Africa is taking centre stage when it comes to the future of energy, with significant interest in the continent’s largely untapped oil and gas resources, as well as significant potential for the development of renewable energy operations. As oil and gas companies look to diversify their operations, many are looking to Africa to develop new “low-carbon” projects in largely unexplored areas. Meanwhile, there are increased calls from international organisations and governments to develop Africa’s green energy potential in support of a global green transition. However, as companies begin to invest in the region, there is increasing controversy over some of the new projects emerging, with fears that they could support the ongoing global reliance on fossil fuels rather than advancing a green transition.
In September, the Swiss company Climeworks and Kenya-based Great Carbon Valley announced plans to construct a first-of-its-kind carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant in Kenya. Once completed, the plant is expected to be capable of extracting 1 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. This is just one of many major investments being made in the installation of CCS technologies worldwide, but it is one of the first of its scale and type in Africa.
Bilha Ndirangu, the CEO of Great Carbon Valley, stated “The world is going to need to decarbonise.” Ndirangu questioned, “There will be different investments and innovations in decarbonisation efforts. How do we make sure that some of those investments are happening in Africa?” During a United Nations and the Africa Climate Summit, held in Nairobi in September, discussions centred around how to attract more investment to the African continent. The main concern is striking the balance, convincing investors to fund clean energy projects across Africa while ensuring that funders from the Global North do not prioritise profit over the safety and rights of local populations. As Africa is attracting the interest of investors looking to develop new energy projects in a largely untapped market, where project set-up and operational costs are lower, there is a clear need to develop standards and safeguards, as well as monitor and evaluate the impact of new projects on the countries and local communities involved.
The development of the new CCS facility in Kenya reflects a growing global trend towards decarbonisation. Climeworks offers companies around the world carbon credits that correspond to the units of CO2 captured in their facilities. These credits can be bought by companies looking to offset their carbon emissions, which allows companies to claim that they are carbon-neutral thanks to the removal of the equivalent quantity of carbon they have produced through CCS operations.
The project planned for Kenya will use direct air capture (DAC) technology, the most expensive form of CCS. Many scientists and energy experts worldwide remain sceptical about the efficacy of DAC systems as many are still in the pilot phase of testing. Others criticise the increasing reliance on CCS technologies, believing that companies are misdirecting the public into believing they are decreasing their emissions when, in fact, they are continuing to carry out highly polluting activities. Jonathan Foley, a climate scientist and founder of Project Drawdown, stated “All direct air capture does is help fossil fuel companies pretend they’re taking climate action while they continue to drill for oil.”
In Kenya, the DAC facility is expected to come into operation by 2028. This is viewed by Ndirangu as a development that helps tackle climate change, brings investment into the region, and creates local jobs. This could indeed be a stepping stone to promoting Kenya as a green energy hub, helping to attract greater investment in its renewable energy sector. However, if investment is not closely monitored, it could also lead to the country being exploited and used as a scapegoat for the Global North, once again.
We can expect to see increased interest in CCS technologies across the African region as several oil majors invest in the development of new crude operations in countries such as Ghana and Namibia. As governments and international organisations put increasing pressure on oil and gas companies to clean up their operations and decarbonise, many are now seeing the potential of developing new “low-carbon” oil and gas operations in regions where the resources have not yet been depleted. This is expected to enhance the longevity of their operations. This will likely spur greater investment in CCS technologies in these countries, as a means of decarbonising new projects and appearing greener to consumers.
While the recent surge in interest in the African region could be positive for a continent that is desperately in need of investment, the supposed green transition should not be used in the same way as oil and gas development has been in the past, leading to the exploitation of African resources for the benefit of the Global North. To avoid repeating this situation, fair standards and safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that investment and new developments in Africa encourage both the economic and social development of the country and support a green transition.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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