Delivering Energy and Climate Justice in Africa: Implications for Realizing the United Nations SDGs 7 and 13

Godswill Agbaitoro, PhD candidate, University of Essex

What do energy and climate justice mean and why do they matter for Africa? According to Climate just, a simple way to understand climate justice is to ensure that collectively and individually we can prepare for, respond to and recover from climate change impacts. This conception includes understanding the policies to mitigate or adapt to them by considering existing vulnerabilities, resources, and capabilities. Energy justice, on the other hand, means ensuring affordable, reliable, and clean energy access mainly for economic development. Putting these two concepts together translates into the realization of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 7 and 13. From a theoretical perspective, these Goals appear laudable but face very complex practical difficulties, especially for countries in the Global South. The truth is that from the perspective of countries in the Global South, there remains a contradiction in the quest to realize these two SDGs simultaneously through energy and climate justice.

Realizing the United Nations SDGs 7 and 13 in Africa

For African countries with significant energy access and security challenges, it is not clear how they are expected to pursue the realization of SDG 7 (energy justice) without compromising international obligations towards the realization of SDG 13 (climate justice). This blog post considers this conflict faced by African countries in the Global South and highlights the need to increase energy access through the development of fossil fuel-based energy sources that meet international obligations on climate change. The conclusions drawn are based on proposed strategies that could be utilized by African States in the Global South towards achieving energy and climate justice simultaneously.

Climate change has been described as the biggest threat to public health in this century. Some jurisdictions are more exposed to the direct impacts of climate change due to their locations. Within these jurisdictions, some people will be more vulnerable to the impacts, as they will be more sensitive to negative effects on their health or wellbeing or may have less capacity to respond. However, vulnerability is not inherent in particular groups – it is determined by a mix of social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors, as well as institutional practices. It is in light of the challenges posed by climate change that calls such as the ones from the Paris Agreement – COP15 have been made to limit global warming which is caused mainly by the release of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions into the atmosphere.  

Notwithstanding the above, there remains a challenge for African countries in the Global South – one that places countries in this region in a difficult position in their quest to address energy access and security problems in accordance with the energy goal of SDG 7 on the one hand, whilst having to meet their international obligations on climate change mitigation in accordance with the climate goal of SDG 13 on the other. This observation implies that individual countries have a responsibility to ensure that the pursuit of energy justice through the development of energy access is compatible with the pursuit of climate justice. The challenge here is that energy access problems vary between countries, in the sense that countries in the Global North that are arguably the biggest emitters of GHGs into the atmosphere do not experience the same level of energy access problems as those in the Global South. More specifically, countries in the Global South, particularly those dependent on fossil fuels for economic development, have a bigger challenge of harnessing the resources in a way that is not incompatible with their climate justice obligations irrespective of their huge energy access and security problems.

The question, therefore, is what are the viable means through which the two concepts of energy and climate justice could be achieved simultaneously by African countries in the Global South? For countries that depend on fossil fuels for economic development in particular, recent events happening in the global oil industry, such as the intended ban on the financing of fossil fuel projects by international financial institutions as a way to combat climate change, may have a significant impact on the economies of African countries. This is because Africa (especially the sub-Saharan region) has one of the poorest energy access rates in the world, together with climate change impacts that are becoming prevalent. For this reason, this blog post suggests strategic tools that could be utilized by developing countries in the Global South to achieve SDGs 7 and 13. 

Energy efficiency measures

In simple terms, energy efficiency means using less energy to perform an action – like switching on a light or heating a house. Interestingly, these actions have an impact on other energy end-users, as well as the environment. Energy efficiency remains an important strategy that could be utilized by African states to achieve energy and climate justice simultaneously. It is a potent tool that could be utilized to address inequalities at both ends by making energy bills more affordable, while also reducing the need for more energy production and consequently reducing associated pollution into the atmosphere. African states in the Global South can leverage the tangible benefits of energy efficiency measures toward achieving the energy and climate goals of the UN SDGs. An effective way to do this is to integrate energy efficiency measures into the sociological frames of energy and climate justice goals.

Diversification of energy options

At the heart of the energy access problems in Africa is also the failure of national governments to recognize the importance of diversification of energy options. The concept of diversification of energy options simply means among other things, dissolution of energy governance structure, multiplication of the means of energy production, increasing availability of affordable energy options. This concept could potentially address the contradiction between the realization of the energy goal with increased energy access irrespective of the nature of the energy sources as well as the realization of the climate goal.

Renewable energy development

Closely related to the diversification of energy options is investing in renewable energy by African states in the global south. Admittedly, there is clear evidence that the continent has abundant renewable energy sources ranging from solar to hydropower, biomass, and wind, among others. Renewable energy sources are now widely recognized as not only pivotal to addressing energy access and security challenges in developing countries but also seen as a viable means to address climate change. The truth remains that public and private investment in renewable energy and other low-carbon energy technologies in Africa, especially in the sub-Saharan region with massive renewable energy potentials is a viable way to achieve the energy and climate goals.  

Regional cooperation in energy development and management

The role of regional cooperation by African countries in the area of energy development to address the challenges of energy access cannot be overemphasized. Particularly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) play a significant role within each region in addressing energy access and security challenges. Already, there are notable gestures by African states in this regard, with the development of the West African Power Pool (WAPP) in the western region and the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) in the southern region. In order to achieve energy and climate justice simultaneously, African states need to increase regional cooperation in the development of clean energy by way of rising to the challenge of energy access through a collective engagement with the trend of green growth.  

This piece was first published on the African Legal Studies Blog of the University of Bayreuth and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.

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