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Timely, gendered, and grassroot consultations must underscore the just energy transition in Africa

Dr Clement Sefa-Nyarko

Lecturer in Security, Development and Leadership in Africa

11 October 2023

Recently, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change organised Africa Climate Week in Nairobi, Kenya, to build consensus and momentum for climate action ahead of COP28 in Dubai. The African Leadership Centre and the University of St Andrews convened an action hub titled, ‘Prospects and contradictions of just energy transitions in Africa’. There, sustainability and climate experts discussed their ongoing research and activities around the quagmires of just energy transitions that influence energy policies and practices in Africa.

The key themes discussed were around energy and clean energy financing, unresolved historical grievances, and (in)adequate civic participation in clean energy governance. The individual and collective expertise present - traversing climate financing, energy transition frameworks, energy justice in pastoralist and coastal communities, blue economy, political risk assessment, and environmental sustainability - offered insights into the future of climate action and energy transitions in Africa.

The call to action was that the wave of national energy transition policies and practices aimed at reducing carbon-emission-induced climate change must be just and equitable if they are to be relevant to people. They argued that no climate action can be just and equitable if it undermines the livelihoods and energy needs of local communities and disregards the gendered and diverse voices of people who are caught amidst the extraction of resources needed for clean or renewable energy.

Africa Climate Week in Nairobi with ALC experts speaking online

Opportunities and challenges for climate and sustainability in Africa

In discussing sustainable infrastructure and climate financing, Dr Theo Acheampong, a political risk analyst based in the University of Aberdeen, reiterated the fact that countries in the global south that contribute less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions experience the biggest brunt of the impact of climate change and must be supported with adequate global financial engineering if the world wants just and equitable energy transitions.

He argued that there will be no justice and equity if such countries are expected to rely mainly on their domestic resources to finance their energy transitions. The phenomenal COP27 agreement for the establishment of loss and damage funds to support the rehabilitation of countries that are most vulnerable to climate change is an important step, but inadequate, due primarily to the slow pace of release of funds and the limited scope for accessing such a fund.

Two communities in Africa that are amongst the most vulnerable are pastoralist and coastal communities. In discussing the dynamics of energy transition interventions in these communities, two experts on the panel – Rahma Hassan and Dr Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood – highlighted the imminent opportunities and challenges.

Pastoral communities unheard in green energy projects

Pastoralists are nomadic people who migrate consistently due to the dry lands that they must rely upon to feed and water their animals and livestock. According to Rahma Hassan, who has spent several years researching in pastoralist communities in Kenya, the lands in pastoralist areas have historically been viewed as wastelands or empty spaces that were not considered viable for anything of national significance; but this reality is changing. Pastoralists’ lands and spaces are now sites for solar and wind energy installations – also known as green or renewable energy infrastructure – which has created a ‘sudden’ push and pressure on the pastoralist communities.

This has left pastoralists helpless and unprepared for the influx of ‘exotic’ projects. Worst, their voices are not considered in the planning, construction, and management of these projects. This has meant that the green energy projects have little, if not no, significance for their subsistence and livelihoods. These projects create tensions around land ownership, rights, and acquisition for projects, and their influx has led to questions about how communities can benefit from these projects – such projects have to date not directly benefited pastoralist communities in any case. The green energy sector has become a business for governments and international actors at the expense of local communities, therefore.

Clean energy infrastructure depriving coastal communities

The experiences of coastal communities do not differ substantially from that of pastoralist communities, despite the long-standing recognition by the African Union that the blue economy is the frontier for Africa’s development. According to Dr Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, an expert in maritime security and blue economy in Africa, there are several opportunities for utilising marine resources for energy transition, especially around the use of waves and tidal energy for clean energy technology, as well as prospects for extracting liquified natural gas from the ocean.

The challenge, however, is that in many cases especially in Central and West Africa, the exploration and extraction of natural gas and establishment of clean energy infrastructure on water bodies have left many fishing communities that rely on fishing for survival without adequate livelihood support systems. Like what happens in pastoralist communities, coastal residents are also often not consulted in the process, leaving them helpless and inadequately supported by the state and multinational companies. So coastal communities are afflicted with the double burden of depleting livestock due to climate change, and deprivation of access to the sea due to clean energy infrastructure.

Another common feature in both pastoralist and coastal communities is that residents do not benefit directly from the clean energy that is being produced; evidence abounds about the deprivation and lack of energy in coastal and pastoralist communities. Energy-producing countries in Africa do not engage with residents in communities where extraction happens, and the energy produced are often not consumed by households of these oft-deprived communities. They therefore struggle to subsist in a fair, equitable, and dignified manner.

A way forward

The following considerations have been proposed as critical in ensuring just energy transitions in the context of higher vulnerability and mobility in Africa:

  1. National strategies, especially those that are funded and focused on energy transition, should put the interests, voice and needs of local communities at the front and centre. This is necessary for practical reasons, but also for justice, fairness and equity in decision making and resource allocation.

  2. Clarity is needed on what or who we refer to as ‘local’. This is to avoid situations where every engagement by international development stakeholders at the national and sub-national levels is classified as local, even if it is only the central governments’ limited perspectives that have been considered. In many cases, the most affected populations’ voices, such as those of pastoralist and coastal communities, are never heard or considered. The needs of women, young people, and households must also be considered in this definition of the local.

  3. The country and the regional frameworks should think about benefits sharing. Questions that should be asked include: How are these benefits drawn? What are the ideas and assumptions made when framing these benefits? And are the most affected populations’ benefits placed at the centre or they are only invited to show a semblance of engagement to meet legal requirements?

  4. There is a need to elevate the agency of local communities so that they can centre their own needs and know how to negotiate but also understand what would be best to safeguard their livelihood.

  5. Early and gendered consultations in coastal and pastoralist communities must be prioritised. In fishing communities, for instance, as much as men dominate fishing at sea, women dominate the processing and trading, and thus, must each be treated as legitimate rights holders whose voices are of paramount importance. While there is promise around energy transition premised on the untapped opportunities offered by the oceans and the large span of dry lands, the people at the community level are not consulted. This needs to change if the sustainable development goals must be met – it is the only way to ensure that there is social equity, economic growth, and environmental conservation. Consulting the communities is not only so that communities prioritise their needs. It is also critical for the livelihoods of the community in general and for their livelihood to continue thriving.

  6. Financing responsibility should not only be left to countries and societies that are most vulnerable to climate change lest the world locks itself up in the tragedy of the commons. The evidence is that only a minute fraction of the finances required to finance the transition on the continent is available. There is therefore a need for global finance and finance architecture to commit more to things like adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage that address the issues with the communities. Regional development banks and financial institutions in Africa should begin to play much bigger roles in the development of mining and processing industries.

With inputs from Njoki Ngunyi.

About Africa Climate Week

Africa Climate Week took place from 4-8 September 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya and was organised by the UNFCCC. It is a platform for policymakers, practitioners, businesses and civil society to exchange on climate solutions, barriers to overcome and opportunities in different regions.

In this story

Clement Sefa-Nyarko

Clement Sefa-Nyarko

Lecturer in Security, Development and Leadership in Africa

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