Balancing Act: Addressing Africa’s Energy Needs, Climate Responsibilities and Avoiding a Modern-Day Mineral Scramble

Posted on May 31, 2024

Africa Day, 25 May, is a day to celebrate the continent’s many successes while recognising each nation's challenges. One major challenge facing the continent is balancing climate change, development and energy security. These are also pertinent issues for South Africa’s upcoming elections.

As Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, the African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy pointed out: “When it comes to energy security, no one is secure unless we are all secure.”

Climate change, development and energy security are tightly linked. While energy is a major driving force of economic development and poverty reduction, it also contributes to climate change. Climate change-induced factors such as extreme weather patterns in turn, adversely affect the health and livelihoods of the poor.

The global challenge is to decouple economic growth and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions so that low-carbon societies can be built without adverse impacts on development and climate. Low-carbon societies come about when people and sectors collaborate to reduce the amount of carbon emissions.

The 2023 IRENA energy progress report estimated that 75% of the world’s population without access to electricity is based in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the report, this population has increased from 556 million people in 2010 to 570 million by 2019.

Access to reliable, affordable and sustainable modern energy services is essential for Africa to fulfil its objective to industrialise the continent. Modern energy services play a pivotal role in keeping small, medium and large-scale industries running in day-to-day production processes.


Country-specific contexts vs global targets

Central to the global climate governance discourse is the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR), which is enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement. This principle underlines the collective duty of nations towards climate action while accounting for their unique national circumstances. In doing so, it hopes to bridge the varied capacities of nations towards climate change by utilising the financial assistance developed nations can provide developing countries, as stipulated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, despite this framework, the paradoxical predicament faced by African nations continues to be a pressing concern.

Climate justice emerged as an integral concept within the broader environmental justice movement, which saw the merging of environmental and civil rights movements. The 2015 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) fundamentally acknowledged that countries least responsible for climate change often bear the disproportionate consequences. The structural injustice traces its roots to historical global inequalities shaped by centuries of colonisation and exploitation.

Climate justice involves effective decarbonisation while supporting sustainable socio-economic development and the right to exist in a just and healthy society. Implementing the common but differentiated responsibilities principle often requires navigating a sea of geopolitical tumults and divergent national interests that have the potential to undermine the essence of climate justice.

Take, for instance, the fact that the mining and coal industry anchors South Africa’s economy. This so-called Mineral Energy Complex (MEC) is pivotal for fuelling economic growth because the bulk of the country’s electricity is generated from coal-fuelled power plants, which in turn sustains the mining and associated industries.

This scenario underscores the challenges surrounding climate justice in resource-rich African nations. It also encapsulates the profound paradox faced by many African nations whose economies rely on natural resources which stand in stark juxtaposition to environmental commitments.

Furthermore, the green energy transition, while laudable, unveils another layer of complexity.


A modern-day mineral scramble

The burgeoning demand for critical minerals such as copper and cobalt, among others, which are essential for green technologies, augment the exploitation risk for resource-rich nations in the global South. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), being a predominant source of cobalt, epitomises these perils, particularly the human rights hazards for Congolese miners.

A significant share of these critical minerals, indispensable for green technologies, is buried in the rich subsoil of regions in Africa and South America. The surging demand for these minerals has catalysed a modern-day mineral scramble, spearheaded by countries from the Global North and multinational corporations.

The history of mineral extraction in Africa, particularly during the colonial era in the DRC and apartheid in South Africa, continues to haunt debates involving critical mineral extraction. This legacy of exploitation, environmental degradation, and persistent socio-economic disparities, is a poignant reminder of potential pitfalls.

The quest for climate justice, if not meticulously steered, could potentially perpetuate and exacerbate the injustices that have haunted the African mining sector for decades.

As we celebrate Africa Day and get ready to make our vote count this election, it is crucial to recognise Africa’s unique challenges in balancing development and climate action. Achieving a just and sustainable future depends on how principles like common but differentiated responsibilities, equitable financial support, mindful management of natural resources are implemented to safeguard both the environment and the livelihoods of the African people. 

- Author Yanga Malotana, Emerging Scholars Initiative (ESI) Press Project Manager at UP

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