Climate Change Mitigation: Climate-friendly energy


UNESCO, Nairobi, Kenya

Using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels

Renewable energy refers to any form of energy that is natural and is not limited by the planet’s natural resources. Examples include wind, solar, hydro, wave and geothermal power, all of which produce energy without emitting significant quantities of greenhouse gases. These renewable energy supplies are growing in use as a result of greater investment, falling costs, the rising price of fossil fuels, and a mounting body of scientific evidence of the threats that climate change poses. In 2012, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global investment in renewable energy came to US$269 billion. By 2008, renewable energy sources accounted for over one-fifth of electricity generation in non-OECD countries (compared to 17 per cent in OECD countries). The majority of energy from renewable sources comes from hydro-power stations, which use a dam to block the flow of a river and trap large volumes of water, to turn turbines that generate power.

Solar power is also taking off in Africa. In late 2013 its largest solar farm was a 15 megawatt plant in Mauritania but there are plans to build a 155 megawatt development in Ghana, and two 50 megawatt farms in South Africa. Numerous barriers, both technical and financial, limit more widespread adoption of renewable energy in Africa. Among the efforts to overcome these barriers is the United Nations Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, which runs from 2014-2024. Another is US President Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative, which will initially work with Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia to increase access to affordable and sustainable energy supplies.


Ethiopia embraces renewable power

In November 2013, Ethiopia announced contracts for US companies to build three 100 megawatt solar power sites. The projects are expected to create 2,000 jobs and inject millions of dollars into the Ethiopian economy. A month earlier Ethiopia opened the largest wind farm in Africa. At full capacity it will produce 400 million kilowatt hours of energy per year. To date Ethiopia has only accessed two gigawatts of its green energy capacity, which includes an estimated 45 gigawatts of hydroelectricity capacity potential, 10 gigawatts of potential wind capacity, and 5 gigawatts of geothermal potential.


Energy Efficiency
Another way to limit emissions of greenhouse gases is to use energy more efficiently. A McKinsey study found that increasing energy efficiency in developing countries could lower energy demand by up to 25 per cent by 2020 – a reduction the size of China’s entire energy consumption.71 Beyond the environmental benefits, these improvements would make energy cheaper to use.

Energy efficiency can entail: 

• The installation of regional ‘smart grids.’

• Constructing buildings and retrofitting old ones to use less energy.

• Replacing light bulbs or stoves with more efficient ones.

Climate-smart energy in sub-Saharan Africa

Nearly 70 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa lack adequate access to reliable and affordable electricity. As African nations develop, climate change presents an opportunity to fill this energy gap without relying upon the fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases. For this to happen, public and private sector players will need to coordinate their efforts to develop clean-energy supplies. 

Viable options exist to power Africa using mini-grid and off-grid solar, wind, hydro, and biomass technologies. Projects that use solar panels or small-scale hydro power to provide schools and villages with power demonstrate what is possible, but the challenge is in scaling up these solutions to meet demands across the continent.

A lack of infrastructure, funding, and comprehensive vision all threaten to hinder such efforts. Successful efforts to improve energy efficiency can happen on a larger scale (for example, installing new national power grids), or simply involve replacing light bulbs and appliances in homes.

• Between 2004 and 2011, South Africa saved 1,800 megawatts – enough to power the city of Durban — after the energy company Eskom distributed 43.5 million compact fluorescent light bulbs.

• Across Africa, most people rely on traditional fuels such as wood, biomass, or charcoal for cooking. Smoke from these stoves not only threatens public health, but also contributes to climate change as it contains the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. Clean cook-stoves can dramatically reduce fuel consumption, significantly reduce indoor air pollution, and improve livelihoods.

Unfortunately, work to upgrade sub-Saharan’s energy sector will not be cheap: a World Bank study finds that doing so may cost up to US$40 billion per year for a decade. On the other hand, reforming power utilities to run more efficiency could save up to US$3.3 billion per year.


Biofuels: Win-win or risky business?

Biofuels are fuels made from living things or their waste products. They include solid biomass such as wood or charcoal; biogas (methane produced from sewage); and liquids such as bioethanol and biodiesel, derived from crops such as maize, sugarcane, soybeans and jatropha. While biofuels do emit some greenhouse gases when they burn, the plants from which they are created absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. So they appear to offer a means to provide power in a more climate-friendly way than fossil fuels.

Their proponents argue that, especially across the Africa, there is ample opportunity to grow biofuels and traditional food crops with little conflict, thus allowing the continent to simultaneously use unproductive or idle land and profit off a new export commodity. Opponents argue that many biofuels are bad for the climate as the process of growing materials to convert into some biofuels are, ironically, fossil-fuel intensive. Some critics of biofuels claim that they are not in fact compatible with food production. A recent Oxfam report claims that the land now being devoted to biofuel production could have fed up to one billion people. Others warn that investors, keen to profit from the biofuel rush, have leased large areas of land that local communities had lived and worked upon as their own. 

Still, many experts are hesitant to write off biofuels altogether, and point to the need for further research. New forms of biofuels, such as those that use algae to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, do show promise, though they remain in an early stage of development.