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As climate talks come to Africa, world must wake up to energy access challenge

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This year brings the COP climate talks to Africa. This is a unique opportunity to address African climate concerns – including bringing renewable energy to people without electricity and safe cooking fuels.

When politicians gather in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt this November, they will face a simple choice; business as usual, or meaningful action to bring about a more equal and lower carbon world. Will ‘Africa’s COP’ be a turning point, or a smokescreen for more inaction?

Past COPs have been dominated by rich nations haggling over emissions caused by their industrialised economies. This is the critical issue, of course – particularly as these emissions are driving the global warming that most damages poorer countries.

But these summits have only paid lip service to the fact that as we power down coal, oil and gas, we also need to power up renewable energy and deliver universal energy access.

Around 700 million people around the world lack access to electricity, and about three billion to clean and safe cooking methods. The spread of renewable energy can help people launch new businesses, store vaccines safely, and access education and information – all while setting countries on course for a zero-carbon future.

This fact may be missed politicians in London, Paris and Washington, but it is understood in many homes across Africa filled with pollution from kerosene lamps and smoky cook-stoves, and in fields where simple water pumps and threshing machines could boost productivity and combat poverty.

It is vital that COP27, this year’s event, brings more investment and political action to tackle the problem. Past COPs have seen other once-fringe issues, such as the role of the natural world in protecting our planet, rocket up the global climate agenda. Now is the time to make COP27 the energy access COP.

There is no shortage of proven energy access initiatives to invest in or learn from. New Energy Nexus Uganda – a winners of an Ashden Award in 2021 – supports community-based organisations to become clean energy entrepreneurs, bringing products such as solar lights and safer cookstoves to remote villages far from the grid. This work has created 650 jobs, 70% taken by women.

The organisation’s ‘business bootcamps’ tackle a key problem – the shortage of skills and training to support wider energy access. With just 76,000 renewable energy jobs in the whole of Africa, there’s an urgent need to train up more engineers, managers, and support staff. Investment must be matched by efforts to bring governments, training institutions and employers close together.

Frontline pioneers including New Energy Nexus are doing their bit – and so are forward-thinking governments. Ministers in Togo have put skills at the heart of their ambitious attempt to electrify the country by 2030, providing free training and working closely with energy companies to ensure they have the skilled staff they need.

Togo’s other innovations include a subsidy to help all families connect to clean energy, and backing for a range of locally-appropriate technologies, from grid extension to solar-powered mini-grids and home solar systems.

Africa is buzzing with ingenious and practical energy access solutions. Ahead of COP27, we call on the continent’s leaders, businesses and civil society organisations to put the spotlight on these brilliant initiatives – so that, come November, wealthy nations have no excuse for continuing to neglect the issue.

Global public support for the zero carbon transition is vital – but will only come if people are convinced change brings development opportunities, as well as restrictions on polluting fuels and technologies. We need to make the case for action – for example, sharing how NGO Power for All found that in Kenya creating 10,000 renewable energy jobs created 65,000 jobs in other sectors.

At COP27 itself we must see wider discussion of energy access, and more prominence for the issue in the pledges and promises that are central to every COP. Shockingly, some in the climate sector still do not see energy access as a pivotal climate issue. This has to change.  

In particular, we call on rich nations to wake up to the challenges Africa faces. To swap spin and speeches for serious investment. Africa’s COP is not a photo opportunity, or a PR exercise – it is a unique chance to address the continent’s concerns and deliver true climate justice.  

Harriet Lamb is the CEO at Ashden and Julius Mujuni is Country Director for New Energy Nexus Uganda.