cooking fuels. With the discovery of fossil fuel deposits in Chad and Guinea, just to name a few, the dialogue is shifting back towards the economic windfalls of fossil fuel development by 2040 and beyond. We must make sure the emphasis of policy development is oriented towards job creation and market-driven opportunities for renewables.

The time is now for renewables!

Africa as a whole is still undecided on the leaning of its energy policy frameworks, but technological development in the renewable energy arena has become more cost-efficient and accessible — and demand is growing. In addition, advancements have enabled the design of responsive solutions. Due to African energy transition being one of modernisation and expansion — instead of complying with current heavy reliance on coal– the emphasis has to be on intelligent resource allocation. Fears and concerns over very high amount of capital required to spur renewables need to be assuaged with the genuine cost-saving potential of infrastructure delivery, notably in the disproportionately underdeveloped rural areas. Moreover, 32 African LDCs have much to gain from Global Value Chains (GVCs) of production processes powered by renewable energy such as realistic primary cost-savings and achieving energy efficiency targets.

The research is clear: promotion of the renewable energy sector would create demand for “green jobs.” In turn Africa would benefit from the large potential for positive economic spillovers in spin off industries. This would help shift some of the burden from government in solving growth obstacles of struggling countries. Market demand for infrastructure has also triggered positive employment benefits. Take for instance operations systems required for cellular towers to operate. In India, in 2013 about 38% of all cellular were pulling power off-grid or with poor supply. This had to be fixed to improve power reliability and in turn to ensure network operational efficacy. Where the problem was particularly critical, in rural areas, the Indian government has taken action to power 75% of all rural sites with renewable energy by 2020.

In the early 2010s, Zimbabwe began selling solar-powered cellular phones, an energy saving measure in itself. Mobile device owners off electricity grids have had the constraint to frequent urban centres or other grid-serviced areas just to charge their phones. Moreover, this creates a market-based opportunity for rural mobile operators to sell their products and services when political action cannot facilitate accessibility. These are just a few of several successful cases of alternative energy sources making their presence felt in developing countries.

Decentralized energy presents a viable solution in satisfying ignored energy needs and spelling new ways for generating growth that would otherwise be untenable, with the capacity to create new employment forms. With an estimated 10 million people working in the wider renewable energy sector in 2016 in Africa, as estimated by the International Renewable Energy Agency, that number is expected to grow as governments continue adopting and expanding their renewable energy programmes.

Learn about ASCENT’s emerging research, analysis and other project-related activities in the realm of renewable energy, and how one ambitious biogas project — CEVA — aims to bring clean energy through reusable sources for 100,000 Africans.