Africa’s moment to lead on climate

Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity today. To avoid catastrophe, we must dramatically reduce the carbon intensity of our modern energy systems, which have set us on a collision course with our planetary boundaries. This is the challenge leading up to three key international events this year: a July summit on financing for new global development goals, another in September to settle on those goals and — crucially — a global meeting in December to frame an agreement, and set meaningful targets, on climate change. But focusing on ambitious global climate goals can mask the existence of real impacts on the ground. Nowhere is this truer than in sub-Saharan Africa.

No region has done less to cause climate change, yet sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing some of the earliest, most severe and most damaging effects. As a result, Africa’s leaders have every reason to support international efforts to address climate change. But these leaders also have to deal urgently with the disturbing reality behind Africa’s tiny carbon footprint: a crushing lack of modern energy.

Africa’s energy gap is considerable. The average American uses 10,900 kilowatt hours of electricity a year; the average sub-Saharan African, just 500. And behind the average consumption figures lies an even starker reality. Two out of three sub-Saharan Africans — 600 million people — have no access to electricity at all.

Cut off from the grid, the world’s poorest people also pay the world’s highest power prices, as they depend for lighting on costly, inefficient kerosene. Someone in a rural village in northern Nigeria spends 60 to 80 times more per unit of energy than a resident of New York.

This glaring energy gap demands attention. Africa’s leaders have no choice but to act: At stake are the chances of millions of ever escaping the poverty trap.

These leaders have a choice, though, about how to bridge the energy gap. They have an amazing opportunity, in fact, to show the rest of the world the way to a sustainable future.

As is demonstrated in the recently published Africa Progress Report 2015, the flagship publication of the 10-member Africa Progress Panel, on which we both serve, Africa can break the link between energy and emissions by leap-frogging over the damaging, carbon-intensive energy practices that have brought the world to the brink of catastrophe.

Africa’s energy challenges are immense. Energy sector bottlenecks and power shortages cost the region 2 percent to 4 percent of gross domestic product annually, undermining efforts to promote sustainable economic growth, create jobs, reduce poverty and boost investment. The problems serve to deepen the disadvantage experienced by the poor, women and those who live in rural areas.

But once strong global development goals are in place, backed by smart financing and a fair climate deal, Africa will be positioned to turn that situation upside down.

Switching to low-carbon energy strategies immediately isn’t possible because doing so could undermine economic progress. But Africa has enormous potential for cleaner energy — hydro, solar, wind and geothermal power, as well as natural gas. Unlocking Africa’s clean energy potential can drive growth and create jobs. Africa can grow and show the way for the rest of the world by gradually replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources and embracing a judicious, dynamic energy mix.

For that to happen, though, Africa’s leaders must seize the climate moment.

For too long, Africa’s leaders have been content to oversee highly centralized energy systems that benefit the rich and bypass many of the poor. Power utilities have been centers of corruption. The time has come to revamp Africa’s creaking energy infrastructure, while riding the wave of low-carbon innovation that is transforming energy systems around the world.

Actions taken by African leaders are essential. So is international cooperation.

The 2015 development and climate summits provide platforms for deepening international cooperation and providing a down payment on measures with the potential to put Africa on a path toward an inclusive, low-carbon energy future — and the world on a path to avoid climate catastrophe.

Unlocking Africa’s energy potential and putting in place the foundation for a climate-resilient, low-carbon future will require ambitious, efficient and properly financed multilateral cooperation. As we show in our report, the current global climate finance architecture fails these tests.

In particular, we strongly urge governments in the major emitting countries to act now by ending the billions they spend to subsidize fossil fuel exploration, a policy that encourages greater carbon emissions, not fewer. Instead of subsidizing emissions, developed countries need to accurately price them, through carbon taxes or other means. These two policy shifts, combined with strong development goals in low-emitting countries in Africa, would go a long way toward leveling the global climate playing field.

Future generations will surely judge these leaders not by principles they set out in communiqués but by the actions they took to eradicate poverty, build shared prosperity and protect our children’s children from climate disaster. The global climate moment can be Africa’s moment to lead the world.

Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, is chair of the Africa Progress Panel. Robert E. Rubin, U.S. treasury secretary from 1995 to 1999, is a member of the panel.

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