Humanity is currently facing an unprecedented crisis. COVID-19 has locked-down large parts of societies and economies alike. Governments around the world are trying to prepare for and mitigate some of the worst impacts yet to come to avoid a collapse of national – and global – economies. The choices currently made will define our trajectory for decades. Therefore, recovery measures must establish policy frameworks and incentives for matured renewable energy technologies to deliver at speed and scale, to build a renewable energy-based system and unleash its potential for socio-economic benefits.
In many African countries, the renewables sector experienced direct impacts from the pandemic: e.g., supply chain disruptions and delayed, cancelled, or paused financing for development projects. Regarding RE, in particular, installation slowed down due to missing equipment and delays in project financing. Despite their potential to revitalise COVID-stricken economies only three countries on the African continent – Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Kenya – have mentioned renewables in their economic recovery packages, highlighted Gwamaka Kifukwe, project manager of the Renewable Energy Task Force at REN21, a multi-stakeholder organisation dedicated to rapidly scale up renewables.
Bärbel Höhn, Chair of the Global Renewables Congress and Special Representative for Energy Reform in Africa at the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), welcomed participants to the policy dialogue on COVID-19 recovery and the role of renewable energy in African countries. The event took place on 18th May 2021 and was co-hosted by REN21 and the Global Renewables Congress. She highlighted that COVID-19 recovery needs to tackle current problems on the African continent. These include hunger, malnutrition, unclean and unhealthy cooking practices leading to respiratory diseases, increasingly frequent extreme weather events like droughts and widespread poverty. Ms Höhn highlighted that renewable energy is one solution to these problems, but barriers hindering their deployment need to be addressed. Renewable energy solutions can be deployed much more quickly than other forms of energy, create up to 40 million jobs by 2050 and help to fulfil several SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) at the same time. Decentralised RE solutions for instance, could create up to five times more jobs in local communities than direct, formal
Lead discussants of the policy dialogue represented a wide array of expertise from academia, development partners, funders and NGOs: Dorothea Otremba, Senior Advisor, GIZ, Joseph Nganga, Director Power and Climate Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation, Professor Mark Swilling, Co-Director of the Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University and Joel Nana, Project Coordinator, Sustainable Energy Africa. They agreed that renewables have an important role to play for post-COVID recovery across Africa and achieving the countries’ development targets. In particular, some of the many socio-economic benefits were highlighted; such as the positive impact of mini-grids on job creation compared to lesser jobs created by centralised grids, the role of distributed energy in advancing gender equality and unveiling local economic potential through strengthening business opportunities in rural areas. Not to forget the vast environmental benefits like reduced GHG emissions, and air pollution from transport which has become an issue, in particular, in bigger cities where the transport sector also accounts for the most energy consumption.
Some barriers addressed during the dialogue focused on the lack of clear pathways towards universal electrification, caused through technology barriers and high costs associated with RE projects, due to perceived higher risks, expensive capital etc., which make it harder for the private sector to get involved, but also the high costs related to grid extension. Additional barriers were discussed around how cities can deploy renewables when national policy-making is putting in place enabling frameworks. Furthermore, barriers to financing the renewable energy transition attracting private sector investment, using innovative finance models such as crowdfunding and results-based finance, as well as the share of development finance from abroad and the lack of sufficient transition finance were prevalent.
For all these questions one has to keep in mind that a transition, and particularly a just transition, to a renewable energy-based system, means different things to different people and a distinction between various approaches to justice – e.g. societal justice, gender justice, procedural justice – is important. In addition, these various approaches to a just energy transition have been translated very differently into policies, or the lack thereof, across countries in Africa. Amongst others, this has to do with a lack of awareness for existing successful policies but also because multilateral donor institutions are setting the tone for development in many countries. Therefore, it is very important to strike a balance between private sector investment and international finance institutions, in order to scale up renewables across the African continent and to maximise their benefits.
Donor countries should focus on scaling up transition finance and support frameworks for dialogue among all interested and affected parties. This must also include organisations and people who have(so far) been against or sceptical of RE deployment. Through this engagement RE opponents can become RE collaborators. While urgently needed in many countries – especially countries like South Africa which are heavily dependent on coal – transition finance has mostly been lacking in discussions so far.
All discussants highlighted that addressing the various energy challenges on the continent will be paramount for inclusive, green recovery and that parliamentarians, in their dual roles as part of national policy-making as well as representatives of local constituencies, have an important role to play to stipulate enabling policy frameworks on the national, but also sub-national level to rapidly scale up RE deployment across the African continent. Given their multiple responsibilities and tasks though, information needs to be readily available and clearly structured.