Energy for Growth Hub
Blog Aug 11, 2022

In climate policy, African gas is like organic salad microgreens

The Guardian recently published an article supposedly exposing new African plans to expand oil and gas production and…

Better Metrics and Data

The Guardian recently published an article supposedly exposing new African plans to expand oil and gas production and raising alarm bells about the climate implications. None of this is new, but the article repeats many of the common mistakes used by activists (and, apparently, journalists) arguing for zero tolerance toward gas investment in Africa. Several people asked for my views on this piece, so here are three reactions:

  1. Please stop conflating upstream oil and gas production for export with downstream uses for development. The article, like many others, leaps blindly from “Africans haven’t benefited enough from oil exports in the past” (which is true) to “therefore, no Africans should use their own natural gas for electricity, fertilizer, industry, or cleaner cooking.” So much wrong here, but the main issue: upstream and downstream are not the same. They have very different impacts on development and very different financing options today. The relevant debate is about investment rules for downstream infrastructure, without which African countries will only export. The recent surge in thirst for African gas from rich Europeans only makes this outcome more likely. With Italy, Germany, and other European nations aggressively shopping to lock in African gas contracts, development advocates shouldn’t be trying to block funding for power plants in Senegal or Mozambique, but rather insisting that such infrastructure be financed.
  2. Please ask Africa’s elected leaders their views. Not a single elected official is quoted or cited in the article. This isn’t hard; the leaders of Malawi, Uganda, Senegal, and both the Nigerian President and Vice President have public views on this exact topic. The Guardian cites three anti-gas environmental activists yet the sole voice open to gas cited in the entire article is (ahem) a retired European politician, former Irish President Mary Robinson. Enough said.
  3. Please put the scale of Africa’s emissions in perspective (AKA why African gas is like organic salad microgreens). One of my geeky amateur side-interests is vertical farming. The high tech indoor growing of vegetables seems like a great idea for healthier local food that’s also better for the planet – or so I thought. That all changed when I was listening to a recent episode of my favorite new podcast Climavores (food, climate, technology, all in one podcast!) where I learned that vertical farming sounds good, but when you look at the numbers in perspective it really has almost zero effect on my own health or on the climate. That’s because vertical farming is used mainly for low-nutrition greens which are mostly water (co-host Tamar Haspel calls lettuce “nothing but a halo of health”) while salad greens are pretty irrelevant to global land use and emissions. Farmland may cover nearly 40% of the earth’s land surface, but the vast majority of that is for animal pasture (mainly cattle) and the rest is mostly rice, corn, wheat, and soy. So if you want better agriculture to help the climate, Haspel and co-host Mike Grunwald conclude, you have to tackle the big emissions sources like farming practices for beef and the big crops. Lettuce is irrelevant to climate.African gas use is also irrelevant to climate. There is no plausible scenario where African emissions blow the carbon budget. Nigeria, for example, has Africa’s biggest population and is a leading oil and gas producer, and its energy plans include up to 10 GW of new gas-fired power by 2030. If that sounds like a lot, it’s not. The US has 552 GW and is building 27 GW more in the next three years. More to the point, if all of Africa’s electricity consumption tripled overnight using only gas, the additional CO2 would equal 0.6% of global emissions (here is the math). And, of course, no African country is remotely planning to go gas-only. They all, sensibly, want to exploit cheap wind and solar. But those without hydro or geothermal options and who have their own gas resources would like to use some gas at home for balancing power from renewables, plus for industry and a cooking fuel cleaner than wood or charcoal. So if we want cleaner energy to help the climate, we have to tackle the big emissions sources like the US, Europe, and China, not punch down on low-income low-emitters in Africa.

Me deluding myself into thinking I’m helping the planet by buying arugula from a vertical farm is wrong but pretty much harmless. The Guardian scaring its readers into believing that Africans using gas for electricity or to cook dinner will destroy the planet is also wrong – but if they justify policies like financing bans, such myths hurt real people.