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As Europe eyes Africa’s gas reserves, environmentalists sound the alarm — Mongabay

In the wake of an ener­gy cri­sis caused by Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine, Euro­pean coun­tries are turn­ing to Africa for its nat­ur­al gas reserves.The move is a turn­around from recent years, when many of the same coun­tries vowed to stop financ­ing fos­sil fuel projects on the continent.Some African heads of state, along with their allies in indus­try, have wel­comed the change, say­ing gas extrac­tion will help finance the tran­si­tion to renewables.But envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates on the con­ti­nent are push­ing back, say­ing that a new era of fos­sil fuel extrac­tion will cre­ate more mis­ery and harm the cli­mate. It was a vic­to­ry for African cli­mate cam­paign­ers and their allies in Europe and the Unit­ed States: a group of pow­er­ful coun­tries and insti­tu­tions includ­ing the U.S., Cana­da and the Euro­pean Invest­ment Bank announced at last year’s COP26 cli­mate sum­mit in Glas­gow, Scot­land, that they would end decades of sup­port for oil and gas projects in Africa by the end of 2022. Com­ing on the heels of a World Bank com­mit­ment to start phas­ing out sup­port for fos­sil fuels, it looked like a poten­tial death knell for plans to exploit vast quan­ti­ties of nat­ur­al gas in Sene­gal, Mozam­bique and Nigeria.
And then Rus­sia invad­ed Ukraine.
In the span of less than a year, gas projects in Africa have come back in style, as Euro­pean coun­tries scram­ble to make up for ener­gy short­falls caused by their stand­off with Rus­sia. In late May, for exam­ple, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Olaf Scholz trav­eled to Sene­gal for talks with Pres­i­dent Macky Sall over his inter­est in secur­ing a steady sup­ply of gas from the country’s BP-backed off­shore fields. And on Aug. 16, Reuters report­ed that the EU plans to sig­nif­i­cant­ly ramp up secu­ri­ty assis­tance for Mozambique’s trou­bled Cabo Del­ga­do gas project, which in recent years has been the site of a dead­ly Islamist insur­gency and at one point not long ago was thought to be on life support.
To some African gov­ern­ments, the turn­around is wel­come, rep­re­sent­ing a need­ed course cor­rec­tion away from cli­mate restric­tions that threat­ened to block their plans to use gas reserves for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and boost­ing ener­gy access for the poor. In a speech at Glas­gow last year, Niger­ian Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari crit­i­cized the COP26 announce­ment, and ear­li­er this year in an op-ed for The Econ­o­mist his vice pres­i­dent, Yemi Osin­ba­jo, wrote that Africa “can­not accept regres­sive cli­mate pol­i­cy as anoth­er injustice.”
Nige­ria has the continent’s largest proven nat­ur­al gas reserves, fol­lowed by Alge­ria, Sene­gal, Mozam­bique and Egypt. All are advo­cates for the use of nat­ur­al gas as a “tran­si­tion fuel,” which their lead­ers say will facil­i­tate eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and help smooth the way for invest­ment into renew­ables like solar, wind and hydropower.
The needs are clear: access to ener­gy in Africa is far low­er than in oth­er regions. More than 600 mil­lion of the continent’s 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple live with­out elec­tric­i­ty, and despite hav­ing only one-tenth the over­all pop­u­la­tion, in 2019 Japan alone con­sumed more pow­er than all African coun­tries com­bined did.
But as their pres­i­dents ink deals behind closed doors, civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions on the con­ti­nent are push­ing back, most recent­ly at the African Union, where an “African Com­mon Posi­tion on Ener­gy Access and Tran­si­tion” call­ing for nat­ur­al gas to be part of Africa’s ener­gy strat­e­gy was adopt­ed by the AU’s Exec­u­tive Coun­cil. In an open let­ter, a coali­tion of advo­ca­cy groups said the posi­tion was “dan­ger­ous and short-sighted.”
“It makes zero sense to pur­sue new oil and gas extrac­tion, which will make the cli­mate cri­sis worse and make achiev­ing cli­mate goals impos­si­ble,” said Thandile Chinya­van­hu, a cli­mate and ener­gy cam­paign­er with Green­peace Africa. “The future is renew­able, and African coun­tries have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lead the world into a new future pow­ered by renew­able ener­gy, leav­ing dirty fos­sil fuels in the past and in the ground.”
A ren­di­tion of plans for onshore LNG infra­struc­ture in Cabo Del­ga­do, Mozam­bique, planned for con­struc­tion by France’s TotalEnergies.
A detailed memo accom­pa­ny­ing the let­ter crit­i­cized efforts to expand gas pro­duc­tion, say­ing that addi­tion­al fos­sil fuel extrac­tion risked wors­en­ing the impacts of cli­mate change in Africa and that prof­its were like­ly to again be cap­tured pri­mar­i­ly by for­eign investors. The memo cit­ed the continent’s decades-long track record of fail­ing to devel­op through oil and gas extrac­tion, describ­ing it as “enabling small pow­er­ful elites to extract rents and main­tain eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal con­trol, while their pop­u­la­tions lack access to ener­gy, food and oth­er essen­tial ser­vices and remain impoverished.”
“We’ve seen this in Nige­ria and African coun­tries with fos­sil fuel projects,” said Lor­raine Chipon­da, coor­di­na­tor of the Africa Coal Net­work, one of the letter’s sig­na­to­ries. “You can see the pover­ty that even the com­mu­ni­ties that live in the same areas are suf­fer­ing from, so it still doesn’t make eco­nom­ic sense.”
The letter’s authors crit­i­cized the idea that gas could be a bridge to a renew­able ener­gy grid. It was more like­ly, they wrote, that infra­struc­ture like pipelines and gas-fired pow­er plants would suck finance and atten­tion away from green energy.
Some sup­port­ers of gas projects in Africa acknowl­edge the poor track record of nat­ur­al resource extrac­tion on the con­ti­nent. In Mozam­bique, for exam­ple, the dis­cov­ery of large off­shore gas reserves was fol­lowed almost imme­di­ate­ly by a mas­sive cor­rup­tion scan­dal that impli­cat­ed senior offi­cials as well as Euro­pean bankers.
But ana­lysts like Imad Ahmed, an ener­gy and cli­mate advis­er at the Tony Blair Insti­tute for Glob­al Change, say that, with the right approach, those pri­or scan­dals could inform stronger poli­cies that ensure for­eign investors pay their fair share and avoid dam­ag­ing the environment.
“By remain­ing financiers of gas devel­op­ment, OECD nations can ensure that these good gov­er­nance struc­tures are embed­ded into con­trac­tu­al oblig­a­tions,” Ahmed told Mongabay.
Sup­port­ers of gas extrac­tion point out that African coun­tries are among the low­est per-capi­ta car­bon emit­ters on the plan­et, and that expect­ing them to for­go the use of their nat­ur­al resources to clean up a mess made large­ly by for­mer colo­nial pow­ers is inher­ent­ly hypocritical.
“The pros­per­i­ty we expe­ri­ence in Europe is on the back of his­toric emis­sions. You can’t pre­tend that it isn’t,” Ahmed said.
Envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates agree, but they say that the appro­pri­ate resti­tu­tion would be for wealth­i­er coun­tries to pro­vide the sup­port and finance for the tran­si­tion to renew­ables — as they have promised to do in the past — rather than dou­bling down on their his­to­ry of exploit­ing the continent’s resources for their own gain.
“Even before the cli­mate cri­sis, many com­mu­ni­ties and civ­il soci­ety groups in Africa and around the world were fight­ing fos­sil fuel explo­ration due to its impacts on people’s liveli­hoods and the increased pover­ty, human rights vio­la­tions, land grab­bing, and cor­rup­tion it brings,” said Anabela Lemos, founder of Mozambique’s Justiça Ambiental.
Last year, Shell agreed to pay more than $100 mil­lion in dam­ages for spilling vast quan­ti­ties of oil in the Niger Delta dur­ing the 1970s.
Whether or not wealthy coun­tries owe African coun­tries com­pen­sa­tion for cli­mate change is like­ly to be a con­tentious issue at November’s COP27 cli­mate sum­mit, which will be held in Egypt. The G7 group of rich­est coun­tries man­aged to keep the issue of “loss and dam­age” off their agen­da at ini­tial talks in Ger­many held in June, but most observers expect it to take cen­ter stage at COP27.
For many influ­en­tial heads of state and busi­ness lead­ers in Africa, the reluc­tance of rich coun­tries to pro­vide ade­quate cli­mate fund­ing to their less well-off coun­ter­parts is itself an argu­ment in favor of exploit­ing the continent’s gas reserves.
“Deny­ing Africa’s right to devel­op and use its own gas is moral­ly unac­cept­able,” said the Sudanese-British bil­lion­aire Mo Ibrahim ear­li­er this year.
Despite their rel­a­tive lack of resources and pow­er, though, African envi­ron­men­tal­ists aren’t going down with­out a fight. In the wake of the con­tro­ver­sy over the AU’s pro­posed pro-gas stance, the lead nego­tia­tors set to rep­re­sent the con­ti­nent at COP27 said they would not adopt it as their offi­cial posi­tion. It was a vic­to­ry for the anti-gas coali­tion, but advo­cates say if Europe stays on its cur­rent course, it could ush­er in a new era of fos­sil fuel extrac­tion in Africa — and make a green tran­si­tion that much harder.
“For now the deci­sion has been reject­ed, but it doesn’t mean that indi­vid­ual gov­ern­ments in Africa aren’t sign­ing deals with gov­ern­ments in Europe,” Chipon­da said. “So we have to con­tin­ue push­ing back on that.”
Ban­ner image: Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Olaf Scholz vis­its with South African Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa in May 2022. Pho­to by Stef­fen Kugler for Die Bundesregierung.