“Africa must be able to use its gas reserves for its own needs”

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, at the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi on September 4, 2023.

President of the International Energy Agency (IEA), economist Fatih Birol calls for using the continent’s enormous solar potential to reduce its energy poverty. It also asks Western countries not to oppose the exploitation of gas reserves for domestic purposes, under penalty of hampering the industrialization and development of Africa. The impact on global greenhouse gas emissions and global warming would be insignificant, according to IEA calculations.

Why is this climate summit, for the first time at the initiative of African heads of state, important to you?

It is important for African Heads of State to grasp global energy and climate issues, but it is also essential for Western leaders, China and other major nations to understand the realities and needs of Africa. The situation on the continent should be looked at more objectively.

Because it is not?

Let’s say that I think it useful to recall certain facts. One in two people in Africa still does not have access to electricity, even though the continent has the largest solar energy potential in the world. Solar energy has become everywhere, including in Africa, the cheapest source of energy. However, today, the energy produced from solar energy on a continent of more than 1 billion inhabitants is half that produced by the Netherlands.

This is one of the greatest economic injustices I have ever observed. I would also like to recall that all of us who talk a lot about gender inequalities have before our eyes in Africa, due to the lack of access to modern energy, one of the greatest of them: the fact that 75% of families continue Dependence on charcoal to cook food means that women waste an average of four hours a day collecting firewood and cooking. Every year, hundreds of thousands of them die from indoor air pollution. However, according to our calculations, these two major issues for the future of Africa can be resolved by investing 25 billion dollars per year. [23 milliards d’euros]which is what we spend when we build a medium-sized liquefied natural gas terminal.

These realities are not new, how do you explain that so little progress has been made?

Advanced economies have so far chosen to ignore them. This posture cannot continue. What was not done for ethical reasons – Western countries could have done more to solve these problems of energy poverty in Africa – becomes an imperative to contain global warming and prevent mive migratory movements. But there is another issue, which is that of development, and which may appear in conflict with the climate issue when it comes to deciding whether Africa should or should not use its fossil fuels, and in particular its important gas reserves.

My analysis is as follows: the continent can satisfy more than 95% of its electricity needs thanks to renewable energies (solar, wind and hydroelectric). But Africa needs energy to develop an agri-food industry, fertilizer and cement factories, water desalination… On a technical level, the manufacturing processes in these sectors require temperatures that cannot be achieved with renewable energies.

Therefore, Africa, for its domestic needs, must use its gas reserves. And, according to our calculations, this would have a very marginal impact on greenhouse gas emissions, since uming that sub-Saharan Africa uses all its reserves – which is impossible – its share in emissions world [liées à la combustion des énergies fossiles] would go from 3% to 3.5%. The dogmatic attitude of Western countries, which wish to prevent Africa from using its gas, amounts to prohibiting it from industrialising. And we must also be aware of the consequences that this has on the geopolitical level, by widening the divide between Africa and the Western world. I don’t believe that is a good thing.

Have Western countries – European countries in particular – evolved in their position since the war in Ukraine?

Fairly little. They made a move to ensure their own gas supplies through imports, but I’m talking about a production whose objective would be to supply the continent. On this point, unfortunately, Westerners have moved little.

Several African countries have announced the discovery of oil deposits. Is their exploitation compatible with the recommendations of the IEA, which advocates the end of the exploration of fossil fuels to maintain a chance of keeping the rise in temperatures below 1.5°C?

There are indeed many new export-oriented projects. I wonder about their economic viability. It must be understood that the world demand for oil will no longer increase much because the energy transition, in particular in transport, is underway. We expect demand for oil to peak before 2030. However, these new fields are often more expensive to exploit than existing fields. Their exploitation will take several years before reaching the operational production stage. Regardless of climatic considerations, there is therefore an economic equation that does not justify exploiting these reserves. And I don’t think, despite the announcements that have been made, that most will finally see the light of day.

Laurence Caramel(Nairobi, special correspondent)

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