Why African Countries Should be Allocated the Rest of the Carbon Budget

Hanna Bratsch, Nov 15, 2022

In the modern age, access to energy has become increasingly unequal, creating difficulties in each nation’s ability to adapt to a newfound climate crisis. Many sub-Saharan African countries have fallen behind economically after the Industrial Revolution advanced much of the West at a rapid rate. Despite having emitted the majority of carbon pollution over the past 200 years, many Western leaders are suddenly and ironically demanding halting any new fossil fuel development across the globe. This demand includes Africa, even though the entire continent has cumulatively emitted just 4% of the total global carbon emissions. 

The reality is that we face an unprecedented change in our Earth's climate that will affect every region of the world and the question now is how each country can most effectively adapt. Many African countries are sitting atop natural gas reserves and need the ability to harvest its energy in order to develop economically. Economic development will then allow sources of clean energy to develop. Without harnessing fossil fuels, these countries cannot develop the necessary infrastructure to protect against the extreme weather that global warming will cause, or develop enough economically to eventually make the switch to renewable energy sources later on. And there is only a little room in the carbon budget to allow Africa to do this. 


The carbon budget is a scientific estimation of how much carbon the planet has emitted and how much we have left until we surpass the 1.5° celsius threshold of global warming. As of 2021, the IPCC reported that we have around 300 gigatons left in this budget to remain in our current state [4]. This statistic is especially alarming since as a planet, we emit 40 gigatons each year and this trend is only increasing over time. 


Who is responsible for the majority of these emissions? Three major regions are responsible for 80% of the carbon budget: Asia (specifically China), North America, and Europe. Carbon emissions began largely due to the Industrial Revolution, mainly in Northern Europe and the United States, when coal and oil were the main sources for all the energy being produced. While unintentionally polluting the Earth at the time, fossil fuels made the quality of life exponentially better for these newly industrialized countries. The invention of electricity, cars, and air conditioning have all been products of these contaminating energy sources. While these innovations have improved the quality of life for these western industrial countries, the trend has not risen at the same rate for many African countries. 


In fact, with this rapid improvement, inequality in access to energy has become very clear. It is evident that the countries who have emitted the most carbon are also the richest. As mentioned above, fossil fuels have helped China, North America, and Europe’s economies skyrocket within the last two hundred years. Since then, the gap between those who have access to energy and those who do not has drastically widened. In sub-Saharan African countries in 2020, 581 million Africans did not have access to electricity at all, while the rest of the globe has actually increased access to electricity within the last two decades [1]. Without electricity, businesses cannot run, schools cannot teach unless the sun is up, transcontinental communication is difficult, and many daily life activities that other developed nations perform easily are not so easily performed. But it isn’t just electricity, it is everything that is powered by energy that many African countries are lacking equal access to. 


How has global governance attempted to rectify this issue? The UN SDG7 set a goal to reach “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” by 2030 [3]. While this seems like a great start towards fighting energy inequality, what is meant by their definition of energy is too ambiguous for effective action. Furthermore, there has been little (if any) help to build these “sustainable” power plants in African countries. In fact, large Western countries have been developing gas fields found in Nigeria, Angola, and other African countries to increase electricity production in their own industries back home. Exxon Mobil has recently visited the shores of Mauritania to sign a deal to begin exploring oil and gas [6]. However, when African companies try to build plants to extract gas from their own land, they are blocked by Western companies in the name of ‘halting’ climate change. At the Glasgow Climate Summit, Kenya’s minister of petroleum and mining John Munyes stated that Kenya is sitting on hydrocarbons that must be extracted to provide energy for the Kenyan people. The energy minister of Uganda also proposed his pitch for developing hydrocarbons, given that the Ugandan economy depends on it. However, Western oil companies such as Norway’s EQNR.OL. and Canada’s African Oil Corp refused to fund these projects, citing a lack of room in the carbon budget to allow such developments. This is hypocritical behavior and proves that Western companies do not care about the UN SDG7 but rather their own economic growth at the expense of environmental exploitation in Africa [5]. Their refusal to fund African companies and governments is widening the gap between energy access and leaving Africa further behind in developing much needed energy infrastructure. 


Since the demands of African countries for funding natural gas plants are continuously being silenced, it is now apparent that the way that Africa must survive climate change alternatively is through adaptation strategies. As climate change increases, sub-Saharan African countries need resources to adapt to extreme weather. For adaptation mitigation, “more planning and costing is needed around the worst case outcomes” [9]. These worst case outcomes are slowly unveiling in Africa with the depletion in crop output and record high temperatures calling for major adaptation innovations. 


Over 60 percent of the population of the continent is reliant on agriculture for livelihood, most of which is subsistence farming [2]. Not only is the majority of African countries’ economies dependent on agriculture productivity, but a huge portion of their citizens rely on their crops succeeding for food and money to survive. There has already been "regional average yield reductions of 10-20% for millet" in Western Africa over the past decade among many other crop yields [8]. With significantly decreased precipitation levels due to global warming, farming in the hot African climate is only going to get more difficult [4]. 


In order to adapt to the changes in precipitation, energy is non-negotiable. African agriculture must switch from subsistence farming to large scale farming. The only way for this to happen is via new technologies powered by energy. Improved farming vehicles, more efficient water irrigation systems, construction of packing and distributing facilities, and faster transportation systems are all agricultural adaptation innovations that require fossil fuels. In comparison to the energy that rich western countries have used, this hypothetical increased amount of energy would still be less than the United States used just last year. In fact if every single person in sub-Saharan Africa tripled their electricity consumption overnight, their overall carbon production would still only equal 1% of world’s total carbon emissions [7]. This proves that allowing African countries to develop farming technology using fossil fuels would make such a tiny impact on the carbon budget while significantly improving their fight for survival. 

Climate change is a serious global issue and requires drastic measures to stop warming from exceeding 1.5° celsius. Reducing fossil fuel emission is essential for halting additional warming. However, it is important to look at who is responsible for the damage and demand repercussions for these states alone. To require all regions, Africa in particular, to carry the burden of the costs is completely unjust and removes accountability from the main polluter countries. Contributing almost nothing to the total global carbon emissions, Africa is and will continue to suffer more than the rest of the world due to their hot climate, reliance on agriculture, and their lack of energy infrastructure to adapt. It is vital that Western nations allow and aid African countries to use fossil fuels to develop the necessary adaptation innovations and grow economically so they can eventually make the switch to renewable energy sources. By providing funding and by no longer blocking oil and gas extraction, African countries can develop vital infrastructure and technology to ease the negative effects of climate change they will experience. We must listen to African companies and leaders when they ask for funding to develop their economies. The bottom line is that we live in a world where climate change is a growing reality. So it is up to those in power and institutions of global governance to make sure that Africa has sufficient energy to adapt to these changes. Forcing Africa to the same emission standards as developed, richer countries is hypocritical and unjust.


1. Faria, Julia. “Africa: Population without Electricity.” Statista, 13 Jan. 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1221698/population-without-access-to-electricity-in-africa/#:~.
2. Giller, Ken E., et al. “The Future of Farming: Who Will Produce Our Food? - Food Security.” SpringerLink, Springer Netherlands, 3 Sept. 2021, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12571-021-01184-6.
3. “Goal 7 | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations, United Nations, https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal7.
4. IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
5. Jalabi, Raya, and Yousef Saba. “Africa Has Sights Set on Hydrocarbon Haul despite Global Shift.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 12 Nov. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/africa-has-sights-set-hydrocarbon-haul-despite-global-shift-2021-11-12/.
6. McAllister, Edward. “Exxon Nears Deal to Explore for Oil and Gas Offshore Mauritania.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/exxon-mobil-mauritania-idAFL1N1NZ11N.
7. Mutiso, Rose M. “Rose M. Mutiso.” TED, https://www.ted.com/speakers/rose_m_mutiso.
8. Sultan, Benjamin, et al. “Evidence of Crop Production Losses in West Africa Due to Historical Global Warming in Two Crop Models.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 6 Sept. 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-49167-0.
9. Xu et al. “Global Warming Will Hapenn Faster Than We Think .” Https://Go.gale.com/Ps/I.do?p=AONE&u=Googlescholar&Id=GALE|A573237804&v=2.1&It=r&Sid=AONE&Asid=f62f0d50.