April 22, or Earth Day, is set to be a significant day for African development. Today President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will sign and ratify the Paris climate agreement and take respective domestic measures to implement it as early as possible this year. This represents a strong commitment from the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies to fighting climate change. It will also give real momentum to the Agreement’s goals of limiting global temperature well below 2C and peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.
While this act is certainly encouraging, we must not lose sight of the immense challenges ahead on the African continent. Although it contributes the least as a region to greenhouse gas emissions, African countries suffer the most from the impact of climate change. What’s more, as the IPCC points out, the continent is especially vulnerable due to multiple stressors including weak adaptive capacity and widespread poverty. Consequently, decisive action is needed to tackle climate change. As the leading source of job creation and an engine of growth, I believe that private sector companies are well positioned to help African countries cut greenhouse gas emissions and drive low-carbon and climate-resilient development.
Africa has incredible renewable energy resources, as it can source an additional 10 terawatts of solar energy, 1,300 gigawatts of wind power, and 15GW of geothermal potential. Private companies have the financial resources and clout to significantly scale up investment in renewable energy and help unlock Africa’s potential in this domain. Last year, Google announced that it is investing in the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Northern Africa, the continent’s largest wind project. Once complete, Lake Turkana will bring 310 megawatts of clean energy onto Kenya’s grid- enough to power more than two million households across the country. The project will also reduce Kenya’s reliance on fossil fuels and help stabilise the country’s energy supply. I want to emphasise that these investments are not gifts. Rather, they are beneficial to all stakeholders: companies are helping to strengthen the infrastructure that they need to operate on the continent. At the same time, African governments get the help they need to deploy sustainable technologies and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Research from the World Bank emphasises that African agricultural and livestock systems are extremely susceptible to climate change. Soaring temperatures, droughts and changes in water availability, for example, reduce yields and increase the number of animal deaths. Agribusiness companies can help strengthen the climate resilience of agricultural land and farming communities by adopting agroecological approaches. These are defined as ‘farming that centres on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources’. As the World Business Council on Sustainable Development emphasises, this is not charity. Rather businesses will benefit from building adaptive capacity among the smallholders who make up 80% of the continent’s farmers, and supply many of their inputs of agricultural products such as cocoa and cotton. Furthermore, these efforts to pursue climate-smart agriculture can help bolster a significant economic sector for many African countries and contribute to major continental priorities such as poverty eradication and job creation.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, businesses can help African countries combat climate change by reducing their own carbon footprint. For example, South Africa’s George Airport, which welcomes over 600,000 passengers annually, recently launched a clean energy project which, during its first phase, will contribute around 40% of the airport’s electricity needs. The airport will produce its electricity by harnessing energy from the sun through photo-voltaic panels, which cost almost a million dollars to install. As Dana Sanchez of AFK Insider reports, the balance of energy will be drawn from the national grid with supply capacity steadily increased according to demand. Once the project is completed, the plant will deliver 750 kilowatts of power to the airport. In doing so, the airport will cut operating costs, reduce its dependence on the country’s overstretched grid, as well as deploying a non-polluting and sustainable energy source. In parallel, I would encourage institutional investors to review their portfolios and reduce carbon-intensive assets. This can greatly assist countries to achieve their intended nationally determined contributions under the Paris climate agreement.
Ultimately, combatting climate change on the continent is both a business and developmental imperative. I call on private sector companies operating across the continent to join forces with African governments and the broader civil society to help address this challenge.
Dr Álvaro Sobrinho is a prominent businessman and philanthropist, and chairman of the Planet Earth Institute, an NGO working for the ‘scientific independence of Africa’. Find more information on Dr Sobrinho’s website (www.alvaro-sobrinho.com) and the Planet Earth Institute’s website (www.planetearthinstitute.org.uk) and follow him on Twitter.