COP28: Why Africa Must Accelerate Transition from Fossil Fuel to Renewable Energy

Op-ed EditorNovember 27, 202310 min

In this opinion piece, Rep. Sam Onuigbo, sponsor of Nigeria’s Climate Change Act, says a major agenda for COP28 should be the search for unselfish leadership and a collective resolve to accelerate the transition from fossils to renewable energy


It is on record that 151 countries have pledged to attain net zero emissions. Yet, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2023, which was released earlier this month, shows that countries all over the world are doubling down on coal, oil, and gas production, with coal production estimated to peak in 2030, while oil and gas will peak in 2050. The report further disclosed that the total Green House Gas emissions in 2022 reached 57.4 Giga Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) up 1.2% from 2021.  Undoubtedly, emissions from fossil fuels make up 2/3rd of total emissions. This is very much contrary to the scientific recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the recorded pledges of governments.

This disturbing development has led the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to remark that “…governments are doubling down on fossil fuel production; that spells double trouble for people and planet.”

While this amplifies the lip service being paid by governments, it is more startling that “… the addiction to fossil fuels still has its claws deep in many nations. Governments are planning to produce, and the world is planning to consume, over double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than is consistent with the pathway to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” says Inger Anderson, Chief Executive of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The multifaceted problems posed by climate change were again highlighted at the recent trilateral climate change and health symposium convened by the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Health Organization (WHO), and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). WHO Director-General, Dr Ghebreyesus, declared: “The world’s addiction to fossil fuels is an act of self-harm. This addiction not only drives the climate crisis but is a major contributor to air pollution, which kills almost seven million people every year – a death every five seconds. The health community has a critical role in protecting people from the escalating climate threats to health.”

In September, NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies announced that the summer of 2023 was the hottest summer since NASA began to keep global records since 1880. Accordingly, June, July, and August were 0.23 degrees Celsius warmer than any other summer since 1880.

The troubling thing is that even though science warns us to stop, pecuniary reasons and a total bullheaded disregard for the future have forced people, who should otherwise be strategic and responsible, to focus on the gains of now, to the detriment of the future of their children. Curiously, negative intervening circumstances like the Russia-Ukraine War, Israel-Hamas War, post-Covid challenges, etc., are given as excuses or reasons for this worrisome development.

Historically, emissions from developed countries led to the climate crisis. But, developing countries, especially in Africa, continue to bear the brunt of the negative impacts of the climate crisis. Africa’s contribution to global emissions is less than 4 percent, yet the continent continues to demonstrate its commitment in addressing climate change. For example, among other efforts by the continent, the 36th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Summit affirmed the Republic of Kenya to co-host with the AU, the African Climate Summit (ACS) which was held in Nairobi from 4th to 6th September 2023. During this inaugural Africa Climate Summit (ACS) Africa Heads of State and Government as an outcome of the Summit endorsed the Africa Leaders Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change and Call to Action. The Declaration shows practical actions that the continent is taking and also what is needed to address climate change; it also puts forward the immense green opportunities that Africa offers to the world in solving the climate crisis.

Ordinarily, one would have expected that those who created the crisis will perhaps take leadership and help other countries struggling to industrialise with the support to navigate through their own industrialisation process in a clean and sustainable way. Yet, what the developing world has witnessed non-stop is a total lip service to climate action. From failing to meet agreed-upon financial commitments, through a total refusal to be amenable to current conversations for more support to help developing countries, to the intermittent recourse to coal and fossil fuel when it suits them, developing countries barely have any role models to look up to.

At a point when leadership is demanded for the future of the world, it does appear that the world must once again look to Africa— the cradle of life—to champion an unselfish drive for the preservation of our world.

Incidentally, most of the key powers in Africa, such as Nigeria, are heavily dependent on fossil fuel for revenue. Yet, these countries are grossly impacted by climate change and suffer from chronic energy poverty. There are also the issues of underdevelopment, poverty, and lack of technological know-how. All of these combine as huge challenges to efforts at transition and seem to make the case for more investments in fossil fuel.

But, that is a very dangerous path for African countries to continue to toe. In the first instance, dependence on fossil fuel is highly unsustainable. This is because most of the industrialized regions and markets like China, Europe, US, India, etc., for Africa’s fossil fuel, are today rapidly transitioning to cleaner forms of energy through massive investments in this sector. When that happens, countries in Africa that are dependent on fossil fuel for revenue will have little to no markets and consequently be left with stranded assets. Secondly, science has shown that fossil fuels play a huge role in driving climate change and thus destroying our world. Since Africa is heavily impacted by climate change, it amounts to self-sabotage to continue with what negatively impacts its people.

Africa also has a pressing need to industrialise in order to position itself as a fully developed continent capable of addressing the critical issues of poverty, hunger, disease, unemployment, infrastructural deficit, etc. The vast raw materials of renewable energy available to the continent can serve (with technological support and proper planning) as the springboard to launch the continent into a sustainable and prosperous future. So, while divestments in fossil fuel are also about showing leadership in the fight to save our future, it is also an important pathway to securing Africa’s future and addressing critical issues facing its people.

African leaders are committed to “focusing our economic development plans on climate-positive growth, including expansion of just energy transitions and renewable energy generation for industrial activity, climate-aware and restorative agricultural practices, and essential protection and enhancement of nature and biodiversity.”

Accordingly, the ACS observed that it is “concerned that despite Africa having an estimated 40 percent of the world’s renewable energy resources, only $60billion or two percent of US$3trillion renewable energy investments in the last decade have come to Africa. Meeting the 300 Giga Watts (GW) target by 2030 at an estimated cost of $600billion translates to a tenfold increase in the finance capital flowing into Africa’s renewable energy sector over the next seven years.”

This is why, as the world prepares to gather in the United Arab Emirates for COP28, African countries must commence, as a matter of urgency, serious conversations on the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy. This can then be built on post-COP28 with a well-articulated divestment Action Plan that sets clear timelines and articulates specific efforts at strengthening greener and more sustainable means.

It was clearly in a bid to achieve this that African Heads of State and Governments at the ACS urged global leaders to join them “in seizing this unprecedented opportunity to accelerate global decarbonization while pursuing equality and shared prosperity,” particularly when it has been noted “with concern that 600 million people in Africa still lack access to electricity while 970 million lack access to clean cooking.”

It should be emphasized that “…Africa possesses both the potential and the ambition to be a vital component of the global solution to climate change. It is home to the world’s youngest and fastest-growing workforce, coupled with massive untapped renewable energy potential, abundant natural assets and entrepreneurial spirit; our continent has the fundamentals to pioneer a climate-positive pathway as a thriving, cost-competitive industrial hub with the capacity to support other regions in achieving their net zero ambitions.”

Fortunately, in Nigeria, there have been promising movements in this direction. After over six decades of circumscribing electricity generation on the Exclusive Legislative List, the 9th National Assembly of Nigeria, in 2023, amended the Nigerian Constitution and moved electricity from the Exclusive to the Concurrent List. The same Assembly passed the Electricity Bill 2023.

Earlier, upon his assumption of office, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu announced the removal of the petroleum subsidy. Also, just about ten days after assuming office, he signed the Nigerian Electricity Act 2023 into law.

These commendable efforts have done two things for the country. While subsidy removal brings to an end the disproportionate injection of government revenue into the petroleum market, it was quickly followed up with the launch of the Presidential Initiative on Compressed Natural Gas and the rollout of CNG-powered vehicles. But, even as CNG is still a fossil fuel, resorting to it as a first step towards renewable energy is a move in a commendable direction.

The Electricity Act, on its own, liberalizes the electricity industry and encourages investments in renewable and clean energy and the establishment of mini and off-grids. Sections 142 and 143 of the Act are pretty informative on this, and we have started seeing results. Several State Governments have passed their own electricity laws. Particularly, in Ekiti State, we are witnessing how mini grids spearheaded by IKEA Foundation and the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) are transforming communities by powering local businesses, schools, healthcare facilities, etc.

One expects to see more of these but in a structured manner that recognises the urgent need to divest and transit in a just and equitable manner from fossil fuels, especially now that data shows that energy from renewable sources is, in fact, cheaper than energy from fossil fuels. What more? What is the essence of continuing to invest in infrastructures that will be obsolete in a little under a century when that fund can be directed to more sustainable investments?

The incentive for potential investors is that Africa has about 600million people without access to electricity and 970million people without access to clean cooking methods.

As I said at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, in 2021, during COP26, and recently reiterated in my presentation at the Kenyan National Parliament during the inaugural Africa Climate Summit, this is a huge market for investors. It reminds one of the telecoms revolutions in Nigeria and how many telecoms companies from developed world failed to take advantage of the large market due to perceived “market risks.” Those who eventually took “risks” have made trillions of dollars over the past three decades.

Another opportunity beckons. As such, this is the time to take advantage of this virgin and sustainable market instead of continuing in bullheaded investment in fossil fuels!

This divestment process must begin today with Action Plans earmarking steps to replace dependence on fossil fuel. Doing this will be of great service to the continent and the world while also ensuring that attention is massively paid to bolstering other sustainable economic pathways for the continent.

The world needs an unselfish leader at this critical time. Africa must show up.


*Sam Onuigbo, a former Member of the Nigerian Parliament, who sponsored Nigeria’s Climate Change Act 2021 is an appointee of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu GCFR to the Governing Board of the North East Development Commission, where he serves as the Chairman of the Committee on Security, Climate Change, and Special Interventions. He is on X as @OnuigboSI.

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