With COP 27 host Egypt and 16 other natural gas-exporting governments pledging to plug the fossil energy source as “the perfect solution” to climate change and energy security, critics warned of a “dash for gas” in Africa—a prophecy taking shape this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, where some African countries said exploiting fossil reserves will help lift people out of poverty.
“As the cleanest hydrocarbon [fossil] fuel, natural gas is seen as the perfect solution that strikes the right balance and will continue to play a key role in the future energy mix,” said Egypt’s petroleum minister, Tarek el-Molla, speaking in Cairo at a Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) meeting, weeks before climate talks began in Sharm el-Sheikh.
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GECF members agreed that COP 27 and next year’s COP 28 in United Arab Emirates present “a great opportunity to make a case for gas in the energy transition,” reports Climate Home News, citing an official summary of the meeting.
Natural gas is widely claimed to have lower emissions than other fossil fuel sources like coal, but the International Energy Agency (IEA) says the world cannot afford to increase the use of any fossils—including gas—if there is to be any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Recent analysis by Climate Action Tracker also shows that increased gas investment would push global warming beyond safe limits. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) capacity now under construction, coupled with expansion plans, “could increase emissions by over 1.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in 2030, above emission levels consistent with the IEA’s Net-Zero by 2050 scenario.”
So while “gas will no doubt continue to play a role in the global energy mix,” E3G gas analyst Maria Pastukhova told Climate Home, “this role is now more of a ‘risk to manage’ instead of a ‘driver of growth’ or a ‘transition fuel.’”
Egypt’s plans to promote natural gas were evident before the COP as it touted on its website that it will “provide sustainable transport for COP 27 participants by providing 260 electric and natural gas buses” to ferry participants around Sharm el-Sheikh. The website also notably said COP 27’s Decarbonization Day would discuss a “shift towards a low-carbon economy” rather than a zero-carbon economy.
Duelling Visions for Africa
Holding the summit under an African presidency has particular importance as European countries look to the continent’s fossil fuel reserves as a short-term solution to an energy crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some leaders in Africa see this as an opportunity for development and maintain that the economies of the continent will collapse if they do away with fossil fuels, reports The Climate Cable.
That was the stance governments took at one of the COP 27 talks held on Thursday, where previously sidelined oil and gas companies were welcomed to attend, reports Reuters.
“There is a lot of oil and gas companies present at COP because Africa wants to send a message that we are going to develop all of our energy resources for the benefit of our people because our issue is energy poverty,” said Namibia’s petroleum commissioner, Maggy Shino, who works within the country’s mining and energy ministry. “If you are going to tell us to leave our resources in the ground, then you must be prepared to offer sufficient compensation.”
But only 16 of 54 countries in Africa have significant oil and gas reserves, and 60% of those reserves are in only four countries, noted Wangari Muchiri, Africa director for the Global Wind Energy Council. Muchiri interprets this to mean that “when we see countries like Senegal pushing for gas investment, it’s because they’re looking after their own interests,” says the UK’s Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit.
Intergovernmental organizations in Africa are pushing back against advocacy for gas development that they say will “lock Africa into fossil fuels for decades.” Instead of pitching more gas, as Egypt’s leadership is doing, organizations are calling to increase clean energy investment to boost Africa’s wind and solar capacity.
These duelling visions for Africa’s energy future put the continent at a crossroads, where “Africa can become a clean energy leader with decentralized renewables powering a more inclusive society and a greener economy, or it can become a large polluter that is burdened with centralized energy systems and future stranded assets,” Climate Action Network-Europe says.
With these different paths laid out, Power Shift Africa, a Kenya-based climate and energy think tank, points out that climate change impacts have been severe across the continent. In response, African countries have been contributing one-fifth of the expenditure required to reduce potential economic impacts from a climate crisis largely caused by the historical emissions of developed countries.
Rather than expand natural gas development to support African economies, Power Shift is calling for climate adaptation financing and “a shift from negotiations and planning to actions on the ground.” Specific action items to address the needs of African countries include mobilizing the US$100-billion in annual climate finance first promised by developed countries in 2009, building resilience, and establishing secure, sustainable food and energy systems, the think tank says.
“Last year was a COP hosted in the global North and the result reflected global North interests at the expense of the climate vulnerable,” said Power Shift Director Mohamed Adow. “Coming out of Glasgow, rich countries failed to keep their promise on climate finance, there was little progress on creating a fund for loss and damage, and there was a lack of binding emissions reductions.”
But “this year we have a chance to put things right and get the world back on track,” he added. “We need to see the victims of the climate crisis put front and centre, with their needs prioritized and those that are most responsible taking real action to address the climate emergency.”