A three-day series of meetings and workshops on Africa’s ecological transition and energy in the run-up to COP27 concluded in Addis Ababa on Thursday, August 4, 2022, at the headquarters of the African Union. The meeting was also attended by an important part of the African Negotiating Group (ANG), the official grouping of African delegates to the COPs. Among the goals of the Addis Ababa meeting was to strengthen a common position just ahead of the Egyptian summit in November, but things did not go as many expected.

In fact, according to reports in Climate Change Newsdelegates from the ANG group have formally refused to embrace the common position toward COP27. Such a standing was already adopted in July by the African Union itself, which sees a new push for domestic use of natural gas as development and transitional energy. In short, an institutional cul-de-sac in which African government delegates to the COPs refuse to adhere to a position adopted only a few weeks earlier by their own governments at the African Union.

The “Common Position on Energy Access and Just Transition” is at the heart of the matter, adopted and published by the African Union in July 2022. The document, available online, states that governments on the African continent cannot ignore the necessity to rely both on both “clean” and renewable as well as “dirty” (climate-altering) energy, in particular natural gas, to develop and improve the quality of life of their citizens, given the population’s levels of need. 

On a continent where 600 million people have no access to energy, the document says, it will not be possible to avoid reliance on fossil resources to first solve the problem of energy access and thus large-scale poverty and then – only then – align growth and development trajectories with the Paris Agreement. It is a position that has raised the misgivings of negotiators, including those in Egypt, who see this pro-gas turn as too controversial at a time when we are moving toward what is supposed to be the African COP on adaptation and climate finance, as well as conflicting with the Climate Strategy and Action Plan adopted by the African Union itself only a month earlier, in June 2022. 

The African Union’s new positioning does not come out of the blue. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent retraction of global markets, and the outbreak of the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine in February 2022, African natural gas has returned to center stage both in terms of its potential for domestic use and as a new geopolitical asset internationally. The “Special Energy Policy Report,” published by the African Union in July 2021, stated that until the pandemic, about 40% of natural gas extracted in Africa was exported, a very high percentage compared to other regions of the world. In a nutshell, while African gas made up 6-7% of internationally traded natural gas, very little remained available for governments to provide energy to their citizens. The 2021 special report called precisely on African governments to seek a new balance between exports and domestic use. Moreover, the report called for a balance also between global exports and the export destined for other African countries which lack hydroelectric or geothermal resources, to strengthen the continent’s economy in light of a global gas market made more competitive by increased U.S. and Australian exports.

Since the beginning of 2022, the conflict in Europe has further pushed African leaders’ focus on natural gas (in this case, yes, for export), with some major European countries. Italy, for example, is desperately seeking new supply contracts, given the urgency of making themselves independent of the 45% of Russian natural gas they buy each year. In addition to the need for a new balance between global export, inter-African export, and domestic use, a new European demand for gas has thus added up. This demand is making the fortunes of those countries that extract gas from Algeria (Africa’s leading producer) to Tanzania, the sixth largest country for natural gas reserves on the continent, which in maintaining a neutral position in the conflict sees an opportunity to significantly increase its export opportunities in the energy sector.

The issue of using natural gas as a transitional energy and as a source of economic growth for those who have it seems to dominate the African climate agenda; the same does the European one even in the wake of the European Union’s controversial decision to include natural gas among “clean” energies under the new investor taxonomy. Perhaps the intersection of the two dynamics is not coincidental, given that most African climate plans financially depend on Western support. 

Three months out from COP27, Africa thus does not seem ready to articulate a common position in light of recent geopolitical events. With Europe weakened by unstable governments, pandemic and conflict, and U.S.-China climate collaboration disrupted by the Taiwan crisis, the climate ambition front seems weaker than ever.

Article by Jacopo Bencini, Policy Advisor and UNFCCC Contact Point

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