Editor’s note: This column is from two of the participants in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which is being held virtually this year. It runs from Tuesday through Friday. For details, go to worldaffairsconference.org.
As we reimagine a global approach to climate change, pay attention to the role of lower- and middle-income countries. They are well positioned for a “green leap.” That is, they can leapfrog to innovative green technologies that will simultaneously stem climate change and create jobs. These countries are less beholden to legacy technologies and systems, and there is the political and economic will to develop nascent sectors for additional job creation.
In particular, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa have the demographic dividend, available land and growth potential to make strategies focused on carbon capture and climate repair feasible and desirable. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the climate change crisis manifests in acute ways; natural disasters of increasing frequency and severity displace 20 million to 30 million climate refugees there each year. In addition, the African Development Bank estimates that 10 million to 12 million young Africans enter the workforce annually, but only 3.1 million formal jobs are created every year. If the economic status quo is maintained, current estimates predict a jobs gap of 100 million in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.
Furthermore, the pandemic has shocked the system, providing an inflection point for rethinking global systems and how best to position African economies to protect against the instability of global supply chains and the over-reliance some African economies have had on the global tourism and hospitality industries.
In the face of these challenges, there is a danger that climate action will be relegated to a lower priority, with some limited investments focused on mitigation of Africa’s relatively low emissions and mitigation of some of the worst effects of climate change on communities. This would ignore the opportunity Africa has to increase prosperity without increasing emissions through adoption of solutions such as clean cooking and renewable energy at scale. Furthermore, it risks missing a unique opportunity for Africa to lead the world in adoption of solutions for active carbon reduction, particularly around developing and building natural systems for carbon sequestration.
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Taking advantage of these opportunities requires a systemic approach, bringing together public and private sector actors from around the world to lift and transform communities while mitigating climate change.
Active carbon removal offers co-benefits, but requires global cooperation
Emissions mitigation is necessary but not sufficient to meeting our global climate goals. Across the globe, we have added approximately 250 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since pre-industrial times, and we continue to add a further 40 billion to 50 billion tons annually. Getting to net zero emissions still leaves us at double the levels seen in preindustrial times, and we need to work globally to actively reduce existing carbon levels even after we hit zero.
There is significant opportunity to actively reduce the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, and low- and middle-income countries, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are well positioned to be a global carbon sink, while also spurring economic activity. Existing natural resources and abundant labour reduce start-up and expansion costs, making projects attractive to investors. In addition, recent offset project trends — in particular tree planting, agroforestry, forest protection and regenerative agriculture — favor Sub-Saharan African countries, and there is significantly underutilized emissions capture capacity, creating a surplus of trade-able offsets.
There are several industries that offer opportunities for Sub-Saharan African countries to position themselves as global leaders in carbon offsetting.
The largest immediate opportunity for carbon offsetting exists in the clean cooking industry: Currently, 900 million Africans still cook with charcoal, kerosene and firewood. In 2015 and 2016, African carbon offset companies sold 5.2 million carbon credits from 2.2 million clean cookstoves, with access to clean cooking technologies growing by 2 percent in 2017. Improving access — particularly in the last mile — to clean cooking and alternative fuels not only can reduce emissions and service the offset market; growing this sector also creates jobs. By one estimate from Strathmore University, the Kenyan clean cooking sector provided more than 50,000 jobs in 2019. Currently, however, many of these jobs are informal; supporting the growth of the industry would spur job creation as well as formalization of the sector.
In the medium term, the most significant opportunity exists in the preservation and expansion of natural systems across the African continent. Political will is especially strong in this sector: 20 African governments have committed to restoring 125 million hectares of forest by 2030. Forest mitigation strategies in Africa have the potential to offset 205 million tons of carbon per year, and the growth of industries focused on non-wood forest products offers significant job-creation potential all along the value chain. A critical component of natural systems work is using technology to develop climate-smart agricultural systems that increase access to information, markets, and financing, reduce post-harvest loss, and support a global shift away from meat consumption.
Looking to the long term, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to become the primary driver for global energy demand in the 21st century. By investing in clean energy solutions for both domestic and international use, Africa could meet up to 22 percent of its existing energy needs through renewable sources. However, capitalizing on Africa’s potential for solar, wind, and hydropower requires a long-term and mass transformation of the global energy industry, in particular to open channels for financing as well as export markets.
Coordinating a global response for Africa’s role in climate mitigation
Africa’s carbon offsetting industry is currently quite nascent, representing 15 percent of the voluntary carbon credit market but only approximately 1 percent of the total market. In order to realize the potential of offsetting for Africa, several structural barriers need to be addressed; currently, only a small portion of emissions absorption is cross-border, as each country has its own targets. In order to create a liquid market for carbon offsets, a move toward a global response with a converged price for carbon emission / capture is necessary. In addition, financing for the expansion of climate capture programs is lacking.
A coherent global market for carbon offsets would allow for additional funding mechanisms; there is growing demand for green bonds, but insufficient supply: we believe that converting existing Eurobonds to green bonds would help meet market demand and support the green transformation already beginning across Africa.
By aligning policy incentives with the emergence of “green leap” solutions, African governments could help lead the world to a more truly sustainable form of development.
James Irungu Mwangi is the executive director of the Dalberg Group, an advisory firm that focuses on inclusive and sustainable growth. Stuart L. Hart is professor and Steven Grossman Distinguished Fellow in Sustainable Business at the University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business and co-founder of the School’s Sustainable Innovation MBA Program.