Who gets to use gas?

According to the International Energy Agency, 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity, and 970 million live without low-pollution cooking fuels, which consigns mostly women and girls to burning charcoal and wood in their kitchens. More shocking, a smaller share of the population has access to electricity today than in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic.

That problem could be solved by 2030 with investments of $25 billion a year, according to the I.E.A. — a fraction of what’s invested in global energy today.

Is gas necessary to widen energy access for Africans?

Renewables, especially solar and geothermal energy, could meet 80 percent of the electricity generation capacity needed, according to the I.E.A. The same projections conclude that, between now and 2030, Africa would also need gas (around 90 billion cubic meters a year) to generate the electricity needed to produce things like cement, steel, and fertilizers.

Gas or no gas is the wrong question, said Damilola Ogunbiyi, a native of Nigeria who now serves as the United Nations special representative for Sustainable Energy for All. The right question is how to expand access to energy. At the moment, she said, that is not possible without some gas.

“Lifting 600 million people out of poverty, that has to be the front line item of the energy transition,” Ogunbiyi told me. “Giving, you know, a few million Africans some solar lanterns, that is not development. Development is to have enough electricity that you can run your small business, so you can manufacture.”

Pushback: Gas for whom?

Some African climate activists argue that the extraction of the continent’s natural resources has not served its people well. Nigeria is the continent’s largest oil producer, and even some villages in its oil-rich delta live in darkness. South Africa is rich in coal, but while exports to Europe have surged, South Africans deal with power cuts. A new pipeline is under construction to transport crude oil from Uganda to a port in Tanzania, from where it can be exported to buyers abroad. It faces pushback from climate activists in the region.

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