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Home » Editorial » The U.S. Jumpstarts Africa’s Energy Shift But Sputters On Rainforests

The U.S. Jumpstarts Africa’s Energy Shift But Sputters On Rainforests

Ken Silverstein Senior Contributor

 During the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this month, President Biden reaffirmed his commitment to the continent, underscoring the need to provide monies for climate adaptation — funds that can help Africa expand its energy infrastructure. Indeed, about 570 million sub-Saharan Africans lack access to reliable electricity.

According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa requires $400 billion by 2035 to modernize its energy foundation. As such, this country is working on the African Continental Free Trade Area to allow investors access to 1.3 billion people and a $3.4 trillion market. Already, the United States Power Africa initiative is expanding transmission lines. Meantime, private partners, including General Electric, Siemens, and ABB Ltd., are investing billions of dollars.

Bringing clean electricity to the continent will deliver results. But science shows that in addition to driving an energy transition, saving the planet’s rainforests is mandatory to reduce CO2 emissions and reach the goals of the Paris climate agreement. For example, the Congo Basin is considered the “Earth’s lungs” and is estimated to hold about 29 billion tons of CO2. It is the world’s second-biggest rainforest after Brazil’s Amazon

“We need good quality credits and a strong partnership with financiers to sell the credits,” says Tosi Mpanu, climate specialist for the Congo, in an interview. “It will help us sell at the highest possible price. The Democratic Republic of the Congo would love the U.S. government to buy qualified sovereign credits when they become available. It is more finance to maintain the rainforests.”

National governments issue sovereign credits under the Paris agreement, which drives up the price and raises more monies for forest preservation and infrastructure improvements. To that end, the Congo led the fight to include the REDD+ mechanism — sovereign credits — in the final climate agreement reached in November in Egypt. That inclusion should help draw carbon financing to the region.

Mpanu adds that China and Russia are trying to woo African nations into business deals. Take China, which processes and adds value to the Congo’s cobalt and iron ore — raw materials used to make solar panels and Tesla’s electric vehicle batteries. China’s CMOC Group Ltd. is a significant investor.

The United States realizes that it, too, must lead and invest in the supply chain, allowing the Congo to transform and add value to the minerals it mines. That provides more revenues, helping the African nation preserve its rainforest. Consider also that 90% of the 100 million Congolese lack access to electricity, meaning they must cut down trees to stay warm and cook food.

What will be the U.S.’ Next Move?

The White House says it will provide $1.1 billion to support African-led efforts to support conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition. With that, the United States plans to help the Congo and Zambia develop an electric vehicle value chain — precisely the ‘value add’ for which Mpanu is calling.

“The plan to develop an electric battery supply chain opens the door for U.S and like-minded investment to keep more value-added (businesses) in Africa,’’ says U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Jose Fernandez. “We announced plans to commit at least $55 billion – $55 billion – to Africa over the next three years across a wide range of sectors to tackle the core challenges of our time,” which include climate change.

The Congo mines 70% of the world’s cobalt, while Zambia is a major producer of copper, both of which go into lithium-ion electric batteries. Undoubtedly, the global demand for those raw materials leads to deforestation in Central Africa, while mining pollutes water supplies. But industrial logging is an even more ominous threat. While the Congo has banned new logging since 2002, the country is so vast that the government doesn’t have the money to monitor it properly.

The Congo has signed a 5-year, $500 million agreement with the Central African Forest Initiative to protect its rainforests and peatlands — wetlands that absorb CO2 and prevent the decomposition of plants. Moreover, the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment is a USAID initiative to help Africa sustainably manage its forests.

But the governments from the Global North could also pay the rainforest nations to monitor and maintain their trees — and buy the resulting emissions reductions, or sovereign carbon credits, which is helping slow deforestation. Historically, countries like the United Kingdom, Norway, and Germany supported governments like Brazil by buying these emissions reductions.

These government-to-government revenues keep the trees standing, because developing nations do not have to make timber or agricultural concessions. From 2021 onwards, the United States and other advanced countries can buy REDD+ emissions reductions from the Congo, Papua New Guinea, and many other poorer rainforest nations to meet their Paris obligations. If the United States wants to pilot Africa’s drive toward sustainability, such a vehicle must be on the table.

Globally, rainforests remove and store 30% of human-induced CO2 annually or 11.2 gigatons. Preserving the rainforests has, therefore, never been more pressing. Case in point: flooding ravaged Belgium and Germany in July 2021 and devastated Pakistan earlier this year, creating domestic climate refugees. And flooding in the Congo this month left neighborhoods underwater and 170 dead.

“More than 1 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, and hundreds of millions more derive a living from wetlands, mangroves, grasslands, and other natural ecosystems,” President Biden has said. “Conserving these critical ecosystems is also essential to tackling the climate crisis and keeping a 1.5-degree Celsius global warming target within reach.”

The United States has long provided aid to the African continent. But its business ties have been limited, although China and Russia are forcing this country’s hand. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is just a start that can attract investment to the region, allowing African countries to save forests and address climate change.