The climate transition must not mean global energy redlining for Africa

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The writer is the chief executive of The Africa Center

COP26 in Glasgow has come and gone with a lot of fanfare and reinvigorated rhetoric about our last chance to tackle the climate crisis.

Perhaps most prominent is an announcement by 20 countries, including the US and UK, that they would end funding for all fossil fuel projects abroad.

While this may at first seem like a step in the right direction, it’s particularly galling that the rich nations pushing policies that would block financing for fossil fuel-powered energy generation in poorer countries are actively building and funding similar projects on home soil.

Not only does this condemn a significant portion of the world’s population to continued energy poverty, it also flies in the face of the gospel of climate justice that many leaders of rich countries preach.

A finance ban that only applies to poor countries is a textbook example of what Robert Bullard, the academic known as the father of environmental justice, has termed “environmental racism” — “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.”

You could also call it a form of global “redlining”. In the US, this is the name given to the systematic denial of mortgages to potential black homebuyers.

Historically, the practice prevented black people from building wealth through home ownership and blocked investment in black neighbourhoods, while making those same opportunities available to white people in white areas.

Present day racial disparities are traceable to redlining policies. White Americans have greater wealth, lower unemployment, higher life expectancy, better nutrition and feel safer in their communities than black Americans.

Global energy redlining is already happening. As fossil fuel funding routes close for Africa, Belgium has just announced it will bring online 2.3 gigawatts of new gas-fired power, Germany plans to continue using coal until 2030 and Norway intends to keep producing oil and gas.

In the US the Biden administration has made laudable public commitments to putting environmental and economic justice at the heart of everything it does. But while gas-powered plants still produce 40 per cent of America’s electricity, the government has announced plans to phase out investment in gas for poor countries, which will widen the global gap between haves and have-nots.

The US has also joined the Europeans in putting pressure on institutions such as the World Bank, which have a mandate to foster growth in capital-constrained countries, to get out of all fossil fuels. And who are these capital-constrained countries? The majority are African.

As the US found out much too late with redlining, worse economic and social outcomes for one group generally means lost opportunity for all. We have to tackle carbon emissions generated by fossil fuels and get to net zero. But Africans should not tolerate a system that asks us to “carbon finance” the lifestyles of whiter, wealthier countries.

African leaders should therefore continue to make clear that international development finance institutions need to provide flexible financing for gas projects where they replace dirtier or costlier fossil fuel options. They must demand that rich countries use their wealth — acquired in part through colonial exploitation — to find a rapid way of reducing their own share of carbon emissions.

After all, as UK prime minister Boris Johnson put it: “It’s vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging.” It’s about concrete action for climate justice that will benefit the whole world.

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