A gaggle of world leaders, business executives and fervent activists descended upon Glasgow this month for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) to discuss the world’s impending doom.
So far, the memorable events of COP 26 have been trivial. The world’s most powerful man nodded off and let out air biscuits in the presence of royalty and Greta Thunberg chanted: “you can shove your climate crisis up your a****”.
The question that no one seems to be asking is why aren’t they squinting at Zoom screens instead of raising hotel prices in Glasgow? Tell me I’m dumb, but in 2021 why are people still giving boring speeches in person? Why did they use carbon-belching airplanes to travel to a conference about reducing carbon emissions?
I will leave it to better-informed commentators to iron out these paradoxes. Right now. I am more concerned about Africa, where I live.
Here’s a fact for you: over half a billion Africans, most of them in the Sub-Saharan region, do not have access to electricity at home. This is an oft-quoted statistic, so let me say it again. Over half a billion Africans don’t have a switch on their walls to turn on the lights at night.
This small comfort, which nearly everyone in the West takes for granted, is still a remote luxury for Africans. For light at night, these people rely on dirty-burning and, lumen-for-lumen, much more expensive, kerosene. Imagine your kids scrunched up close to a potent source of carbon dioxide and smoke, just to study.
Here’s another fact for you: most people in Africa cook with firewood and charcoal. This means they have to cut down trees and that their kitchens are always smoky — so smoky, in fact, that, in many homesteads, the kitchen is a detached structure. What you treat as recreation – you know, the smoky barbecue every now and then – makes millions and millions of people sick.
I spent a part of my childhood in such circumstances. I remember blowing into embers under wet firewood with a metal pipe to relight dead fires. It wasn’t pretty. The coughing. The irritated eyes. For people like me, being able to cook with cleaner fuels – say liquid petroleum gas – is a big step up. Getting electricity, no matter what the source, is a massive boost in quality of life.
As it happens, my parents and younger siblings, who still live in the village where I grew up, have experienced this change happen. Thanks to aggressive government investment over the last few years (with the support of the World Bank), Kenya has expanded its electricity grid to cover nearly 80 percent of the population.
Additionally, LPG is now much more accessible, and so more and more of my fellow villagers are taking it up. Think of all the respiratory diseases that people won’t have to suffer (yes, I know LPG still pollutes, but try using damp firewood before you bring this up), and the many eyes that will be spared a million rubbings. Think of the trees that no longer have to be cut down. Think of the emasculated charcoal cartels.
Kenya is one of the better developed African countries. Outside of South Africa and a few small countries like Botswana and Mauritius, our grid connectivity is among the best in this region. In many African countries, around half of the population still can’t access electricity or use cleaner cooking fuels.
Kenya is also blessed with abundant sources of reliable renewable energy like hydro and geothermal. For this reason, the massively expanded grid is, and can remain, one of the cleanest in the world. Many African countries aren’t so lucky. They have gas and petroleum instead.
Solar and wind, for all their appeal, are unreliable. A grid cannot run entirely on them without storage, which is still a technical and cost challenge. Africa cannot afford to wait for the boffins in Silicon Valley to figure out.
People in these countries need electrification. Where electricity comes from matters much less than that it comes. It needs to be fast and it needs to be cheap. Anything will be better than what they have right now. Once all these people come home to a switch on the wall that brightens the night, we will start worrying about cleaning up the mess.
This is not an argument for recklessness. In many cases, it will be possible to bring affordable and reliable electricity to Africans without wrecking the climate. A lot of off-grid solar power installations are already doing this, even though the virtues of a traditional grid cannot be overstated.
Rather, this is an argument against the naïve tree-hugging hysteria of climate change activists at Glasgow. They don’t realise that being able to protest for the climate is a luxury, and that, by demonising energy, they endanger the same vulnerable people they claim to care so much about.
What Africa needs is energy. Lots of it. And we need it yesterday. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!