Africa’s place in a period of global warming (6) – Businessamlive – BusinessAMLive
LIGHTS MAY BE GOING OUT in many parts of the continent of Europe in November this year while the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) 27 meeting gets underway in Sharm El Sheikh, a cosy town on the north-eastern fringe of Egypt. The night time satellite imagery of Europe may not be exactly the same as before if taken again during the coming winter months. It is very definite that the conference, which is supposed to be about how to curb the use of fossil fuel energy as part of wide ranging measures to slow down global warming, will actually be powered by the same fossil fuel. And this will likely be happening at the time Europe is heading for its own experience of “global cooling,” or a long stretch of winter amidst continent-wide deficiency of energy. Although Egypt is now acclaimed to be 100 percent energy sufficient, between 90 and 97 percent of its energy supply is from fossil fuel consumption. Depending on your source and time of data collection, the percentage of total, which comprises coal, oil, petroleum, and natural gas products could be as high as 97.93 as per the World Bank. The energy mix, approximated by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) at 90 percent of total power generation capacity in Egypt as coming from fossil fuel-derived sources, was such that hydropower and renewable sources made up the remaining 10 percent. Of these, an entirely different source, the BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy, explained it thus: the most-consumed fuels in Egypt were 36 percent petroleum and other liquids and 57 percent natural gas in 2020. Of the remaining seven percent of the country’s total consumption for the same year, renewable energy and coal accounted for six and one percent, respectively.
The world’s path to – and pattern of – energy transition will be largely evident in Sharm El Sheik as Egypt makes a case to improve the supply of electricity generated from renewable sources to 20 percent by 2022 and 42 percent by 2035. How it hopes to do it will be an interesting matter for the study of the world’s future transition to renewable energy. The path of countries with heavy deposits of natural gas could be paved with good intentions. But the forces of demand and supply could stretch the timeline beyond imagination. The EU-Russia natural gas imbroglio will prompt many alternative sources to drag foot on phasing down of fossil fuel. Coal, in particular, will have to be given some consideration as winter months of frostbite will lead many countries in the Western hemisphere to increase their demands while they seek warmth at any cost. Incentives for Egypt to meet its commitments to decarbonisation and move over to renewables may actually wane rather than grow. Voices will be raised in support of an extended time for the use of coal and gas, if only because of temperate countries most at risk of uncertain winter and in the absence of sufficient or reliable supply of renewable energy within the period ahead. According to the latest estimates, Egypt is the third largest natural gas producer in Africa, following Algeria and Nigeria. Global politics and diplomacy could tilt the sentiments of technocrats, politicians, policymakers, pundits and analysts towards an elongation of time frame allowed for these popularly and heavily used fossil fuels even if for the sake of expediency or realism.
The Chernobyl nuclear power accident in 1986 was regrettable. The 2011 Fukushima accident was equally unfortunate even though clearly unpreventable in the sense that the event leading to it was so sudden, happening within minutes of the tsunami that brought its effect to bear over thousands of kilometres. But, whether these two were strong enough reasons for Germany to begin to dismantle its own nuclear power plants since 2011 remains questionable. A unidirectional and seemingly irrevocable decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel then, and sustained till now, appeared to be overly but unrealistically optimistic about the energy transition in a post-nuclear energy era. This was notwithstanding the overwhelming subsequent debates and arguments that justify the retention of nuclear power in Germany. But now, Germany – like any other European country – is heading towards one of its worst winters in contemporary times. With the indefinite shutting of Nord Stream 1 pipeline by Russian state-owned energy corporation Gazprom and the closure of the remaining power plants in Germany this year, the choices of energy sources have narrowed down significantly. The amount of energy available has reduced drastically, especially as a reduced level of the Rhine River has led to a precipitous drop in hydropower generation. Increase in energy prices is now not just a prospect but also a reality. Perhaps this could provide a lesson for those in haste, clamouring for such a quick transition and complete abandoning of the old ways.
The Europe-wide experience is similar even if not of exactly the same magnitude. Within 12 months, energy prices in the UK have jumped by 80 percent. The US experience of record-breaking unusual cold in the state of Texas, extending to places as far south as Houston, confounded weather forecasters in February 2021 and caught energy experts off-guard. The rare cold snap was described as the magnitude of Arctic temperatures. Sadly, however, renewable energy sources failed to rescue during the extreme cold period. Wind turbines froze, winding to a standstill and were unable to generate electricity because of ice on their blades. Although the percentage of power it provided for Texas was relatively insignificant at the time, it nonetheless provides an insight that must not be ignored, namely: that extreme weather could significantly and negatively affect its functioning and contribution to energy. Solar power could not also be generated by solar panels during that cold spell because of the ice and snow cover that hampered the operations of the photovoltaic (PV) cells in the solar arrays even in the middle of the day. Texas’ reliance on natural gas rescued a state in which more than one gigawatt of electricity was forced offline by fuel-supply issues. This happened barely weeks after President Joe Biden stopped further works on the XL Keystone pipelines. It is hoped that the Texas experience remains a one-off weather event, otherwise the climate advocates and renewable energy promoters will have reasons to figure out new approaches to keep pace with the speed of transition envisioned. Right now, Germany, Europe’s strongest economy is being devastated by the energy crisis that has links with the climate crisis, made worse by Germany’s historic dependence on Russian gas – a prominent contributor to the current energy crisis.
The world energy crisis will increase in scale and scope fundamentally because, in the most basic analysis, most tasks earlier performed manually have moved into the realm of technology-driven procedures and processes, particularly as they are either powered by automation, are electronically or algorithm enabled. The era of the service industry is here, and so much depends on office activities, at home or in a formal workplace. Manual typewriters are now monuments. The same applied to office cyclostyling machines. Their use did not require electricity. Not so with computer typewriters, photocopiers and printers that must be recharged repeatedly. We understand the emergence of ‘paperless’ society, but that exists only in scope, not in the absolute sense as tonnes of documents will still need to be printed in hard copies for definite purposes in the future. Telephone sets during the analogue and pre-GSM era did not depend on electricity to operate. Millions of handsets today have to be recharged almost daily depending on their use and the rate of dissipation of energy stored in their batteries. These operations all have to be powered by electricity. Think of the aggregate and absolute demands globally for all the office automation machines in this sense. That is one aspect mostly ignored or overlooked. Then the greater consumers of energy: the household, automobiles and smokestack industries. The sheer transition from manual operations in many industries has put enormous pressure on energy supply and consumption. Take tailoring. Manually operated sewing machines have been superseded by those electrically run. The greater efficiencies in all of these machines – and by extension, profits – are accomplished at the expense of the environment. Could this be part of what French President Emmanuel Macron intended to explain in a speech he made about a month ago while making reference to what he described as the “end of abundance”?
Reference to energy appears to have been perceived within the narrow spectrum of electricity – for the factory, the home, for transportation in its broadest sense and for other uses in between. The impact of demographics on energy use has not received commensurate attention and depth of analysis. Emphasis on renewable energy as the one and only environmentally safe alternative seems to ignore the fact of the scale of energy consumption globally and the potential negative impact this may also have on the planet if exploited maximally as is currently being done to fossil fuel energy. The seeming idealism that smacks more of assumptions is a cause for alarm in itself. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February seems to have become a rude awakening for a world that is being led by the one-way traffic of renewable energy. Rather than think of banishing fossil fuel, a new thinking is thus required: that is the world needs to slow down on energy consumption generally. Whether this thought fits into the thinking that informed Macron’s speech remains debatable as his country prepares for what promises to be a difficult winter ahead, with sharp escalation of energy prices. This difficult time ahead seems to have prompted Germany to unveil energy-saving plans to get through winter with gas prices spiralling upwards amidst a disruption to Russian gas supplies.
If Macron’s speech had been made by a right wing politician in the EU or US, the kind of reactions that would have followed, particularly in the media and among most liberal analysts, would have been both fiery and sustained. It is remarkable, however, that Barbara Williams, a writer from Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire in the UK wrote to praise Macron’s courage, pointing out how “heartening to see a glimmer of realism creep into a speech by a politician.” Williams was unequivocal that “humanity has now been exceeding the biocapacity of Earth for well over 50 years, and it beggars belief that both politicians and voters still believe that pursuing GDP might solve the ecological collapse that has been caused by this measure of wellbeing.” She was also categorical on the fact that “we are increasing our ecological debt every year, leaving less and less scope for our children to survive. What we really need is a global aspiration to unite us in all our diversity, to peacefully and equitably aspire to shrink back within the biocapacity of our planet.” Her comments were well within the same line of thoughts earlier expressed in this series on “Africa’s place in a period of global warming” recently, with reference to a book that was published under the title, “The Limits To Growth.” Williams too was of the opinion that, “to be sustainable, we must return within our planetary boundaries, and the only way to achieve that peacefully is by acquiring the emotional and spiritual maturity to embrace voluntary equitable degrowth.” Advocates of energy transition will do well to look intently at this viewpoint and be ready to incorporate it into their blueprints on climate interventions, especially on mitigation and adaptation as it fits into both measures. A world that depends more on energy-intensive activities cannot easily mitigate or adapt well – among other climate goals – to climate change in reality as some energy policies appear too radical or presumptuous to be realistic.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) in forecasting the deployment of renewable electricity generation, needs to bear in mind these arguments and consider the peculiarities of developing countries of the world simultaneously with those of the developed countries, in which case their differences remain hitherto very glaring. While showcasing the examples of success stories in the advances in renewable energy, it should be considered that controlled laboratory experiments don’t usually reflect the realities in the wider social universe. For instance, if Vanuatu, an island country of less than half-a-million people, has committed to 100 percent renewable energy in electricity generation by 2030, how can its example be replicated for India of 1.3 billion people with the same outcomes? As Africa hosts COP 27, the peculiarities of the continent need some special attention. Institutions and infrastructure for coping with climate change need to be in place in Africa. It cannot happen by wishful thinking, but by systematic and dispassionate examination of the continent’s peculiarities, with diverse climates and weathers ranging from the tropical to the temperate. So, various actors need a consensus on their interventions in Africa while also avoiding one-sided narratives. Ultimately, Africa’s dilemma on economic development, technology, energy and climate will have to be considered in their general contexts and in the interest of humanity. In this case, Africa needs a more pragmatic approach as climate change bares its fangs, with all the dangers it poses to the continent. These dangers have to be minimised at all cost. COP27 should help Africa find the right bearing.
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