Large solar panel atop a ridge.
Salmonsdam Reserve Salmonsdam Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa. © Shutterstock


A Better Path for Energy Development: What Africa Can Teach the World

By Lynn Scarlett, Former Chief External Affairs Officer

Africa is home to the world’s largest intact ecosystems, supporting nearly a quarter of global biodiversity and iconic species like elephants and lions. But it’s also home to incredible human diversity, with a population of 1.2 billion speaking nearly 2,000 different languages, booming cities, and the world’s fastest growing middle class.

The challenge for the future will be how to advance economic growth and human development with the conservation of those unique ecosystems. Though African countries have averaged annual GDP growth of almost 9 percent in recent years, 47 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa still live in poverty. Roughly 60 percent of people lack electricity, and, in many countries, as much as 75% of the population doesn’t have access to safe water. With the continent’s population estimated to double by the middle of this century, demands for food and water will only get higher, and energy production will have to expand rapidly to sustain this level of economic growth and lift more people out of poverty.

We’re at an important juncture today—African leaders must create strategies that propel economic growth while conserving natural capital and biodiversity. Energy development offers a remarkable case. Less than 60 percent of the infrastructure required to meet the continent’s energy needs currently exists; billions of dollars of capital will have to be raised and mobilized across several dozen countries, each with its own goals and priorities. This need presents an enormous challenge—and an opportunity.

There are ways to combine the needs of people and nature, including in areas like sub-Saharan Africa that will see significant development. A significant portion of Africa’s growing energy needs can be met via low-carbon, renewable energy development. In fact, these African nations have the chance today, before energy development plans are complete, to ensure new energy infrastructure is largely renewable, planned at the system scale, and implemented in a way that serves communities while still protecting wildlife. Africa can show the rest of the world how to get energy development right.

Consider hydropower development on the continent. Hydropower represents the largest current source of low-carbon power in the world, and African nations have tapped less than 95 percent of their hydropower potential. But hydropower can also have significant impacts on freshwater ecosystems, disrupting some of the services they provide to communities and reducing freshwater fish populations, a key source of food for hundreds of millions of people.

The question is: How can we balance the need for low-carbon power with the preservation of intact rivers that people and nature both rely on? Planning and managing hydropower projects at the system scale—in the context of the entire river basin—can reduce these negative impacts and ensure that hydropower dams achieve their full potential contribution to a country’s strategic objectives for energy and water. System-scale planning can improve the efficiency of other water services besides power production and reduces the risks of negative environmental and social impacts—thus avoiding subsequent delays, cost overruns or even project cancellations. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is currently working with the governments of Gabon and Guinea to implement this approach, known as Hydropower by Design.


How can we balance the need for low-carbon power with the preservation of intact rivers people and nature both rely on?

The same principles apply to wind and solar development. Africa has more than 1,000 gigawatts of untapped solar potential that could provide clean energy to millions of households—particularly exciting for rural areas that may currently lack access to power grids but could be powered by local solar panel installations. Wind power, too, can also contribute to power access, especially in coastal areas. For example, Cape Verde—an island nation off the coast of Senegal—has declared its intention to run on 100 percent renewable power, largely wind, a move that will reduce the nation’s carbon footprint and lower the cost of power for residents.

Like hydropower, wind and solar bring their own development challenges even as they help reduce global emissions. These renewables require a significant land footprint. Still, with careful planning new developments can meet growing energy needs while taking into account local social and environmental impacts. New installations can be built on land that has already been developed, for example, or sited in places that won’t cut off wildlife migration pathways. TNC is working with two international lending institutions that incorporate this siting guidance in their lending criteria for new projects.

Modern Nairobi cityscape—capital city of Kenya, East Africa
Modern Nairobi Modern Nairobi cityscape—capital city of Kenya, East Africa © PhotoSky/Shutterstock

Can African countries advance energy development while avoiding the adverse impacts made as so many nations pursued energy development? There are signs of hope in the strong leadership coming out of the continent’s climate action in other sectors. Gabon, for example, is improving its forestry sector through use of reduced-impact logging practices that can reduce carbon emissions from forestry by as much as 50 percent. These changes, which are also taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, can reduce emissions while preserving working forests that are key to economic development.

Indigenous communities in Kenya and Tanzania are also innovating in their approaches to climate adaptation that meet community development and conservation needs. Worsening cycles of drought, exacerbated by climate change, pose a threat to both wildlife and pastoralist communities. The Nature Conservancy is working with local communities to manage grasslands to maintain wildlife habitat and sequester carbon while also enabling sustainable livestock grazing in the context of a changing climate.

These and other projects lay the ground work for a more sustainable future, but they must be scaled and replicated. Already the hottest continent, Africa is projected to warm up to 1.5 times faster than the global average rate. Anticipated increases in severe droughts, floods, and storms will threaten the health of people and their economies—especially for populations living close to nature and in areas already struggling with food and water security.

What this means is that many African nations are feeling the impacts of climate change now—but they won’t be alone if we fail to change the course of energy and infrastructure around the world. It behooves world leaders everywhere to pay attention to and support African countries’ efforts to build out a smart, climate-friendly energy infrastructure.