Originally published on The Guardian by Fiona Harvey
African countries should be able to exploit their vast natural gas reserves despite the urgent need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions, former UN climate envoy and ex president of Ireland, Mary Robinson has said.
Robinson, the chair of the Elders group of former world statespeople and business leaders, said African countries’ need for energy was so great that they should use gas widely, in contrast to developed countries that must halt their gas use as quickly as possible to stave off climate breakdown.
“Africa is trying to get its voice out about its needs for just, equitable energy, and of course that implies some use of gas as a just transition,” she told the Guardian in an interview.
She pointed to the 600 million people in Africa without access to electricity and the 900 million who use biomass or dirty oil cooking stoves, who could use gas as a less polluting alternative. “There has to be a certain leeway to tackle the energy poverty in Africa, and give Africa a faster capability to move,” she said.
African leaders will bring forward similar arguments ahead of Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in November, which is certain to make the issue a flashpoint at the UN climate summit that is seen as a chance for African countries to gain global attention for their vulnerability to the climate crisis, and their economic potential.
Robinson’s intervention is likely to inflame controversy after two weeks of UN preparatory talks for Cop27 convened in Bonn, Germany, from Monday. While some back the idea that African gas can be exploited while the EU and developed countries find green alternatives, others see an African dash for gas as a potential disaster.
With gas prices high and likely to remain so, and with most of Africa’s potential reserves owned or licensed by foreign companies, it would be difficult to keep African gas on the continent, rather than sold to the highest bidder.
Thuli Makama, the Africa programme director at the campaign group Oil Change International, said: “Africa should not be pressured to exploit fossil fuel reserves to serve the international community in the face of Russia’s unprovoked war, and Africa does not need to develop these reserves to meet its energy access needs. It’s a myth that fossil fuels are good for development.”
African countries are also unhappy that developed countries have exploited their own gas and are now seeking new sources because of soaring prices and supply constraints following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Africa has major gas reserves in countries including Nigeria, Mozambique and Senegal but many are still largely unexploited.
Mohamed Maait, Egypt’s finance minister, made the argument last month on a visit to London. He warned rich countries not to appear to “punish” the poor world and gave the example of Senegal, where major gas discoveries are expected that could transform the economy – but would also constitute a vast “carbon bomb” of the kind that if exploited would lead to temperature rises far exceeding the 1.5C limit targeted in Glasgow.
“Senegal were hoping this discovery would help them. Now you are coming to say, climate change means stopping the finance,” said Maait. “That is very worrying.”
Urging Africa to drill for gas marks a change of heart for Robinson, who before last year’s Cop26 summit heavily criticised the UK government for its involvement in financing a new gasfield in Mozambique. She also called the UK’s tax breaks for North Sea oil and gas “a form of madness”.
Robinson, the former president of Ireland and an influential figure in global climate diplomacy, acknowledged she had been very reluctant to encourage fresh exploitation of gas, but Africa’s energy poverty was so great that the transition to gas was needed.
“Some people think it’s a dangerous message,” she said. “You can see my dilemma. I’m utterly committed to [climate action], I couldn’t be more on-message about how serious that is. But it’s not a one size fits all.”
The International Energy Agency has warned that no new oil and gas should come onstream in future if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The Guardian has uncovered nearly 200 carbon bombs, a significant number of them in Africa, representing oil and gas deposits that if exploited would result in greenhouse gas emissions going far beyond 1.5C or 2C of heating.
“If we had done the right thing and invested in clean energy for African companies at scale, we would be in a different place, but we haven’t done that,” said Robinson. “And now we have to understand that African countries are hit by the climate crisis disproportionately.”
She said European countries and the US, which are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, had no basis on which to advise African countries to leave their reserves alone.
However, Jamie Peters, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Fossil fuel extraction hasn’t brought prosperity for the vast majority of Africans and further developments will only bring more damage. There needs to be a rapid move to develop clean energy systems in Africa to provide energy security and much-needed jobs – and this should be funded by the rich, industrialised nations that have done most to create the climate crisis.”
Source: The Guardian