Tim Scales of Mail and Guardian – As the world focuses urgently on energy transition and decarbonisation, there is clearly no shortage of ambition on the part of many African governments to play a key role in global efforts to tackle climate change. 

It’s encouraging that, already, we are seeing significant progress across some of the 54 countries that make up the continent. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions and energy and raw material price volatility, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, have all led to some delays in planned projects. That’s true even in countries like Morocco that have made giant strides in adopting renewable technologies. The impetus remains strong, however, and these are, hopefully, short-term challenges.  

Nonetheless, fossil fuels are likely to remain key to Africa’s economic development in the medium term, both as a source of revenue and as feedstock for power generation.


Africa is under significant pressure from the international community to decarbonise at pace even though it accounts for less than 6% of global energy consumption and is responsible for only 2% of global emissions. 

Despite that, the need to transition is readily recognised in Africa, not least because the impact of climate change is being felt much more acutely here than in many other regions. 

But, with a population set to double in the next thirty years, wider development challenges are also immense. While hundreds of millions of people have no access to electricity and clean water, there is also an urgent need to tackle famine, upgrade infrastructure and improve education and healthcare. 

Striking a balance

Renewable technology is advancing fast and becoming more affordable. Africa also has a strong track record of embracing and developing breakthrough technologies, as its leading role in the mobile communications revolution shows, and with its abundant sources of renewable energy, there are opportunities for Africa to help lead the way in the evolution of new renewable technologies. 

But some African governments are having to strike a balance between developing their abundant renewable resources (primarily hydro, solar, wind, and, for the future, green hydrogen) and monetising their rich fossil fuel resources, particularly gas and oil, both as a solution to their own energy needs, and to generate much-needed foreign currency revenue. These revenues are vital for the continent’s economic development. 

With developed economies in Europe reverting to coal-fired power generation as an alternative to Russian gas, African governments can understandably feel aggrieved by criticism of their own plans for hydrocarbon development.

Financing challenge

Financing change is also a significant challenge. 

Many utilities lack the resources to invest in new power generation or the liquidity to pay offtake tariffs to independent power producers (IPPs) when they are allowed to enter the market. Multilaterals and development finance institutions are helping to ease some of these financing challenges, but the task is immense. 

The much-needed market reforms being introduced in South Africa to allow IPPs to supply industrial and commercial clients direct show a way forward and are likely to be closely followed elsewhere. In South Africa, many of these projects are using renewable energy and they are helping to ease the pressure on an electricity system that is struggling to meet demand, with rolling blackouts now an uncomfortable norm. 

But clearly much more needs to be done and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa alternatives to utility-scale renewable projects will need to be found, given the lack of grid infrastructure. 


We should acknowledge what is already being achieved in Africa and take a pragmatic and realistic view of what can feasibly be achieved in the short, medium and long term. 

Renewable energy will play an increasingly important role on the continent. But we call it energy transition for a reason: it’s not something that will happen overnight. 

Renewables alone can’t meet the continent’s urgent power needs in the short term and it would be inequitable to deny African countries the right to develop their own hydrocarbon resources and benefit from the associated economic benefits when there is ongoing demand, notwithstanding global moves towards decarbonisation. 

Africa needs to find its own energy mix, rather than one that is imposed from the outside, as the transition gathers pace. 

With the right support and investment, Africa will, given time, achieve its own energy transition. 

And as COP27 is underway, that is a reason for real optimism. 

Tim Scales is head of the Africa group and co-head of the global projects practice at law firm Allen & Overy.

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