Powering african development with renewable energy

Energy is a cornerstone of socio-economic development, yet less than half of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to it. Low energy access in Africa exacerbates the challenge of effectively fighting poverty despite an abundance of affordable and indigenous renewable energy resources. By 2019, about 20 per cent of electricity generated in Africa was based on renewable energy sources, including hydropower, letting the continent lag behind the global average of 26 per cent.

In 2020, installed renewable energy capacity in the continent represented just two per cent of global additions, yet forecasts indicate that energy demand could double by 2040. Renewables can cost-effectively meet this demand while generating a considerable social dividend, thanks to their scalability and replicability.

The analysis presented by IRENA on Maximising the Socio-economic Impact of Africa’s Sustainable Energy Transformation indicates that Africa will be better off – in multiple dimensions – if it pursues an energy transition strategy that contributes to limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. Under IRENA’s 1.5°C Scenario, gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to be higher on average by 6.4 per cent by 2050, compared with the Planned Energy Scenario (PES). The difference is largely spurred by government spending across different pathways towards energy transition.

Africa is set to become the largest and youngest workforce by 2025, with more than 500 million people in the labour market. The employment dimension of the energy transition is, therefore, particularly relevant to governments seeking to increase economy-wide job creation. Under IRENA’s 1.5°C Scenario, renewable energy jobs alone would rise from more than 300,000 today to 8 million by 2050. Furthermore, economy-wide employment is expected to be, on average, 3.5 per cent higher than under current plans.

Expanding renewables also support the immediate needs of healthcare facilities in the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Distributed energy can power vital medical appliances such as vaccine refrigerators and ventilators. Meanwhile, all welfare dimensions including economic, social, environmental, distributional, and access fare better under the 1.5°C Scenario.

This scenario and its assumptions; however rigorous and comprehensive, are merely an instrument to inform policy making. To translate this vision of the energy future into reality, we need to transcend the limits of the existing infrastructure created based on the fuels of the past. These decisions are not made in a vacuum. Economic and human development goals, environmental concerns, and financial returns must all be reconciled.

The choices we make in the coming years will have a far-reaching impact. They could bring us on a path towards the goals we set out in 2015 when countries adopted the highly consequential international agreements on sustainable development and climate change. Inaction could take us in the opposite direction to further warming, with profound and irreversible economic and humanitarian consequences. Africa needs to shift its current investments in fossil fuels to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. By harnessing its huge potential of renewable energy, Africa’s dynamically growing economies can ensure energy supply is generated in line with sustainable development and international climate goals.

The international community, multilateral organisations, investors, and other development partners should stand ready to partner with African countries on their path towards sustainable growth. By fostering cooperation among energy, health, and development partners, high-level political and financial support can be mobilised to scale up action on the ground.

It is in this context that IRENA brings its unique value. When we look beyond the narrow confines of energy supply, a renewables-based transition unlocks a range of valuable benefits. Our analysis and the 1.5°C scenarios present the policy frameworks necessary to advance a transition that is just and inclusive. They provide an improved understanding of required structural changes and offer a quantitative framework for transition impacts such as GDP, employment, and welfare.

We are entering an age of profound change that brings with it unprecedented opportunities to create a sustained period of sustainable and inclusive growth, leading to lifting millions of people out of poverty while balancing the relationship between economies and the environment. The task ahead is daunting. Our shared future will only be bright if we move together and with purpose towards a more resilient, equal, and just world. The energy transition is central to this future.

It is encouraging to see that 45 African Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) contain quantified renewable energy targets. Now is the time to act together. African countries must look beyond fossil fuels and choose a sustainable energy path to prosperity and stability.

Francesco La Camera, Director-General, IRENA

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Africa is a continent in continuous transformation, with a sustained economic and population growth, a fast-paced urbanization and a young generation of talents who is leading its business revolution. This transformation requires energy and will require it even more in the next decades.
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