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Fight over Africa’s fossil fuels intensifies

Climate negotiators push back against AU plan for common position on gas and nuclear energy playing a ‘critical role’ in short to medium term

The African Union’s plan to ramp up oil and gas production launched at a preparatory meeting with national negotiating teams has triggered a row with climate experts and green energy campaigners, jeopardising efforts to develop a common negotiating for the continent’s 54 states at the UN COP27 climate summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh in November.

Documents seen by Africa Confidential setting out the ‘AU’s Common Position on Energy Access and Transition for adoption at COP27’ barely mention renewable energy. AU officials presented their case at preparatory talks for COP 27 in Addis Ababa on 2-4 August which cut across the recommendations of national negotiating teams calling for an ambitious and speedy energy transition in Africa.

There is little in the AU plan about increasing renewable energy in Africa, certainly nothing in support of the ‘Green Revolution’ that some civic activists and think tanks have been demanding (AC Vol 62 No 25, Adding up the real costs of the energy transition). Instead, the AU plan argues that gas, oil and coal ‘will continue to play a crucial role’ in the continent’s energy mix (Dispatches 4/4/22, Coal and oil producers want more flexibility on climate targets as energy crisis deepens).

This row over Africa’s common position puts the Egyptian presidency of COP27 in an awkward position. It says it wants to change the political economy of energy access in Africa – over 600million people are without access to reliable sources of power – and it has to recognise the political weight of Africa’s ten biggest oil and gas producers who inveigh against western double standards on carbon emissions (AC Vol 62 No 17, In need of a spark).

Hosting the proceedings, President Abdel Fatteh al Sisi’s government is determined to make the first UN Climate summit in Africa a success. That would mean no backtracking on earlier commitments on carbon emissions – despite the parlous geopolitical landscape and deepening energy crisis (Dispatches 27/4/22, King coal makes its grand return).

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Bloomberg News last month that the focus of COP27 would be ‘to raise ambition’. That means moving ahead with more curbs on carbon emissions and reaching tougher agreements on adaptation and climate finance.

The backlash from civil society groups who warn that the AU plan would pave the way for African governments and oil and gas majors to massively scale up fossil gas production has been severe and swift. They argue that the AU proposal includes no plans to boost electricity access, and not a single recommendation to step up renewable energy.

Environmental groups have also pointed out that the AU blueprint would be a repudiation of the continent’s commitment at the Paris COP21 in 2015 to a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees centigrade and a 50% emissions reduction by 2030.

 That may be true but there is a political logic behind many of the AU’s recommendations. The Common Position is based on an AU technical paper that claims that COP26 left Africa in a ‘disadvantaged position’ by calling for measures to phase out coal and oil and to strengthen emission targets to align with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.

It states that the ‘way forward is not about choosing between energy resources and systems’ and that in addition to renewables, ‘fossil fuels, especially natural gas will have to play a crucial role’ in the short to medium term.

The AU paper also frames the continent’s energy production with a broader ambition of increasing industrial capacity and African supply chains, within the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis, the AU position recommends an ‘increase in Africa oil production ... refining of African oil in African refineries, and pan-African storage and distribution infrastructure’; and acceleration of ‘regional gas and electricity projects’.

Meanwhile, its reference to the ‘opportunities for the export of natural gas to other markets’ point to the scramble by European nations to replace Russian gas with alternative sources, a move which many African states view as an opportunity to increase oil and gas exploration.



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