COP-27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, was unique not only because it was in Africa but also because it felt like a COP for Africa. The continent of Africa and much of the Global South has long been left behind in almost every modern-day metric and index – GDP, HDI, Gini, etc. These countries are grappling with poignant issues of food, water, and energy security; health and sanitation; and humanitarian aid – issues that are not intimately related to climate change but stand to worsen from it. Even though these topics get touched upon at every other COP, they were discussed with great purpose and attention in Egypt – a product of having the conference in Africa. There was a significant representation from communities and individuals at the forefront of climate action and increased involvement from the countries in the Global South, which seemed lacking in the previous five COPs – all of which were held in the European continent.
Regarding the Global South – which will be a focus of this article – it is necessary to acknowledge that rapid development is required to improve living conditions and access to essential resources for millions of people and prepare vulnerable states to adapt to climate change. Beyond this acknowledgment, when we look deeper at the scale of development required to achieve this, there seems to be a sense of trepidation. I first noticed this when a representative from the US-AID talked about energy in the context of the African continent. He mentioned in the panel, “If Africa were to reach the levels of India or China in terms of energy consumption, all the hard work done by the clean energy sector in the US would be undone.” For multiple reasons, this felt ironically comical. Further, representatives from the Nigerian power ministry mentioned after one of the negotiations, “It feels like the IPCC scenarios are structured in such a way that for the world to get to 1.5C by 2050 (or anywhere close to that), the Global South will have to limit its emissions and consequently face economic contraction, this will just push the South further and further in poverty.”
This riddle in decoupling energy, development, and emissions is what had many scratching their heads. For the Global North, solutions to this and many other energy-centric issues often take a one-dimensional technocratic approach, i.e., renewables. At an “Energy Islands” session, European leaders talked about building an offshore wind energy island at a cost north of $30 Billion. It seemed from the lay of the room that solutions like these were the only way to strike a balance between the world’s growing energy demand and reaching ambitious climate goals. You see this kind of confidence in most energy sessions, mainly from rich corporate leaders or bureaucrats from developed countries.
These solutions are noble and can help us to some extent but, in isolation, are only valuable for societies that are careless of detail and devoid of perspective. After Energy Islands, I attended a session where energy leaders from African and Southeast-Asian countries talked about energy access and inequity issues. “Energy brings opportunity, irrespective of where it comes from; when the Global North has taken advantage of that for so long, why should the rest of us remain behind?.” explained one of the panelists. With energy systems heavily reliant on fossil fuels and growing demands for electrification and energy access, can developing countries in the South afford to get rid of fossil-heavy plants?
For some, moral issues and aspects surround these questions, and a technocratic mindset to answer these seems futile. “People talk about replacing coal-based jobs in the power sector with renewables, but with unemployment numbers in the 600,000+ range, can we even afford to lose one job?” Mentioned Jack Radmore from GreenCape – South Africa.
Even though the UN and the COP work to align the world on climate issues, this moral and technical dichotomy in two adjacent rooms laid bare the disconnect between the Global North and the Global South – a disconnect that I worry will continue to persist.
The duality of backfilling large historic energy deficits and building capacity for future energy security is not something renewable energy can handle independently. Besides, there are other problems with renewables and energy theft in the South. Stealing solar panels and battery systems, as well as tapping into high-voltage electric lines to source free and risky power, is common, and a lot of the time, it goes unreported. Another theme reflective of these issues voiced by multiple youth energy leaders at COP – wealthy nonprofits and charitable trusts from the Global North coming into the South with hastily developed action plans that benefit nothing but their annual social reports. Africa and much of the Global South needs energy, lots of it, and it appears that not all of that new energy will be renewable – which is what seems to irk a lot of people in the climate realm.
I went to the Al-Azhar park in Cairo During my final day in Egypt. A beautifully lit-up green oasis in the middle of a densely populated desert city. The entry fee was 30 Egyptian pounds ($1.22) – expensive for most Egyptians. Walking up to the boundary, I could see a clear distinction between the trees, grass, paved trails, and the park’s richness on one side, and the decrepit buildings, refuse, and poverty on the other. For me, this was a reflective microcosm of the Global North and the Global South. As I sat on the edge of this contrast and having been on both sides, I could not help but wonder: Will more energy and access to it pull us together as a society and bridge this gap, or will it inadvertently push us towards climate change?
The ambition of population centers worldwide hoping to move from subsistence to opulence depends on energy. We have ample energy to give us that strength, does our planet have the capacity to not be weakened by it?