The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall
The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic
Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP
It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.
“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertiﬁcation (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.
The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneﬁciaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains conﬁdent the initiative can achieve its goals on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.
Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a signiﬁcant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.
“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the ﬁnancial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”
The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to beneﬁt communities, in addition to eco-tourism.
Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.
A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP
“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most signiﬁcant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global beneﬁts,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.
“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private ﬁnancial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.
“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September , we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”
This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very conﬁdent that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.
Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.
These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.
Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further ﬁnances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneﬁciary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind ﬁnancing.
Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP
Solar power: the dark side
Traded as environmentally sound, solar power leaves waste that could engulf Africa in the same way as plastic
Street lights powered by solar power in Oti province, northern Togo, February 2020. The Togolese government and private sector is installing mini solar power plants in different localities to enable rural communities access to subsidised electricity Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP
Daniel Wesonga, a resident of Moi Farm village in western Kenya, is a happy man since purchasing a small solar lamp the size of a medium cup, which also has a high frequency radio. He is now sure of light and entertainment, two things that are about to change his otherwise boring and dark village nights. The 47-year-old father of six has depended on a paraffin lamp, which he says is expensive, considering that he has spent an average of Sh30 ($0.30) of his daily wage of Sh150 ($1.50) as a bicycle repairer on kerosene to ensure his children do their homework for at least three hours every night.
”I bought this on hire purchase, after paying a deposit of Sh600 ($6),” Wesonga told Africa in Fact. “I now have a balance of a similar amount to be paid over the next six months to wholly own the gadget. Farewell to kerosene and messy soot!” Almost every household in the tiny village on the bank of the River Nzoia has a solar gadget, thanks to aggressive marketing by solar ﬁrms that have focused especially on rural Africa, where the majority of homesteads are yet to be connected to the power grid. Asked what he will do with the small solar gadget if becomes faulty, Wesonga rubs his thin pale palms on his bushy face. ”I’ll just throw it away, what else can I do?”
Wesonga, just like tens of millions of other people in Africa who have heeded the sustainability agenda and embraced solar power, is clueless on how to handle solar waste. Their governments, which have generously provided incentives to solar ﬁrms to ensure high uptake, are not helping either. For instance, Kenya lifted all Value Added Tax (VAT) charges on imported solar products in 2014, and zero-rated import duty on solar imports to motivate households to adopt the cheaper and environmentally friendly energy.
Yet the country has no waste policy to curb mass dumping of photovoltaic panels, which have short lifespans, just like any other electronic gadget. Renewable energy expert Jacob Ng’eno, of African Solar Designs based in Nairobi, says that while solar energy is traded as environmentally sustainable, growing mountains of broken or otherwise non-functioning panels that are likely to be disposed of in two or three decades will wreck the environment.
The Global E-waste Monitor (2017): regional e-waste
In 2016, Asia was the region that generated by far the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). While the smallest in terms of total e-waste generated, Oceania was the highest generator of e-waste per inhabitant (17.3 kg/inh), with only 6% of e-waste documented to be collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of 16.6 kg/inh; however, Europe has the highest collection rate (35%). The Americas generate 11.6 kg/inh and collect only 17% of the e-waste generated in the countries, which is comparable to the collection rate in Asia (15%). However, Asia generates less e-waste per inhabitant (4,2 kg/inh). Africa generates only 1.9 kg/inh and little information is available on its collection rate. The report provides regional breakdowns for Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.
Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.
A call centre bearing solar panels on its rooftop supplies power in a village without electricity in Seguela, Côte d’Ivoire, 2013 Photo: Sia Kambou / AFP
A property developer who violates the rules risks a year in prison or a $10,000 (Sh1 million) ﬁne or both. The standard lifespan of solar gadgets ranges from 20 to 30 years, which means that some of the panels installed in the early part of the current boom are not far from their expiry date. Yet, the country’s e-waste draft Bill 2013 continues to gather dust on parliamentary shelves seven years on. Nor is it a priority for the 12th parliament that will exit office in 2021. By then, every person in the world will have at least seven kg of e-waste to dispose of every day, up from 6.1 kg, as captured in the United Nations Global e-waste Monitor, 2017.”Solar waste will soon form a huge part of electronic waste,” Ng’eno said.
“And it’s not easy to recycle. Solar waste will outdo plastic waste, which has wrecked the world in past decades.” He urged African states to come up with urgent plans to deal with e-waste. The Kenyan government’s soft heart for solar traders has seen at least 20,000 additional families acquire solar gadgets. In 2017, Kenya enforced regulations compelling hotels, educational centres and residential buildings to install solar water heating systems, with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 15% by 2030.
According to that report, the photovoltaic panels associated with solar energy are classiﬁed as “large equipment”. The solar waste menace is likely to get ugly in Nigeria, which is a boom market for solar ﬁrms, occasioned by high population and extreme poverty. Like Kenya, the western African nation has attracted a signiﬁcant amount of solar Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the past decade, especially in rural and home solar and photovoltaic (PV) electriﬁcation.
In Kenya, solar importers have to meet basic requirements – such as obtaining a class V2 licence from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), which entitles them to carry out the manufacture or import of solar PV systems or components. Nigeria’s market, meanwhile, is grossly unregulated. This has led to a market in sub-standard solar power products, which have much lower lifespans, and it will inevitably result in considerable e-waste. A recent study by the World Bank placed Nigeria among countries in the world with poor electricity penetration.
High levels of power outages (at least 32.8 in a month) have made the inhabitants of Africa’s most populous nation easy prey for unscrupulous solar vendors. Nigeria aims to install 30,000 megawatts of solar PV by 2030 as outlined in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) action plan dated December 2019. Most of this will be installed off-grid, while Nigeria aims to have about 40 million batteries, according to an Institute of Development Studies (IDS) publication of December 2016. But the typical lifetime of a battery is only about three years, compared to the 20-25 year average lifespan of PV panels.
A solar oven used for solar cooking in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2009 Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP
So this means that over the lifetime of this project about 280 million batteries will have to be installed, replaced, recovered and recycled to achieve 30,000 MW solar PV capacity. Most of them will ﬁnd their way into domestic garbage bins. A similar fate awaits other African countries with similar solar power targets in terms of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) of 2015, which calls for the continent to install 300 GW of solar power by 2030. It is perhaps what motivated the Nigerian government to introduce taxes on solar products in February 2018. There’s now a 5% import duty on solar panels and 5% VAT, whereas in the past there were no tariffs on solar panels.
Nigeria also slapped a 20% import duty on solar batteries, to discourage mass imports. Rwanda is one of few countries in the region to have put in place tight regulations to combat the impending solar waste chaos. In July 2014, Rwanda introduced regulations to guide solar water heater dealers, to regulate the market and also to protect consumers from unscrupulous ﬁrms. The country’s solar water heating regulations are meant to support the government’s ambitious programme to install 12,000 quality solar water heaters countrywide – which should translate to a saving of 23,328 MHw on the national grid by the end of this year.
Tough penalties have also been set for suppliers and technicians who fail to meet the minimum standards, a move which protects against the dumping of substandard goods. “These regulations are intended to provide a licensing and regulatory framework for the design, installation, operation, repair, maintenance and upgrade of solar water heating systems in Rwanda,” according to the draft regulation issued by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura). The regulation also sets minimum academic qualiﬁcations and professional requirements for technicians of solar water heaters in the country.
Those found violating the rules face cash penalties that range from Rwf10,000 – Rwf5 million ($10.50 to $5,300) depending on the offence. Despite these measures, solar ﬁrms continue to troop to Rwanda, thanks to the government’s tax policy, which imposes an almost zero rate on solar products, with the aim of reducing the country’s heavy dependency on thermal electricity. In addition to offering tax exemptions, the Rwandan government is meeting 25% of the cost of imported solar power water heaters. Each heater costs between Rwf800,000 and Rwf900,000 (about $900) on the open market in Kigali.
The country is now a signiﬁcant importer of solar gadgets, which are fast becoming a dependable source of energy, especially in rural areas that are yet to be connected to the national power grid. Yet, as the number of imports into Africa increase each year, so does the solar waste pile, polluting rivers, soils and the air when burnt. In 2016, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a multi-country study to research electronic waste in Africa’s off-grid renewable energy sector. The report concluded that the off-grid solar sector across 14 sub- Saharan African countries would produce 3,600 tonnes of electronic waste the following year.
While this represented a fractional percentage of total estimated electronic waste flows, it also put waste from off-grid solar products on a par with electronic waste from the mobile phone industry. Globally, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects solar waste to hit 78 million tonnes by 2050, most of it in Africa.
E-waste generation and collection per continent
|Countries in region
|Waste generation (kg/inh)
|Indication WG (Mt)
|Documented to be collected and recycled (Mt)
Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna
Charcoal: the grey trade
If forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal could be a renewable energy source that does not destroy the environment
Congolese charcoal dealers push their bicycles up the hill as they transport their produce to the market in Sake, North Kivu, in democratic republic of Congo’s Goma province on December 3, 2011. Much of the charcoal in Goma is produced from trees in the Virunga National Park, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region. A sack of chalrcoal sells for approximately the equivalent of USD20 in the market. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
Charcoal is one of the most important commodities in sub-Saharan Africa. In southern and East Africa, the tall, stiff sacks of charcoal propped up by the side of road are one of the most ubiquitous sights when driving along even remote rural roads; likewise, the evening smell of any town is always partially composed of the smoke of charcoal ﬁres. According to the most recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Africa produces nearly 60% of the world’s annual charcoal supply, most of it for domestic use by as much as 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban consumers.
The road-side sacks speak to its vital role as a rural employer; the evening smells to the huge reliance of urban dwellers on charcoal as their primary energy source. The charcoal economy is vast, vital, and often criminalised and corrupt. Its negative impacts are well-known: it contributes to lung disease and forest degradation, and sometimes to deforestation. It has been taxed by Al-Shabaab, and attempts to ensure access to woodlands for charcoal have led to the killing of forest rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by local militias.
For most people, charcoal is either so ordinary it’s invisible, or it is seen as so dangerous that it must be demonised. But this is really a “grey” trade, straddling the legal and the illegal, the legitimate and the illegitimate, and it is too important to remain in this inbetween space. To make charcoal, wood, usually harvested from nearby forests, is burned over several days in an artisanal kiln. Most charcoal producers are poor and often illiterate rural people, who produce charcoal on their own homestead. The process is extremely inefficient – as little as 10-15% of the wood used in this method is actually marketable as charcoal; the rest goes to waste.
From these “backyard” kilns, charcoal is collected and transported to towns and cities, and sometimes across regional borders. The highest-quality charcoal, made from particular tree species, may also be exported off the continent. Along the way, the charcoal trade involves a large range of people: loaders, truck owners, truck drivers, small transporters, creditors, wholesalers, retailers, stove makers, stove retailers, tool retailers, and charcoal exporters. Seen like this, the industry provides income to millions across the region – if not tens of millions. According to a report by the World Bank published in 2018, in rural areas of Mozambique, the industry generates jobs for 136,000 to 214,000 people.
In 2018, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimated that the charcoal trade was the largest informal-sector employer, employing 700,000 people, who in turn were believed to be supporting 2.3-2.5 million people. The charcoal value chain ties the fate of the rural poor to the quality of life of millions of urban residents. For the households in towns and cities who consume most charcoal, it is a cheap and efficient energy source. Other energy sources, when they are available, are simply not as affordable. Combine this reality with the fact that, according to the UN, Africa’s urban population is the fastest growing in the world.
Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP
According to a meeting held by a UN expert group on urbanisation and migration in 2018, urbanisation in east and southern African countries is expected to increase by 74.3% and 43.6% respectively by 2050. While many hope that investment in energy infrastructure – renewable or not – will reduce the urban reliance on charcoal, this seems extremely unlikely to happen soon. Dr Casey Ryan, who researches charcoal production and land-use change at the University of Edinburgh, points out that even if investments come to fruition in the region’s capital cities, most urban growth in Africa is happening in so-called secondary cities: “So, all those cities, which are growing very fast, are mostly going to run on charcoal – and they’re also quite far down the queue for, say, piped gas or electricity, investments which are normally focused on the capital,” he told Africa in Fact.
However, the current dynamics of charcoal production result in environmental degradation, threatening biodiversity and carbon sinks, and some profits from the industry accrue to corrupt and violent groups. The DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique all show alarming rates of loss of forest cover. Charcoal is not the only culprit: deforestation is also happening as land is cleared for farming, and through logging for timber. But charcoal is a significant contributor to this phenomenon, often in a dynamic relationship to other causes of deforestation.
Charcoal production is currently often locked into a damaging cycle with rural poverty, as extended droughts and low agricultural productivity push many away from farming and towards charcoal production, which in turn degrades the environment for agriculture further. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way: wood fuels are renewable resources which, if properly managed, can regenerate through the planting of new trees. Their impact on carbon emission is more complex: scientists are split on whether wood-based fuels are carbon neutral or not.
Simply stated, the positive case rests on the idea that newly planted trees absorb carbon dioxide, making up for the emissions caused through burning them. While Europe has come under ﬁre for counting wood fuel used in wood- chip fuelled energy plants as carbon neutral, charcoal production in Africa is much more artisanal and does not necessarily result in large-scale conversion of forest to, say, agricultural land. If trees were selectively harvested, or replanted, forests would fare much better. Much of this calculation ultimately rests on the exact nature of the forest use, fuel production, fuel consumption, and their regulation.
The most extreme impact of the charcoal trade occurs in places where governance is contested, or where there is large-scale criminalisation of the sector. This is the case in the Virunga region of the DRC, where proﬁts from the charcoal trade – amongst other things – flow to militias like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), leading to violent, lethal conflict over access to national parks. Effectively regulating the charcoal industry involves balancing competing interests in preserving forests and sustainable resource use, rural livelihoods and the needs of urban consumers. Yet, in sub-Saharan Africa, policies regulating the charcoal trade, if present at all, are typically paper tigers.
Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP
When faced with criticism about forest degradation and the charcoal trade, states often talk big, but act little. Most states already have laws stipulating a licensing regime for charcoal production, which are intended to keep environmental degradation to a minimum while allowing production to take place. But weak state capability (especially in rural areas), corruption, and the way these things square up against the vital role that charcoal production plays in rural economies, mean that these laws are often barely enforced. The result is that most charcoal production, transport, and sale becomes informal and often illicit, and transporters become a prime source of petty bribes for police.
This is often to the beneﬁt of large entrepreneurs who have “captured” a large slice of the urban market, often by buying state protection. Such clumsy, ineffective, and even insincere, attempts at regulation have the effect of making a massive industry largely illicit. The World Bank’s research in Mozambique, for example, estimated that only about 5% of the charcoal sector was operating under formal regulation. Other researchers have estimated that 80% of production in Tanzania is illicit. While weak regulation fails both at protecting the environment or upholding the interests of rural producers or urban consumers, the use of outright bans is even more destructive.
In Kenya, for example, the production and sale of charcoal is currently under a blanket ban, despite the fact that it remains vital to the basic needs of millions of Kenyan citizens. Other countries also periodically place total bans on the trade when pressure to curb forest degradation becomes intense, but then cannot meaningfully impose the regulation. Ten years ago, research by the World Bank on East African charcoal value chains demonstrated that bans can make criminality and corruption in the industry worse. Urban consumers simply cannot ﬁnd alternatives to charcoal, as other fuels are far more expensive or unavailable.
Bans mean that a vital industry has to be conducted entirely clandestinely, increasing corruption and state collusion, and transporters pass these costs onto the consumer, driving up prices, which remain high even after bans are lifted. Yet to this day, bans continue to be a popular government reaction. Likewise, academics Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen, writing about their research for the London School of Economics, have challenged the idea that strict law enforcement can ever be a solution to the FLDR’s proﬁts from the charcoal trade using trees from the Virunga National Park, as local inhabitants have no other sources of income, and the demand from the nearby city of Goma is unceasing.
“With little collaboration from the population, can operations to dislodge armed groups from production areas be successful?” these authors ask. “With no alternative livelihoods, will further impoverishing offenders with arrest work as a deterrent?” There is, however, scope for intervention and reform. Researchers such as Mary Njenga from the World Agroforestry Centre argue persuasively that, if forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal can be a renewable energy source that does not entail environmental destruction. Technical and value chain interventions, Njenga argues, have already been identiﬁed in improving the efficiency both of the kilns that are used to produce charcoal and in the stoves that burn it.
A woman sells charcoal in Asosa, Ethiopia, 2019 Photo: Eduardo Soteras / AFP
But regularising the charcoal economy will also be political. It will require tackling interests that beneﬁt from the current (corrupt and poorly regulated) status quo, including powerful entrepreneurs who control proﬁts in urban markets and resist state regulation of the sector. To regularise the trade in a way that is fair and supportive of the poorest, such measures will also have to take into account the realities of rural livelihoods and address highly contentious issues such as access to land. It is in these measures, perhaps counter-intuitively, where the most sustainable intervention will be found in even highly violent situations.
Carbon emissions: room to grow
There’s big potential for Africa to participate in international carbon markets given its ability to contribute to greenhouse gas mitigation
Women work at a clothing factory funded through the sale of carbon credits in Maungu, near Nairobi, Kenya, 2011 Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP
Carbon emissions trading is a market-based mechanism for trading pollution credits among countries. It includes a range of policy instruments aimed at assisting industrialised countries to achieve
their emissions targets by allowing reductions to take place where they cost the least.
The trade works in several ways: International Emissions Trading (IET), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and Joint Implementation (JI). The IET system involves a scheme called “cap and trade” in which governments or intergovernmental bodies such as the European Commission (EC) hand out licences to pollute (or “carbon permits”) to major polluting industries within their boundaries.
Industries can then trade these permits with one another to meet their emissions reduction targets.
Cap-and-trade schemes are the most popular way to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions. The scheme’s governing body begins by setting a cap on allowable emissions. It then distributes or auctions off emissions allowances that total the cap. Member companies that do not have enough allowances to cover their emissions must either make reductions or buy another company’s spare credits. Members with extra allowances can sell them or bank them for future use. Cap- and-trade schemes can be either mandatory or voluntary.
Africa accounts for only 2% of the trading in the global carbon market. Of that 2%, South Africa and North Africa enjoy the largest portion of the projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the main carbon market resulting from the Kyoto Protocol, with the rest of Africa contributing a paltry 0.6%. According to Oscar Reyes, a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, these ﬁgures render Africa marginal to the carbon market, and the trade has been irrelevant to the continent’s efforts to tackle climate change. According to the World Bank, China has dominated the CDM market since its inception, accounting for about 66% of all contracted CDM supply between 2002 and 2008, and 72% of the market in 2009.
India and Brazil rank second and third on the list of sellers in terms of volumes transacted. One reason why the African carbon market is less attractive relates to how electricity is generated. Access to electricity is a major challenge across much of Africa, with less than 25% – and, in some countries, as little as 5% – of the population enjoying access to grid electricity. Thus, the World Bank has calculated that the 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of 800 million people, generate as much power as Spain, with a population of 45 million.
The lack of carbon-reduction investment opportunities in the power sector and the limited number of carbon-intensive industries outside northern Africa and South Africa implies that the rest of the continent is not well positioned to influence the direction of the debate around carbon trading. The types of projects that could deliver livelihood beneﬁts to Africans, such as renewable and other small- scale energy projects, are not “cheap” options of carbon abatement, and are therefore less likely to attract the big investors. Given the limited opportunities for expanding the carbon market in Africa through the CDM, attention has shifted to projects that can be delivered through the voluntary market.
These include improved stove and tree planting projects, which have been controversial for a variety of reasons, including the difficulties involved in verifying the offsets. According to ecologist Thomas Crowther and colleagues at ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, a tree can remove seven tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its life. If so, some ﬁve billion trees would need to be planted per year to counter current emission levels globally. Moreover, planting trees to soak up carbon can have detrimental knock on effects. As Robert Jackson argued in a December 2005 presentation at Duke University in North Carolina, growing plantations of fast-growing trees uses a lot of water.
This can reduce “the water available for drinking and irrigation, and harm local aquatic ecosystems”, according to the journal Nature (December 2005). Moreover, “forest soils are saltier and more acidic, compared with other types of plant cover such as crops or grasslands”, Jackson and his colleagues found. Developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), remain marginalised in global carbon markets despite signiﬁcant mitigation opportunities in agriculture and forestry. However, Africa has signiﬁcant potential for renewable energy, a key driver of the carbon emissions reduction.
Yet Africa’s share of the carbon markets remains low, as already mentioned. It is puzzling, therefore, that the proponents of carbon trading continue to tout the beneﬁts it offers to the poor in Africa,
in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. For instance, a project in the Bukaleba Forestry Reserve in Uganda, intended to offset the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) of a coal-ﬁred power plant to be built in Norway, clearly illustrates the conflict of interests of the offset company, host countries, and the needs of local communities.
The Ugandan government received a meagre once-off fee of $410 and an annual rent of about $4,10 for each hectare of plantation – an absurdly low lease price, given the huge carbon credits the Norwegian company (Tree Farms) was aiming to sell. The project was also responsible for evicting 8,000 people living on the land from 13 villages, depriving them of their livelihoods, and probably driving them to clear land elsewhere. Africa’s share of voluntary carbon markets is also still small, then, as compared to the rest of the world. It’s a huge shortfall considering the potential beneﬁts of carbon offset revenue for sustainable development on the continent.
However, many African countries, including Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen a surge in international demand for offset projects in the voluntary carbon markets such as delivering clean cook stoves and water puriﬁcation devices, which are likely to increase participation in these markets (Bloomberg Energy, 2013). There are several reasons why Africa has failed in the carbon markets. Some scholars have blamed this on uncoordinated marketing efforts, as well as regulatory and policy challenges. They argue that the implementation thereof and global connections can make it a challenge for carbon trading to work.
There have also been circumstances under which baseline-and-credit CDM schemes have resulted in the maltreatment of indigenous peoples and their environment. Other scholars argue that cases of trade fraud and accounting discrepancies have hindered the development of these markets in Africa, with constraints ranging from the structure of the carbon markets themselves to the continent’s own unique situation; the perennial challenges of doing business in Africa have also affected its access to international carbon markets.
Yacob Mulugeta from the University of Surrey’s Centre of Environment and Sustainability says adequate legal and institutional frameworks are lacking, or are weak, and barriers to trade and investment, which may inhibit access to new technologies, and the high investment risks in some African countries, have also resulted in potentially lower prices for CERs. Another barrier to trade, he says, is the overall policy framework in potential host countries, which may include policies not conducive to CDM, for example high levels of taxation, high interest rates, a lack of support for foreign direct investment and uncertainties around ﬁscal policies.
Financing has also been cited as a major barrier to renewable energy and energy efficiency (RE/EE) projects, which deliver carbon emission reductions and sustainable development beneﬁts to low-developed countries in Africa. But Africa’s potential to participate in international carbon markets is large, given its ability to contribute to greenhouse gases mitigation. Its potential for renewable energy generation, climate smart agriculture and extensive forestry sector all provide huge GHG mitigation potential. There are also vast areas of low productivity land where management could be altered to increase carbon stocks and create credits.
Overcoming the challenges that hinder their exploitation could see Africa increase its ability to tap into the international carbon markets. If Africa is to beneﬁt in the carbon market, it will need to start leveraging other sources of ﬁnance, increasing its investments in renewable energy, catalysing the continent’s carbon markets by putting in place regulatory systems, and increasing public funding for seed capital for carbon reduction projects. Africa will need to develop and implement its own climate and carbon ﬁnance strategy, built on the recognition that the continent can contribute most effectively to mitigating climate change by promoting sustainable land-use practices.
Extractives: green industrialisation
The business case for greening the extractive industry is strong, especially with the growing trend of ethical investing
Sentinel copper mine in Zambia
Photo: Ross Harvey / courtesy of Sentinel Copper Mine
Everything we consume has its origins in either agriculture or the extractive industries. Our smartphones are laden with minerals and metals. Even agricultural fertilisers come from mined minerals. But the way we’ve extracted, historically, has been both ecologically and socio- economically destructive. Across many jurisdictions, mineral and hydrocarbon extraction has produced negative externalities – a divergence between private returns and social costs. In other words, it’s left holes in the ground, decimated ecosystems and imposed a healthcare burden on workers.
Acid mine drainage (AMD) in South Africa provides one example. It occurs when pyrite (fool’s gold) comes into contact with oxygenated water. The consequent oxidation process produces sulphuric acid. Pyrite is a common minor constituent in South Africa’s coal and gold ore bodies. Mining fragments these bodies and large quantities of acidic water are released into the environment, initially into the groundwater and ultimately into streams and rivers, rendering the water toxic to varying degrees. Large settlements in the Witwatersrand area now live with the risks posed by this toxic water and associated sinkhole formation.
AMD expert Terence McCarthy notes that mining has funded much of South Africa’s development, but as it enters its twilight “we are now beginning to grasp the environmental damage that the [gold mining] industry has caused and will continue to cause in the decades to come. We have also seen the impact that coal mining has had, particularly on water quality in the Olifants River system.” We must learn from these experiences and prevent further coal mining in key freshwater catchments and rivers.
Beyond AMD, a recent court settlement in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg awarded a total of R5 billion in compensation to mine workers afflicted by silicosis or tuberculosis contracted while mining at six of South Africa’s gold mining companies between 1965 and 2019. Had these costs appeared on the offending companies’ ﬁnancial statements, they likely would not have been offloaded onto the adjacent communities who could least afford it. Globally, estimates suggest that 24.5 deaths are attributable to each Terawatt hour of coal-ﬁred electricity produced.
Coal is a health hazard, not only to those who mine it but also to those who live near coal-burning power stations. In addition to mining’s direct negative externalities, the short-term rents generated by mining have often precipitated authoritarian consolidation, inequality, corruption and generally poor governance. Elites have captured the spoils at the expense of broad-based beneﬁt. This malaise is part of a broader problem – our economic models (and resultant activity) have ignored planetary boundaries, the limits of what our interconnected life-support systems can sustain. We are consequently at risk of inducing catastrophic climate change.
If greenhouse gas emissions are not severely curtailed, or biodiversity-killing pollution not upended, ecological disaster awaits. Global collective action is now required to change the way that we produce and consume. A major part of that new policy direction has to entail the greening of the extractive industries and the integral connection of mining to green industrialisation. Not only is this possible; it’s imperative. The business case complements the moral case. Such a reorientation would simultaneously address the negative legacy effects of mining and create sustainable links to other sectors of the economy.
The technological quest for a low-carbon economy is well underway. Transport and energy revolutions are upending old systems. Electric vehicle and renewable energy production, however, require signiﬁcant quantities of minerals and metals – double the volume currently mined, according to the World Bank. But most remaining coal and hydrocarbon deposits will have to be left in the ground, rendering the need for a “just transition” away from dirty technologies to clean ones. To support this transition, the mining industry needs to be reoriented to supplying the minerals and metals required for generating and transmitting renewable energy, for building electric vehicles, and continued inputs for other products such as smartphones and batteries.
Through the adoption of new technologies, we can mine in a less environmentally destructive manner. This would also create upstream opportunities to produce the capital equipment required for less environmentally invasive mining methods. Practically, what might this look like? To begin with, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can transform geological exploration. Sensors on UAVs can detect geothermal activity, which helps exploration ﬁrms to drill and sample only in areas where resources are indicated. In the production phase, robots can work in hazardous environments instead of people, improving mine safety considerably.
Underground deposits can be accessed through relatively minor invasion, akin to laser or “keyhole” surgery. A 2015 paper, ‘A vision of Zero Entry production Areas in Mines’ (ZEPA), co- authored by four scientists from Lulea Tekniska Universitet Institut in Sweden, proposes that in mines “all work processes should be remotely operated or automated, while special mine robots should be developed for the preventive maintenance of equipment and safe retrieval operations”.
The Kankberg Gold Mine in Sweden exemplifies the art of the possible. Boliden (the mining company), in partnership with Ericsson, ABB and Volvo “plans to eventually operate with no personnel in the mine itself”. Connecting different technologies such as a 5G wi-fi network and a Smart Ventilation system, the mine is now completely automated. The resultant process optimisation has saved 54% of the mine’s energy consumption. This represents a saving of 18 MW a year on a mine that previously consumed 34 MW a year.
In South Africa, mining consumes about 15% of the country’s national electricity supply, equivalent to roughly 5,100 MW. If the sector could reduce this demand by half, it would free up 2,550 MW from a supply-constrained grid. The industry paid 86 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for coal-fired power in 2017/18. A reduction of 2,550 MW a year would represent a cost saving of R2.25 million. Further cost savings would be wrought if a larger portion of power was sourced from renewables, as global procurement prices of solar PV power are now around the equivalent of 26c/kWh. Procuring renewable energy and decreasing overall demand is therefore eminently sensible business practice for the mining industry, with positive spillover beneﬁts for society and the environment.
Note that modern mines need to achieve a plant recovery rate of at least 90% to cover escalating ﬁxed costs. With declining grades and the need to mine deeper ore bodies, new methods are required to reduce rock movement, mine more selectively, and achieve quality over quantity. Motivated by these requirements, “in-place” mining and processing at the point of extraction is gaining traction. It will deliver a smaller surface footprint, reduced tailings generation and low-capital-intensive mines. Mining projects could attract ﬁnancing more easily and deliver returns more quickly than with the conventional model.
Emerging digital technologies in automated rock-face mapping, material characterisation and fragmentation analysis, and rock preconditioning can also be built into the equipment and preprogrammed for speciﬁc mines. The machines that cut hard rock are now able to identify and exploit natural rock cleavages to make cutting more efficient. Declan Vogt of the Centre for Scientiﬁc and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa notes: “If rock can be cut rather than blasted, mining can become continuous, leading to process and efficiency improvements.”
Crushing technology is also becoming nimbler, making obsolete the big crushers typically required at processing plants. Employing upstream technology at the rock face, to selectively mine and pre-concentrate material for subsequent metal extraction, avoids the many negative environmental impacts usually associated with mining. In the case of copper, crushing is among the largest components of a mine’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. These can be drastically reduced by in-pit mobile crushing, which, according to research scientists Terry Norgate and Nawshad Haque, “eliminates the need for trucks by having the shovel feed the run-of-mine ore directly to a continuous and dedicated belt conveyor handling system”.
Of course, these new technologies are disruptive. Mining will become less directly labour-absorptive and more capital-intensive. But they may also result in lower cost margins and greater wealth creation, which can be allocated towards research and development initiatives that develop local upstream or side-stream capacity. As economist Ricardo Hausmann famously pointed out in 2014, Finland did not become wealthy because it turned its forests into furniture; it became wealthy because the quest for more efficient tree cutting methods produced Nokia. How? Through the development of appropriate technology.
One copper mine in Zambia is charting the way in this respect. Sentinel Mine, adjacent to Kalumbila, is a “pocket of effectiveness” – an example of how mining should and could be done. Input crushing and investments in data analysis, artiﬁcial intelligence and machine learning are already a feature. Once the ore body is depleted, the river – currently diverted – will be restored. Every effort is being made to prevent soil and water contamination. The surrounding forest, part of the ecological restoration programme funded by the mine, currently supports a sawmill and furniture-making factory. When the mine closes, the factory will continue, and the entire concession converted to a nature reserve with a ﬁve-star tourism offering.
The town itself is separated from the mine and boasts an industrial development zone, which can tap into upstream, side-stream and downstream links with mining. The business case for greening the extractive industries is strong, especially with the growing trend of ethical investing and the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting. Internalising the cost of negative externalities, it turns out, is a sound business investment