Africa Must Exploit its Solar Energy Potential

Published on 16th June 2008

Countries across the globe are pre-occupied with the ‘food crisis’, the rocketing oil price and fears of recession in many places.The way we respond to these challenges will in part define the development path of the coming decades - whether it is one that embraces sustainability or the unsustainable paths of the past.

The instant and quick fix response to the current calamities may be to seek safety in a 20th century model of agriculture and simply ratchet it up;  put political pressure on oil producers to markedly increase production; put pressure on oil producers to invest heavily in finding new oil and gas fields or in squeezing the last drop from existing ones and to  stimulate economies in the developed and rapidly developing countries by courting increased consumer spending and accelerated consumption.

This would seem to ignore some essential truths and to defy the scientific evidence that has been accumulating over the past 20 years that many of these ‘shocks’ have been in the making for years but are perhaps starting to come home to roost. Many of these current concerns, whether it be oil prices or food crisis are in part, or in whole, linked and intertwined.

Take agriculture for example: According to some estimates, costs of artificial fertilizers have trebled following the hike in oil prices. Meanwhile, emissions from fossil fuels are already changing the climate. The persistent droughts in Australia and the droughts and extreme floods in China are in line with the forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are other sobering scientific realities that, while temporarily off the headlines, have not been faded away and remain to be addressed.

Biodiversity loss continues apace; forests continue to be logged at unsustainable rates and land degradation and water scarcity are intensifying. Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment uses satellite images for each of Africa’s 53 countries. The atlas pulls no punches. From the disappearing glaciers in Uganda’s Ruwenzori Mountains -  which decreased by 50 per cent between 1987 and 2003 -  to the widening corridors of deforestation that have accompanied expanding roads in the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1975. From the northern edge of Cape Town, which has seen much of its native ‘fynbos’ vegetation replaced with farms and suburban development since 1978, to the disappearance of a large portion of Madagascar’s South Malagasy spiny forest between 1973 and 2003 as a result of farming and fuelwood gathering.

The Atlas also tells another story - it also chronicles where deliberate choices have been made by governments and communities to embrace a different development path. Action on overgrazing in the Sidi Toui National Park, southeastern Tunisia has produced a dramatic rebound in the natural ecosystem. The park has seen the reintroduction of the Scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) which is currently on the verge of extinction. A new management plan for the Itezhi-tezhi dam in Zambia has helped to restore the natural seasonal flooding of the Kafue flats, as shown in the 2007 satellite image.

Africa is vulnerable to climate change, but does not have to be a victim of climate change. The defining moment for action and for influencing the future is now. The Bali Road Map - the two year negotiation under the climate change convention - has 18 months to run. A deep and decisive agreement must be achieved by the climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in 2009. An agreement that is inclusive - that involves all nations with common but differentiated responsibilities. An agreement that includes not only deep cuts in greenhouse gases by developed countries, but addresses the needs and opportunities for developing nations. Opportunities for cleaner and renewable energies of which Africa has abundant but untapped potential. Opportunities to include tropical forests - in which Africa is also rich. Opportunities to ‘climate proof’ economies and in doing so contribute to addressing poverty and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Governments meeting in Bonn, Germany last month at the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed to a 2010 deadline on negotiations for an international regime on access and benefit sharing of genetic resources. Africa, a Continent with a treasure trove of nature-based assets stands to benefit substantially from such an agreement - one that would require companies using such assets for devising new pharmaceuticals to foods to share the profits.

If we can navigate the Bali Road Map to a successful conclusion - there is every chance that we can unlock some and indeed more of Africa’s huge potential.    How about a solar powered Africa, and one that becomes a net exporter of electricity from its deserts and drylands? Far fetched?

According to the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation initiative - an international network of scientists and experts founded by the Club of Rome - there is enough solar power hitting one square km of Africa’s deserts to produce the equivalent of 1.5 million barrels or oil or 300,000 tons of coal. The German Aerospace Center estimates that the solar power in just the deserts of North Africa is enough to supply 40 times the present world electricity demand.

We need to look at the challenges and the opportunities differently in a new century. Instead of considering renewables as a supplement to fossil fuels, perhaps the time has come for Africa and the world as a whole to look at fossil fuels as supplements for renewable energy.

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