The world today faces an unprecedented set of crises in finance, development and the environment. Its impacts are felt globally, and Africa is no exception. Although it is important to acknowledge the recent high levels of economic growth in many parts of the continent, nearly 50% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than US$1 a day, while, at the same time, important ecosystems on which their livelihoods depend are being degraded. In addition, the International Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected that Africa will be most affected by climate change, even though the continent has contributed the least to the problem.
As a response to this polycrisis, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (commonly known as Rio+20) proposed the “green economy” as an alternative paradigm that promises growth while protecting the earth’s ecosystems and, in turn, contributes to poverty alleviation and sustainable development. In order to avoid dangerous climate change, the green economy approach further aims to de-carbonise the global economy through extensive investment in resource efficiency and renewable energy.
Despite these laudable objectives, the green economy concept has drawn heavy criticism from social and environmental justice movements, primarily for its suggestion that nature is to be monetised to help preserve ecosystems. In their view, this approach perpetuates the very system that led the world into economic, social and environmental crisis in the first place.
For this edition of Perspectives, the Heinrich Böll Foundation offered Africa-based thinkers and commentators an opportunity to critically reflect on what a “transition towards sustainability” means or should mean for the region. The articles gathered here go beyond ideological debates to also provide some case studies where green-economy principles have been applied. As Professor Mark Swilling states in the opening piece, “whether we call it green economy or any other word, we know that the old ways are not working and this is an opportunity for Africa to shape, rather than be shaped by, the world”.
An important step in this direction is for governments to take the lead: to demonstrate political will and start to re-allocate public funds to support the transition. However, as both the contributions from Nigeria point out, governments still too often stick to what’s familiar and are reluctant to venture into unknown terrain, such as renewable energy. The old ways of supplying power with fossil fuels seem “safer” and more convenient. The potential of small-scale renewable energy projects to create jobs and improve the wellbeing of society is frequently overlooked, particularly in lower spheres of government.
While Kenya looks to become a pioneer in developing a greener future, local technical capacity to develop, procure, construct and operate renewable-energy projects remains a challenge. Renewable energy will only be able to provide for base loads and for the growing energy demands of the country with the right planning and continued political will.
Encouragingly, the articles show that the transition to low-carbon development in Africa is possible and already beginning, albeit in small and winding ways.
We hope that, with this edition, we help to explore how the sustainability transition can be promoted in Africa, and how it can result in transformative change to the benefit of the continent and its most marginalised groups.