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Okereke: Reaction to gas scarcity highlights Europe’s duplicity, need for just global transition

With the gas scarcity hitting Europe and prompting fears of a cold winter and business closure, many European governments have rapidly rolled out measures to protect their citizens and businesses from soaring prices.

Professor Chukwumerije Okereke
Professor Chukwumerije Okereke

So far, the European Union has pledged to set out recommendations for member states including compensation for vulnerable households, tax cuts and state aid for companies. The French government has offered to protect drivers with a temporary freeze on gas prices and a tax cut on electricity bills.  In the UK, ministers have already been forced to step in to fund a fertiliser plant that had been shut down due to soaring natural gas prices and many other options including potential state-backed loans for energy companies are being considered. 

The situation has also prompted some constituencies that have long supported strong climate action including the early retrenchment of gas plants to question their governments’ commitment to rapid decarbonization and call for a slower approach. Other voices are calling on government to come clean on the cost of decarbonisation and the potential implications of current climate policies on long terms energy prices and the future prosperity of their countries.

The climate and development nexus…

The panic people feel about not having enough petrol to drive their cars to work or enough gas to hit their homes in Europe is perfectly understandable as are the steps by governments to reassure and protect their citizens and businesses. These reactions are wholly rational.  Indeed, the prompt intervention by European governments is a perfect example of responsible and responsive leadership characteristics of many liberal democracies in the West. 

But at the same time, these reactions also underscore other important and sometimes inconvenient truths about the need to fight climate change and poverty together and the importance of putting equity and justice in center of the global green transition project which citizens and governments of rich countries so often fail to appreciate.

Worse still, these reactions also reveal a degree of duplicity and hypocrisy in the approach of rich countries towards the fight against climate change where standards adopted at home are often different from those promoted abroad especially with regards to fossil fuel subsidy and the possible role of gas as a transition fuel in poor countries.

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Net zero carbon targets must go together with net zero global poverty…

The fact made abundantly evident by the reaction of much of the societies in Europe is   that when people are facing the threat of hunger, loss of shelter, cold and dark winter or the absence of decent livelihood, there is a tendency to push concern for climate action or the source of fuel that is heating households to the back of the queue.

This is a fact that many developing countries have been making in climate diplomacy circles, but which so often seems lost on, or at least underappreciated by governments, scholars, the media and climate advocates in rich countries whose dominant tendency and preference is to divorce discussion about emission reduction from the need to fight global poverty and hunger and inequality.

It is instructive that while the net zero by 2050 has taken hold in industrialized countries with several national governments, cities, and businesses making ambitious pledges, little or no space has been found for  the idea of net zero global poverty and net zero global hunger in the public discourse in rich countries. Yet, when one looks, one sees that the same IPCC Report which assessed that global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions will need to decline rapidly and reach net zero around 2050 for the world to stay on the path of 1.5 degrees also suggested that a focus on equity and justice would be required to ensure that climate action is combined with efforts to achieve global sustainable development.

The injustice and hypocrisy of defunding gas in Africa…

Resource rich but economically poor African countries have been saying that while they are willing to play their part in the global fight against climate change, there is need for greater appreciation of their current development status and the potential role that gas could play as a transition fuel in helping them achieve energy security. However, such pleas have been dismissed as a sign of lack of commitment to green transition and several rich countries and international development finance organizations have made clear their intention to end all new funds allocated to gas projects.

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Here is another example of an approach to global green transition that fail to sufficiently differentiate the situation between developed and developing countries and the historical responsibility that rich countries have in shirking the carbon space within which the transition to global net carbon zero economy is expected to take place.   

But the problem is not only about the West dictating the route of development for poor African countries, it is also that recent events highlight a degree of hypocrisy and duplicity on the part of rich countries.  For one need not look far for strong indications that Europe’s reliance on fossil fuel is not waning.  In 2019, gross inland consumption of natural gas in the EU increased by 4.2% compared with 2018 and to a level not seen since 2010. Natural gas dependency in EU reached an all-time high of 89.5% in 2019, up from 83.8% in 2018. In Germany, coal still accounts for about 10.6% or 22.6GW of total power with natural gas accounting for 14% or 30GW.  

Only last month it was announced that Russia and EU have completed a 1,200km subsea pipeline to convey gas worth of up to 110bn cubic meter per annuum to EU while another major gas pipeline that will supply China is ongoing. In the US natural gas share of the total energy supply mix in 2017 stood at 40% with renewable energy contributing only 19.8% of energy generated in the country.  

So, while gas continues to be a key part of Europe, Russia, US, and China’s energy future, African nations who are the main victims of climate change, who contributes only 0.65% of total GHG emissions of the world and whose populations are severely energy poor are being told they must rely on modern renewables imported from Europe and China to power their own industrialisation. And while the rich countries are placing carbon embargo on Africa, they are failing woefully in their promise to provide the much-needed finance and technological support promised under the UN backed international climate agreement which Africa needs to scale up investment in renewable energy.

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Consider the case of Nigeria which has the 6th largest deposits of gas reserve in the world estimated at a minimum of 100 trillion cubic feet but also less than 8GW of installed electricity. Meanwhile 85m or 43% of the Nigerian’s 200 million population is living without access to electricity. Further the population is projected to be 400 million by 2050 and energy consumption is projected to grow by 30% in the following 15 years. It is easy to see the injustice, and incongruity of requesting Nigeria to leave its gas in the ground and embrace massive importation of solar panels from Europe to address its energy needs.

Going Forward…

There is no doubt that climate change is a major concern of the world and developing countries that have contributed the least are suffering the most. This is the more reason why approaches to solve the problem must emphasize justice and equity. The same concern that governments in industrialized countries are showing to ensure that their citizens, especially the vulnerable ones, are not pushed in to poverty by the scarcity and rising prices of gas, is the same concern that needs to be invested to ensure that the impacts of climate change and proposed solutions do not exacerbate global poverty and inequality. Defunding gas without commensurate investment in renewables in Africa is a double jeopardy as its will not only worsen energy insecurity in Africa but also penalise the poor for climate transgressions of rich countries.

By Professor Chukwumerije Okereke

Prof. Okereke is Director of Centre for Climate Change and Development, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, and Coordinating Leader Author of the IPCC

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