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Climate change is global, Africa should plan for a sustainable energy future – Adib

REN21, a global renewable energy multi-stakeholder organisation recently published the Renewables Energy 2021 Global Status Report which, among other things, found that the world’s most industrialised nations barely met or even missed their unambitious renewable energy targets with modest additions coming from Africa.

The study, which was carried out with the support of over 200 experts around the world, found that the share of fossil fuels in the total energy mix is as high as a decade ago (80.3 percent vs. 80.2 percent today) and the renewable energy share only increased slightly.

In this interview, Rana Adib, REN21’s Executive Director tells BusinessDay’s ISAAC ANYAOGU that though the energy transition debate in terms of Africa should acknowledge current challenges, the threat of climate change should compel governments in the sub-region to plan for a sustainable energy future.

Who is Ren 21 and what are you about?

REN 21 is really a community of players from industry governments, NGOs, research and academia that work together to advance the shift to renewable energy.

There are many different types of players participating in the work and we operate very much as a community or a network of networks with these different perspectives coming together.

How did you gather data, validate them and what methodology was employed to arrive at your findings?

Our knowledge activities are really all based on crowdsourced information which is tapping into these perspectives to achieve a decentralised insight.

Let’s say in Nigeria, we have more researchers looking at mini-grids whereas in South-east Asia, we have people looking into what is happening to a different renewable energy aspect all these different narratives are put together.

To validate these insights and data, we shared a draft with research teams in the secretariat which is then peer reviewed. For this report, we had over 200 people actively participating and validating the information.

One aspect to mention too is that there are areas where there are major data gaps existing when you’re looking into renewable energy for heating when you’re looking into off-grid renewables when you’re looking at what is happening to community energy, this is very often information that is not consolidated. And so this approach basically to reach out to the community also allows us to have very decentralized information and put it together and make it available.

Read also: Cleaner energy seen improving manufacturers’ productivity

How are you funded?

So it is funded through the organization because it’s our core activity at REN 21. As a community, we’re not an advocacy group but we’re really a multi stakeholder network and one of the pillars is crowd-sourced knowledge to inform and influence decision-makers as well as to influence the dialogue and debate about renewable energy.

In your report, you said that despite all the promises about carbon emissions, the world is nowhere near the necessary support for a cleaner energy future, do you take into account that many economies are wholly dependent on fossil fuels?

Yes, it obviously does take this into account but there are two aspects to this, obviously depending on the country’s situation and when we were speaking about developing, the way we are speaking about fossil fuels is different from the G20 countries. That is the reality.

However, it is very clear that we do not have another choice for climate change reasons or for sustainable development, to move out of fossil fuels.

This needs to happen and it needs to happen soon. The benefit of renewable energy is something that is already known and scientifically proven for many years.

Renewable energy has shown that it’s technically and economically viable especially when we look into the power sector. We see today that it is the least cost option but more investments continue to go to fossil fuels.

And this just means that the structural shift which is required for the ending of fossil fuel investment and the development of renewable energy capacity is not encouraged. Fossil fuels are still subsidized to the tune of $500 billion every year.

The investment in renewable energy is, I think if I recall correctly, is $302 billion in power and fuel. So this clearly shows that there is a huge gap between ambition and what is really happening.

Some African experts say the continent is energy poor with billions of dollars worth of oil reserves, hence Net Zero projections are unrealistic, do you think their concerns are valid?

I think the concerns are valid. I think it is also extremely important to recognize that the discussion about energy transition in Africa needs to be positioned in a very different context. It’s not about climate mitigation. If we think about climate, it’s about climate adaptation, and it’s clearly about the energy to drive social and economic development.

Considering that there are millions of people who do not have access to electricity and clean cooking, obviously, there are valid concerns as to how energy can be a driver for economic activity.

Now, some African countries do indeed have fossil fuel reserves and have the infrastructure in place. Many others don’t. So those governments can decide, and ultimately it comes down to economic choices. They can decide to develop a resilient energy infrastructure, which is today, least cost when you’re looking, into the cost. Obviously, it requires the right regulatory policy and regulatory framework and engagements, so the government’s have a real responsibility to create the conditions so that least costs and resilient infrastructure can be built.

When we’re looking into the countries that do have fossil fuel reserves and do have the infrastructure. The reality is also in Africa, because climate change, unfortunately, is not local but global there is a need to plan to move from fossil fuel-based energy and economy to an efficient and renewable base one.

Now, I think this is ultimately easy. It’s about how do you price pollution? How do you price environmental impact? How do we even price social impact? And let’s be honest, some of these countries have a lot of reserves, these reserves have not helped all these countries, to really address energy for example. Take the case of Nigeria, there is a reason why there are many mini-grid developments and it’s one of the leading countries on mini-grid developments. These mini-grids are renewable energy, because it’s least cost, and you need it to fuel basic infrastructure.

Some experts say that renewable energy does not still have the capacity to power high energy-consuming equipment, what do you say to that?

So the first thing to say to that is we’re completely aware of myths and misinformation and lacking awareness still persists.

We are also aware of the fact that there are many players who are very much interested in maintaining these myths.

There are many examples that shows that high share of variable renewable electricity can be integrated into the grid, the reality, obviously, is that it means that in powering capacities, you need to build up basically the grids to, and I think this is again where the situation in Africa is very different than we were looking into very well interconnected Europe.

So I’m not saying that, that it’s always easy, but we also see when we’re looking into countries in Africa, like Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, or when we’re looking into the off-grid market in particular, in Eastern Africa that many solutions do exist apart from solar home systems and solar lanterns

Renewable energy is able to provide baseload but not in the same way as fossil fuels but by complementing the different sources, by working on the storage, it is possible especially in Africa where there’s massive potential for renewable energy.

So what are your key findings about Nigeria?

What is interesting about Nigeria is that even with a strong oil and gas economy, Nigeria has an economic stimulus fund that has a mandatory share of 10 percent to renewable energy with a plan to install solar systems for 5million households.

It’s a very good starting point because it shows, and let’s be honest, Nigeria has one of the best, most advanced regulatory frameworks when it comes to mini-grid developments and it is clearly in the top five countries, where there was a growth in 2020 over 2019. So it’s only a slight increase of about 1 percent but even in the time of COVID-19, there has been growth.

What were some of your most significant findings about the rest of Africa?

We saw really big differences. So, when you take Northern Africa Moroccan which has a really smart renewable energy strategy, it has a clear local content context creating economic opportunities. This is one of the countries on the continent that is very inspiring because it is really driving a strategy on the move to renewable energy in a holistic way.

It’s not only about energy, it’s not about energy supply. It is about also building local values, jobs, industry, and driving the economy. So, that is something that’s clearly a very interesting country to look at.

Egypt has really starting to integrate renewable energy into their systems. It has a strategy to move from fossil fuel to renewables and has a step by step approach to phasing out the fossil fuel subsidies to create a sustainable market framework.

In South Africa, what is quite interesting, is not looking at providing power only but power for certain activities.

In South Africa, there is a need for renewable energy because air pollution is a big concern in cities and the municipalities are driving this. Cape Town is quite an interesting example because they have a local decarbonisation strategy like the national government to ensure they can buy electricity from an independent power producer.

This clearly shows that there is, I think, an increasing understanding that renewable energy does also offer opportunities. There are certainly some challenges in it, but I think this is something which is encouraging.

We see that there is the development of not only renewable power but also renewable heat.

We see the emergence of industrial and commercial solar PV projects and that’s something which is new. I think three years ago, the situation was very different.

Your report alluded to a lack of political will by governments to really drive renewable energy, what do you think is responsible for this?

I think it could be because we’re moving from an economy largely driven by fossil fuels but we need to move out of this fossil fuels centred economy into an economy that is efficient, renewable energy-based and sustainable.

This is a mindset, and the economic system and the parameters which drive decisions are anchored in a fossil fuel-based system. This is why we’re calling for making renewable energy a key performance indicator of any economic activity.

There is still a very siloed approach and clear inertia in the government, with regard to driving the energy transition.

Some governments have not also evolved renewable power policies for heating and cooling solutions even though these represent over 80 percent of the energy demand.

So it’s not enough to have a target, you need to create new regulatory frameworks, and you need to have short, medium and long term goals and strategies to get there. And that’s something which is still missing.

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