Africa’s energy future matters for the world, says IEA

Africa is set to become increasingly influential in shaping global energy trends over the next two decades as it undergoes the largest process of urbanisation the world has ever seen, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

Africa Energy Outlook 2019, a special in-depth study published today, finds that current policy and investment plans in African countries are not enough to meet the energy needs of the continent’s young and rapidly growing population. Today, 600 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity and 900 million lack access to clean cooking facilities, the report said.

According to the report, the number of people living in Africa’s cities is expected to expand by 600 million over the next two decades, much higher than the increase experienced by China’s cities during the country’s 20-year economic and energy boom.

Africa’s overall population is set to exceed 2 billion before 2040, accounting for half of the global increase over that period. These profound changes will drive the continent’s economic growth, infrastructure development and, in turn, energy demand, which is projected to rise 60% to around 1,320 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2040, based on current policies and plans.

The report makes clear that Africa’s energy future is not predetermined. Current plans would leave 530 million people on the continent still without access to electricity in 2030, falling well short of universal access, a major development goal.

But with the right policies, it could reach that target while also becoming the first continent to develop its economy mainly through the use of modern energy sources, the IEA said, adding that drawing on rich natural resources and advances in technology, the continent could by 2040 meet the energy demands of an economy four times larger than today’s with only 50% more energy.

“Africa has a unique opportunity to pursue a much less carbon-intensive development path than many other parts of the world,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “To achieve this, it has to take advantage of the huge potential that solar, wind, hydropower, natural gas and energy efficiency offer. For example, Africa has the richest solar resources on the planet but has so far installed only 5 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV), which is less than 1% of global capacity.”

If policy makers put a strong emphasis on clean energy technologies, solar PV could become the continent’s largest electricity source in terms of installed capacity by 2040.

Natural gas, meanwhile, is likely to correspond well with Africa’s industrial growth drive and need for flexible electricity supply. Today, the share of gas in sub-Saharan Africa’s energy mix is the lowest of any region in the world. But that could be about to change, especially considering the supplies Africa has at its disposal: it is home to more than 40% of global gas discoveries so far this decade, notably in Egypt, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Africa’s natural resources aren’t limited to sunshine and other energy sources. It also possesses major reserves of minerals such as cobalt and platinum that are needed in fast-growing clean energy industries.

“Africa holds the key for global energy transitions, as it is the continent with the most important ingredients for producing critical technologies,” Dr Birol said. “For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo accounts for two-thirds of global production of cobalt, a vital element in batteries, and South Africa produces 70% of the world’s platinum, which is used in hydrogen fuel cells. As energy transitions accelerate, so will demand for those minerals.”

African countries are on the front line when it comes to climate change, meaning the continent’s energy infrastructure planning must be climate resilient.

By 2040, an additional half a billion people in Africa are expected to live in areas requiring some form of cooling as populations expand and average temperatures increase. Although Africa is expected to experience rapid economic growth over the next two decades, its contribution to global energy-related CO2 emissions rises to just 3% by 2040, based on current policies and plans.

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