Although fossil fuels are now public enemy number one, much of the world has a great deal to be thankful for, as a result of having this most ancient resource within the earth. For example, in the period since the UK’s industrial revolution started in 1750 and today, GDP has grown by fifty times. Each generation of Britons since 1750 has been a third better off than the one before it. Coal and later oil made this possible, putting food on people’s plates and improving health, longevity, and prosperity for the many.
Kenya and several other states in Africa have significant deposits of gas and other natural resources that could have a similar transformational effect for the continent. But the mood music coming out of COP26 makes it pretty clear that Africa will struggle to exploit its resources and make its people anything like fifty times better off.
Despite the fact that Africa produces just four percent of the world’s carbon emissions, the continent may now have to, in the words of COP, “phase down” its industrial revolution because of the need to clean up the consequences of the global north’s economic boom.
Attracting investment in fossil fuels will be difficult and costly from global capital markets that are led by an ESG agenda. Africa’s improved standard of living – more food, more people connected to uninterrupted electricity, more access to finance, better paid jobs – may well remain underground, literally.
Similar headwinds blow from COP to challenge Africa’s agricultural revolution as well. If cows and other ruminant animals are no longer consumed, what does this mean for how we maintain soil health if nature’s fertilizer, manure, disappears. It seems unfair for the global north to impose restrictions on agricultural systems and technologies that can build resilience against the particular shocks experienced across the continent, and provide much needed nutrition.
Africa can definitely prosper from the climate emergency. For example, by attracting investment in renewable energy projects to make the most of the abundance of sun and wind in many parts of the continent. But it would be preferable if Africa could be simultaneously permitted to develop these new technologies, while exploiting its natural carbon resources, to create the economic and social development that will drive intra-Africa and global trade.
At the moment, Africa produces a fortieth of the world’s GDP. There is a real risk that the continent might miss out on the full potential of industrialisation and agricultural transformation if it has to help clean up the mess made by developed economies since the eighteenth century.
Originally posted on Business Daily, 26 November 2021.