Net zero ethics

Develop clean energy sources and let African nations use their own natural gas, new Calvin President says.

Last month, world leaders convened in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27. COPs have been held annually since 1995 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year’s was the fifth to be hosted in an African nation.

Africa is increasingly the focus in climate related news, and not for the normal reasons. Last year Canada joined European nations in pressuring the World Bank to stop investing in oil and coal projects around the world and to phase out natural gas projects. Western nations have refused to fund fossil fuel projects in Africa, in hopes that the continent will leap straight to renewable energy sources. But as the Russia-Ukraine war threatens European energy sources, Western nations are now rushing to fund pipelines and liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals in Africa in exchange for exported gas.

“It is morally bankrupt for Europeans to expect to take Africa’s fossil fuels for their own energy production but refuse . . . African use of those same fuels,” says Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who called out Western powers for “brazen double standards.”

Africans understand climate change

The continent of Africa contributes only two to three percent of global emissions, yet it is the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The World Meteorological Organization predicts that in the next eight years, water stress alone will displace 700 million Africans. The continent is already experiencing extreme drought, extreme floods and growing food insecurity.

The majority of African countries made commitments to greenhouse gas reduction targets in their national climate plans in 2019. And yet when it comes to implementing those commitments or seeking more economic security, the funding isn’t there.

“Nigeria and countries across Africa are committed to a net-zero future, especially given their vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change; however, greater support in developing and implementing robust energy transition plans is needed,” said Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in an address at Columbia University’s Global Energy Forum. “Clearly the continent will require an unprecedented scale of investment.”

Countries like Nigeria have not yet seen the renewable energy investments Western nations have promised. And at the same time, investments for their fossil fuel projects have been cut. Nigeria committed to carbon neutrality by 2060, but that depends on the use of their natural gas resources, says Osinbajo. Asian, European and North American countries “include gas as a major pillar of their multi-decade decarbonization strategies,” says Osinbajo. These strategies include actively developing African gas, yet they are holding African nations to a different standard and “limiting financing to gas projects for domestic use in those countries.”

Just one year after Europe requested the World Bank drop its investment in Mozambique, France and Italy are negotiating LNG projects in Mozambique to export for their own use.

It’s not just Mozambique. The Italian Prime Minister visited Algeria to sign a deal and Angola to finalize a declaration of intent for procuring their natural gas. Italy is speaking with the Republic of Congo. Germany is speaking with Senegal, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt and Angola. There are talks of pipelines and funding for construction to make existing pipelines more efficient, via the Sahara and along the coast from Nigeria to Spain. Britain is seeking LNG from Senegal, Mauritania and possibly Tanzania.

The Nigerian reality

Nigeria has the greatest gas potential of the continent but also the world’s largest energy access gap, explains Dr. Wiebe Boer, who served as CEO of All On, an off grid energy impact investment fund for Nigeria. In a country of 200 million people that should have 200,000 megawatts on the grid, it has 4,000.

“Once you don’t have access to affordable, reliable energy, every socioeconomic indicator gets impacted,” says Boer who held leadership positions in foundations that further Africa’s economic development and prosperity, such as The Tony Elumelu Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya, and Heirs Holding. “The fastest way for Nigerians to get out of poverty is leveraging their natural gas resources for domestic power generation.” Without electricity to store vaccines or conduct surgery at night, Boer explained, Nigeria’s healthcare suffers. Without electricity for technology and lights, schools suffer. Without cold chains (a system of refrigerated storage and distribution), food spoils and increases food insecurity.

In an energy access gap, people find alternatives. If Nigeria could resource their own natural gas, they would have a cleaner alternative to the nation’s 40 million diesel generators, says Boer, and they wouldn’t need to cut down forests just to cook the day’s meal.

According to the International Energy Agency, even if Africa tapped all its known gas reserves, the continent’s global emissions would only rise from 3 percent to 3.5 percent. (The United States alone is responsible for 14 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, and the European Union responsible for 8 percent.) Because the continent produces so few emissions, they receive only 5.5 percent of climate financing, yet are expected to jump to renewable energy grids without a fossil fuel transition. “We’re not at a point where that makes sense: the capital wasn’t available – the technology is still expensive. It’s almost like they were trying to force something that we were 10 years away from being ready for,” said Boer.

This fall, Boer became the President of of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Boer’s visit to one of Nigeria’s oldest mini-grid sites located in Rivers State, Niger Delta, Nigeria while he was CEO of All On.

My neighbour or the earth?

The phrase “just transition” has been rising in climate talks since the Ukraine war. ‘Just Transition’ was the first roundtable session of COP27. It appears that developed nations are more willing to talk about tempering ideology with justice in their own development plans now that they face a cold winter; will they extend the same flexibility to other nations?

“So what is the case for justice, social justice, fairness?” asked Osinbajo. “Energy, in our case gas, plays [a critical role] in catalyzing economic development and supporting people’s health and livelihoods, especially in poorer countries.”

I couldn’t help but wonder – what are Reformed people to do with news that seemingly pits social justice against creation care, two of our dearest values? I asked Boer, who became Calvin University’s 12th president this October. He understands the Reformed worldview, and the tension in this question. “It’s about balance,” Boer said. He maintains that “the climate is incredibly important, but we also need to do it in the right way at the right time.”

“We need to find a way that simultaneously lifts people out of poverty while slowly making that transition to cleaner energies. It has to be a more balanced approach where rich nations are taking into consideration the realities of energy poverty and not forcing an agenda that doesn’t make sense.”

Maybe we will see more collaborative approaches in the coming months and years, if African nations are allowed funding for domestic energy purposes. Then we can work out long-term solutions together.

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