Ethical Net Zero Investment in Africa Means Engaging with Local Populations

Accounting for 3.8% of global carbon emissions, Africa is likely to be impacted disproportionately by climate change. Adaptation & mitigation are costly, risking hindering wider sustainable development. Thus breaking this Gordian knot will require work with communities and understanding their needs
June 9, 2022
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Africa’s net zero conundrum

When discussing Africa, it’s important to make clear from the outset that it is far from a homogenous continent. Culture, art, language, religious ideals, physical geography, and natural resources; Africa is blessed with a vast and diverse array on all fronts; any comment on net zero in the region must account for this. Amina J. Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General, poignantly summed up the issues facing the continent in a TED countdown to COP26.[i]

Source: UN

With this harrowing picture painted so clearly, it is difficult to hear that despite accounting for 16.7% of the global population, Africa accounts for only 3.8% of global emissions.[ii] Whilst emissions across Africa are generally low; there is empirical evidence that increasing CO2 emissions from African nations have a positive effect on the development of African economies (based on studies of Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Egypt).[iii] This must be considered especially bearing in mind how many African nations rank on the Human Development Index compared to the rest of the world.[iv]

                                                                                   HDI across the world

Source: World Population Review

This raises the Africa’s net zero conundrum: can net zero be achieved without negatively affecting development?

Solving the puzzle

Ensuring continuing support for the growth of African economies whilst managing to avoid rises in CO2 is a difficult prospect, especially considering projections that African climate crisis adaptation could reach an annual $50 billion by 2050 and that transitions to net zero could result in the loss of more than 1 million African jobs.[v] In 2010, as a result of COP16, commitments were made by more economically developed nations to fund climate commitments in Africa. Still, in 2019 these fell short by $20 billion (worldwide, not just in Africa), and the government of Kenya has said that delivering on Paris Agreement pledges will cost them ten times the current $8 billion over ten years commitment that the US has made.[vi] The UN reports that in sub-Saharan Africa, a 45.6% increase in food insecurity is related to the climate crisis as well as an economic cost that could be as high as a 12.12% drop in GDP across Africa. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic (which has further reduced global foreign investment), monetary investment into Africa from more developed economies fell by 10% to $45 billion; this is a 2.9% of worldwide foreign monetary investment.[vii],[viii] With direct investment in infrastructure, China lead the world in developing hydroelectric dams in Africa. Investment into green energy projects is a valuable path to take to address net zero without jeopardising development, but current execution leaves much to be desired.[ix] For example, the Bui Dam forced indigenous people from their cultural and historic homes into more nomadic lifestyles, often forcing them to live near palm oil plantations or near logging activities which undermine their subsistence farming practices.[x]

What each of these strategies, which set out to address approaches to net zero in Africa, have in common is a lack of interaction with African populations, who, as the affected population, must be considered the most vital stakeholder for the design and implementation of net zero approaches.

                                                                    The Bui Dam

Source: Bui Power

With this in mind, current projects led by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) across Africa work with 150 million people across 48 African cities.[xi] The CDP defined the most common actions undertaken in these projects, with community engagement being among the top 5 most common.

Source: CDP

The projects also put an emphasis on reporting of climate data across the cities involved. Collecting data from primary community sources, the Local Trust concluded in their report on “community-led action on data poverty” that listening to voices of lived experience and work towards coproduction.[xii] This approach is key across Africa to address issues of data poverty and disaggregation in order to move towards a more uniform approach that hears the need of the affected populations as well as providing the foundation for the adoption of science-based targets, which will empirically support future approaches.[xiii] Investment from more developed economies will still be vital, but it is prudent to consider how this is undertaken; African Rainbow Energy & Power (AREP) is just one example of an African-led sustainable investment platform.[xiv] Brian Dames, the CEO of AREP, described the organisation as being “uniquely positioned” to access investment opportunities in Africa as a result of being African-led and that in this style of investment in the green economy in Africa, youth empowerment, empowerment of women and engagement with rural and urban populations.[xv]


[i] UN-A New Perspective on the Journey to Net-zero: UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed at the TED Countdown to COP26.

[ii] CDP- Africa Report

[iii] The nexus between renewable energy, CO2 emissions, and economic growth: Empirical evidence from African oil-producing countries

[iv] World Population Review- Human Development Index

[v] McKinsey- Green Africa: A growth and resilience agenda for the continent

[vi] UNFCC-Africa Green Finance Coalition: Seizing the opportunity that green investment provides

[vii] Climate change is an increasing threat to Africa

[viii]  Investment flows in Africa set to drop 25% to 40% in 2020

[ix] Centre for Development, Environment and Policy-China Goes Global: A comparative study of Chinese hydropower dams in Africa and Asia

[x] Ibid

[xi] CDP Africa Report Benchmarking progress towards climate safe cities, states, and regions

[xii] Local Trust- Making connections: Community-led action on data poverty

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] African Rainbow Energy and Absa launch investment platform

[xv] Ibid

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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