Why Africa should prioritise green growth

Russell Bishop
Russell Bishop
18 November 2016

Governments across Africa face a number of development challenges. Each year sees millions of new entrants into the labour force: will there be enough jobs to support them? The urban population is increasing at unprecedented rates: can the infrastructure needed be built fast enough?

The Sustainable Development Goals agreed last year provide a common platform for addressing these challenges. The question is how African economies can grow, provide jobs and develop infrastructure in a way that’s sustainable.

Can Africa promote growth, reduce poverty and tackle climate risk at the same time?

Economic development historically has resulted in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions – as well as other environmental impacts.

But the New Climate Economy’s research has found that – globally – economic growth and addressing climate change can go hand in hand, if investment is well directed and supported by the right policies, suggesting an alternative path in the future.

In countries where public funds are constrained, however, green investment might not be the most pro-poor way of spending limited resources. Should ‘green growth be made a priority when there is a pressing need for poverty reduction?

The evidence suggests that in many African countries, there needn’t be a trade-off between economic transformation, poverty reduction and action on climate change.

For example, the rapid sprawl of many African cities hinders economic growth, as it increases infrastructure costs and results in toxic air pollution. The population density in 12 African cities we studied is only half that of Southeast Asian cities. Better urbanisation – more compact, connected and coordinated cities – will provide benefits to residents and protect the environment.

These benefits have been recognised by African policymakers. Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy sets out its commitment to become a lower middle income country by 2025 with no net increase in emissions, while tackling climate risk.

There will also be trade-offs

All this is not to say that difficult choices won’t have to be made.

For example, a large increase in energy supply is needed to meet the growing demands of households, industry, transport, and power generation. In sub-Saharan Africa some 620 million people lack access to electricity altogether, and nearly 730 million rely on burning biomass, like wood, for cooking. Fossil fuels will inevitably be part of the story of increasing energy access.

The challenge is how governments can meet this new demand for energy while managing its impacts. Reforming energy subsidies and energy taxes present part of the solution: fossil fuels subsidies are around 5% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, representing a significant misallocation of resources.

Meanwhile, the cost of renewable energy is rapidly diminishing, making it an economically viable alternative – especially given the continent’s abundant solar and wind power potential.

Africa advancing

In coming decades Africa will transform its energy systems, land use, industry and cities. Seven countries in Africa are predicted to be in the world’s top ten fastest growing: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Senegal, Malawi and Zambia.

Harnessing technological advances and effectively directing investment will determine the ability to achieve economic, social and environmental objectives simultaneously. This is at the heart of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, which envisions ‘a prosperous Africa based on inclusive and sustainable development’.

This will need to be a different model than the past, and experimentation and learning along the way will be required. However, there are many reasons to be positive that it is possible.

Russell Bishop