There has been increasing evidence that the global climate is changing. In an effort to contain this changing trend, there exists various international drives to both avoid further change in future and to adapt to the changes that have already happened. Why Low Emission Development is better for Africa?
By Zeph Kivungi

Consumers of electricity in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali and Guinea-Bissau pay the equivalent of 20, 7, 35 and 55 Kenya shillings per unit respectively. Why the big differences? The answer lies mainly in HOW the power is produced. There has been increasing evidence that the global climate is changing. The debate of why it is changing and who is responsible rages on. But the climate has changed; we all agree. In an effort to contain this changing trend, there exists various international drives to both avoid further change in the future and to adapt to the changes that have already happened. On the adapting part, it is the same as saying, “How do we survive now that we have more frequent droughts and/or floods or heatwaves or shorter rain seasons and longer dry seasons?” Or “What crop varieties do we need now that what we have been growing either cannot withstand increased temperatures or other new weather patterns?” The logic for adaptation is more straightforward and, in the most part, the most critical for the current generation of humans on earth.

The how to avoid further climate change in future is more complex and contentious. It starts with why the climate is changing. While there is not enough space here for that debate, there is general consensus that certain human activities have either caused or contributed to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global team of top scientists, agree on a set of gases that contribute to a change in how the atmosphere protects the earth from overheating or freezing; keeping it just warm enough for life to exist and thrive. These gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, water vapour among others that are commonly called Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). Of these, CO2 remains the one whose increase in the atmosphere humans can have directly contributed the most to. Why? Because CO2 is produced, invariably, when combustion happens- often burning a fuel to produce energy which is used in industry or to produce certain products, like cement, that need heat. This is to say that the unprecedented human prosperity realised in the last 300 years has been the result of industrialisation which in turn came with the emission of a gas known to alter the behaviour of the atmosphere.

What if that was true?

There is no dispute that CO2 in the atmosphere peaked in the 1900s which is also when we had the industrial revolution. Extreme weather events – floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves- increased (and keep increasing) in both frequency and intensity following that period. What if these events were caused by increased atmospheric CO2, which in turn is due to increased industrial activity? This is the basis of all those assertions by IPCC, that climate change is partly human-induced.

The Alternative

One of the international mechanisms for addressing this issue is driven by UNFCCC which brings together all the countries to deal with a changing climate. Currently, the language of action is captured in what is called the Paris Agreement, which the countries have ratified as a way of saying, “It’s evident that the climate of this shared planet has and is changing. It’s true we can do something and here is what we will do as a country”. Article 4.19 of this Agreement invites countries to develop a Long-term Low Emission Development Strategies (LT-LEDS).

Generally, a good example would be, as part of an LT-LEDS, a country like Kenya can decide on a low emission energy sector and say, “We will ensure our electricity will always be at least 80% renewable”. That means building and maintaining power plants that use no fuel hence emit no CO2. A wider strategy would be, say a low carbon transport sector which would mean electric cars, bikes, electric trains, buses, etc which are charged using renewable electricity. Loosely put a smokeless transport sector. For the case of Kenya, that would be geothermal (which Kenya has immense capacity for), wind, hydro and solar. The country already has a lot of its electricity from these sources and that partly explains why the cost per unit is low compared to Guinea-Bissau or Mali who uses almost 100% oil power plants that need expensive fuel all the time. It also explains why Ethiopia’s electricity is perhaps the cheapest in Africa because almost 100% of it is from rivers (hydroelectric) thus have no fuel costs.

Power plants that use what are commonly called fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, peat and coal) are cheaper to build, but the running costs are way higher than renewable energy power plants (wind, solar, hydro and geothermal). Considering the running costs which are mainly the fossil fuel costs like the Kenya’s Thika and Kipevu Plants or the planned Lamu and Kitui coal plants, then the picture changes drastically. To run them, somebody has to foot the bill. In the case of Kenya and many other countries in Africa, that somebody is the consumer. Renewable plants only have minimal maintenance costs and zero fuel costs, so they are cheaper in the long run and so the electricity ends up cheaper. They emit no pollutants like carbon dioxide (CO2). Staying on a low emission development path is therefore a win-win-win for consumer, country and climate.