Extracting more fossil fuels is not the solution to energy poverty in Africa, as it would worsen the “climate crisis” for which Africans are already paying “with their livelihoods and their lives”, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate said.
Some developing nations are considering exploring for oil and gas for the first time to help pay interest on loans they are taking out to recover from climate change-fuelled storms, floods and droughts, she said at the annual Trust Conference on Thursday.
Meanwhile, European leaders are saying they need African governments to develop new fossil fuel infrastructure to replace Russian supplies amid the war in Ukraine, the 25-year-old added.
“And on top of this, big oil and gas companies are pretending that we need new fossil fuel development in Africa to lift people out of energy poverty” – even though most of the supplies will end up being exported to Europe, Nakate said.
About 600 million Africans – 43% of the continent’s population – still have no electric power, she noted.
“I want to be clear about this: big oil and gas companies have been promising to lift people out of energy poverty for decades. It’s a lie,” said Nakate, who began her climate justice activism in 2018 after being inspired by Greta Thunberg.
“The pipelines and power lines from coal and oil and gas plants will never reach those who live at the last mile and these corporations know this.”
If projects such as the controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania go ahead, the profits from the new infrastructure “will line the pockets of people who are already very rich”, she said.
And when it becomes obsolete in a couple of decades, the loans made to build it “will suffocate Africans who are already drowning in existing debt”, Nakate added.
For the softly spoken activist, the only workable, climate-friendly solution to bring electricity and development opportunities to poor, remote communities in Africa is local renewables such as solar home systems and minigrids.
“That is the cheapest, fastest way,” she added.
Some African governments – including Nigeria and Senegal – say they need to use gas as a “bridge” fuel while they build up renewable alternatives such as solar and wind, emphasising their tiny contribution to planet-heating emissions so far.
The issue could prove a sticking point for efforts to seek more funding from wealthy governments at the U.N. COP27 climate summit in Egypt next month for a transition to clean energy.
“If you want to call fossil fuels ‘a bridge for Africa’ then let’s please be accurate: fossil fuels are ‘a bridge to nowhere’,” Nakate said. “We cannot eat coal. We cannot drink oil. And we cannot breathe gas.”
She also criticised Britain – which hosted last year’s COP26 talks in Glasgow and is pressing other countries to step up their climate action – for announcing it would open up 100 new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea, and being “hopelessly off track” for its own climate targets.
Nakate shot to global fame in January 2020 for something she hopes will never happen again: she was cropped out of a news agency photo taken of her and four peers at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
After posting a tearful video on Twitter questioning why she – as the only Black woman in the picture – had been cut out, the business graduate garnered widespread online solidarity.
The Associated Press, which issued the photo featuring the activists including Greta Thunberg, apologised at the time for an “error of judgement” and published the original full image.
“No one deserves to be cropped out or removed from a conversation,” Nakate told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview ahead of the conference.
But the fallout ultimately elevated her activism, she said.
“It helped me reach a much bigger audience from that moment,” she added.
As a goodwill ambassador for the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), Nakate in September visited Turkana County, a hunger-hit region of northern Kenya that is suffering its worst drought in 40 years, decimating crops and livestock and pushing millions to the edge of famine there and across the Horn of Africa.
Children are among the worst affected, deprived of clean water, food and access to health services and education, with families forced to move, she told the Trust Conference.
“The climate crisis is not robbing them of their futures. It is robbing them of their present. It is robbing them of their very survival,” she added.
Nakate recalled a young boy she met in Turkana whose parents could not access the medical care or food he needed.
“By the time the sun set that evening, sadly, he had passed away,” she said.
At COP27, Nakate will highlight the trail of “loss and damage” climate change is wreaking across Africa, and join developing nations and aid groups in demanding a new fund to help vulnerable communities deal with the growing costs they face.
“Loss and damage” has risen up the political agenda as the toll of rising seas and climate change-fuelled disasters – from floods to storms and droughts – soars globally, causing hunger, migration and, in some cases, even vanishing land and culture.
“We are all in the same storm – but we are in different boats,” Nakate told the Trust Conference.
“Poor communities, Global South communities, communities of people who look like me – we are in very small boats,” she said.
“We must put people and justice at the centre of addressing the climate crisis.”