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Europe to Africa: Gas for Me but Not for Thee

Europe is ramping up its use of the dirtiest fuels—but keeps pressing Africa to stick to draconian green goals.

By , a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and , the executive director of the Energy for Growth Hub.
Motorcycles queue for fuel at a gas station during a fuel shortage in Nairobi, Kenya on April 4.
Motorcycles queue for fuel at a gas station during a fuel shortage in Nairobi, Kenya on April 4.
Motorcycles queue for fuel at a gas station during a fuel shortage in Nairobi, Kenya on April 4. SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images

Few should be surprised that, facing energy shortages and rising costs for fuel and electricity, rich countries are turning back to more and dirtier fossil fuels. To compensate for the slowdown in Russian gas deliveries—and to replace clean energy lost due to its shutdown of nuclear power—Germany is firing up coal plants previously scheduled for closure. Countries such as Norway, Britain, and the United States are all ramping up oil and gas production. Some European countries are even burning fuel oil again to generate electricity. The resurgence of carbon-intensive energy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and the resulting rise in emissions—shows that when economic growth and energy security are under threat, growth and security will beat out climate policies every time, what the political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. dubbed the iron law. So the current crisis means energy security is again taking precedence, and climate commitments will have to wait.

While this change makes sense in Berlin or Oslo, it looks very different when viewed from Dakar or Abuja.

That’s because one facet of Europe’s about-face on energy has been to diversify its gas supply with an aggressive push to secure long-term contracts in Africa. German officials have pressed Senegal for gas supplies, while Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, and others have reportedly been shopping for gas in Nigeria. Stalled European investments in offshore gas in Mozambique—and perhaps Tanzania—are suddenly back in play. The European Union also just formally declared that natural gas now qualifies for green investments.

Few should be surprised that, facing energy shortages and rising costs for fuel and electricity, rich countries are turning back to more and dirtier fossil fuels. To compensate for the slowdown in Russian gas deliveries—and to replace clean energy lost due to its shutdown of nuclear power—Germany is firing up coal plants previously scheduled for closure. Countries such as Norway, Britain, and the United States are all ramping up oil and gas production. Some European countries are even burning fuel oil again to generate electricity. The resurgence of carbon-intensive energy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and the resulting rise in emissions—shows that when economic growth and energy security are under threat, growth and security will beat out climate policies every time, what the political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. dubbed the iron law. So the current crisis means energy security is again taking precedence, and climate commitments will have to wait.

While this change makes sense in Berlin or Oslo, it looks very different when viewed from Dakar or Abuja.

That’s because one facet of Europe’s about-face on energy has been to diversify its gas supply with an aggressive push to secure long-term contracts in Africa. German officials have pressed Senegal for gas supplies, while Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, and others have reportedly been shopping for gas in Nigeria. Stalled European investments in offshore gas in Mozambique—and perhaps Tanzania—are suddenly back in play. The European Union also just formally declared that natural gas now qualifies for green investments.

Yet this flurry of interest in gas comes after many years of rich-country governments pressing African nations to abandon fossil fuels and use only solar or wind power. Developed countries are also not supporting large hydroelectric projects or nuclear plants for various reasons. At the COP26 climate summit last November, rich countries pledged to halt overseas development finance for gas projects, which could curtail investment in downstream energy infrastructure as well, including electricity generation and fertilizer production. Some Western governments are also pressuring the World Bank and other development institutions to stop financing all fossil fuel projects, with Norway, Sweden, and others proposing a total ban by the end of 2024.

In other words, rich nations have decided that the current energy emergency lets them burn whichever fuel they like, whereas poor countries aren’t allowed that choice at all. In African capitals, this looks like obvious hypocrisy—or worse. The leaders of Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, and Senegal have all lashed out at Europe’s stance. African social media is filled with rage over what many perceive as a neocolonialist conspiracy to keep Africans poor.

It’s far easier for Europeans to punch down on poor people overseas than to take on their own farmers blocking highways to protest energy prices.

Gas for me but not for thee, as rich countries would have it, is more than just bad optics. It’s bad policy: Putting the West’s energy security first while trying to force Africans to prioritize limiting emissions is counterproductive in reaching economic, geostrategic, and even climate goals.

Let’s say it upfront: The current fight over gas use in Africa is entirely unnecessary. The continent’s future is in low-cost renewables plus some modest use of gas for backup power, cooking, and a few industries such as fertilizer production. Electricity generation in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda already uses more than 80 percent renewable energy, compared with just 20 percent in the United States. Even in economies with significant gas resources, renewables will be dominant. Nigeria’s homegrown 2060 energy plan, for example, targets 200 gigawatts of solar capacity balanced with 10 gigawatts of new gas capacity. In fact, there is no plausible future scenario in which African gas use is even remotely meaningful to global emissions. Even if sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa) tripled electricity consumption overnight using only gas—something that’s not remotely possible—the additional emissions would equal only 0.62 percent of global emissions. Africa is already embracing renewables, and the scale of its future gas use will be irrelevant globally.

While there’s little to gain from the West squeezing Africa on gas finance, rich-country policies come with huge downsides.

First, a ban on gas financing will hurt economic development and, ironically, slow the energy transition. In Europe and the United States, the energy transition is about replacing high-carbon sources such as coal, oil, and gas with low-carbon alternatives. But in energy-poor countries, the energy transition is about expanding supply to meet growing energy demand. In countries without major untapped hydro- or geothermal potential, which includes most of West Africa, gas is needed as a backup to wind- and sunlight-dependent renewables. Across the continent, the transition from wood and charcoal to cleaner cooking fuels will likely require gas. And while the potential of hydrogen and other new green fuels is exciting, industries such as fertilizer production will need gas for the foreseeable future. Blocking these development paths in Africa for the sake of climate policy is all pain and no gain.

Second, restrictions also undercut Western geostrategic aims in Africa. For the last two decades, as China’s share of financing and constructing African infrastructure grew, the West struggled to respond. Energy, especially investments tied to job creation or building industrial capacity, is a tremendous opportunity. The dominant oil and gas companies operating in Africa are primarily U.S., French, British, Norwegian, and Italian—and the EU is still Africa’s largest trading partner. Yet these same countries have led the charge in limiting investments in oil, gas, and all its related industries—a substantial and strategic part of the economy. From Africa’s perspective, this looks as if the West prefers an Africa that remains an exporter of low-value raw materials instead of developing its own industries. Right now, many Africans view China as the only partner serious about helping the continent build a high-value future.

Third, the Western approach smacks of a patronizing green colonialism that treats African governments as mere objects of Western policy, not agents working to advance their countries’ future. The policy starts with a ban and then offers, like a benevolent patron, exemptions if certain conditions are met. The World Bank, for example, will deign to consider downstream gas projects—but only in certain countries and only after these countries go through additional bureaucratic hoops by proving that no credible alternative exists. In practice, this discretion creates confusion and massive disincentives to develop any projects. Beyond these practical obstacles, the overall approach—we have a ban but you can apply for a waiver—not only has development finance backwards but is also entirely unnecessary. The World Bank already has many safeguards in place to assess the governance, financial, and environmental risks of all projects—safeguards that some even consider overly onerous. The existing process should be more than capable of screening for issues such as potential environmental damage and weigh them against the project’s development benefits. No special extra screening for gas projects that only affects poor countries is warranted. A more balanced approach between financiers and host governments is far better than rich nations categorically saying “no” to poor ones—and then handing down the occasional waiver.

Africans looking closely at Western policies can find only one real explanation: political theater.

This unhealthy power dynamic points to the likely biggest cost of all from the West’s energy hypocrisy on fossil fuels: the undermining of global cooperation. Tackling the biggest global challenges requires collective action. European and U.S. politicians ramping up their own countries’ oil and gas investments while lecturing others to avoid doing the same destroys any sense of common purpose or fairness. Softening the financing rules with a few waivers may seem like a compromise, but it is no substitute for the close partnerships the world needs to accelerate the energy transition.

If rich countries’ energy-related development policies are so obviously wrongheaded, hypocritical, and counterproductive, why do so many in the West insist on them? Some climate activists genuinely, if mistakenly, fear that Africa will blow the global carbon budget. Others point to negative past experiences with oil revenues in promoting development—including the risk of corruption related to resource extraction—yet this fundamentally misunderstands today’s debate. The upstream oil and gas sector is financed by private investors (mostly U.S. and European) with a focus on exporting these resources, while development finance is needed for downstream infrastructure that would enable local uses and raise more Africans out of poverty. Indeed, anyone invoking the troubled history of resource extraction in poor countries should be fighting the Western finance ban: Those wanting Africans to benefit from African gas should be pressing for more investment in downstream uses, including electricity generation and distribution, industrial production, and cooking fuel. Otherwise, even more of Africa’s resources will be exported to richer countries rather than being used at home.

Africans looking closely at Western policies can find only one real explanation: political theater. It’s far easier to punch down on poor people overseas than to take on your own farmers blocking highways to protest energy prices. And if aggressive climate action at home cannot get done because it’s too politically costly, some other bone has to be thrown to the climate activist community at international summits. It’s no coincidence that the most prominent and widely celebrated announcement at COP26 was an end to the financing of fossil fuels overseas—and not in the rich countries themselves.

So the debate over gas financing in Africa is an avoidable sideshow with big costs and only very narrow political benefits. Fortunately, the next big climate summit will be in Egypt, which finally puts Africa in the spotlight. COP27 will be an ideal opportunity to reset global cooperation on climate policy and support for Africa’s energy transition. A constructive path forward would focus on what needs to be built, not what needs to be blocked. In the energy sector, this could focus on new investments in enabling infrastructure for a clean energy future, such as electricity transmission and distribution systems, storage, grid management, and the latest gas technologies. Financing for both grid and off-grid energy should be mobilized and complemented with a renewed focus on the health of struggling utilities. Perhaps most of all, COP27 is the time to abandon counterproductive financing bans and instead move to a more cooperative approach that treats every country equally by considering its own available resources, needs, and goals.

Africans are understandably angered by the West’s 180-degree turn on fossil fuels for itself while sticking to restrictions on poor countries. The sensible response is not a slight adjustment of hypocritical policies but a new, respectful partnership to tackle the world’s challenges.

W. Gyude Moore is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and former Liberian minister of public works. Twitter: @gyude_moore

Todd Moss is the executive director of the Energy for Growth Hub, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. Twitter: @toddjmoss

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