Development of natural gas and energy in Sub-Saharan Africa

gas plant

At the end of the 1980s, humanity realized that social development and traditional economic activities have led us to growing inequalities around the world and the progressive degradation of the environment.

This is the context into which the UN World Commission on Environment and Development introduced sustainable development principles in 1987. The international community adopted the principles at the UN Conference on Environment and Development 5 years later. Since then, measures have been undertaken at the international and national levels to follow these principles best known under the acronym “ESG” – Environmental, Social, and Governance Criteria.

Although the interpretation of ESG is quite broad, the UN Sustainable Development Goals can be viewed as its formal basis. In 2016, the UN introduced a program for attaining 17 sustainable development goals by 2030, the general aim being the maximum eradication of poverty, inequality, and environmental damage.

At the same time, energy issues, as was remarked by International Energy Agency director Fatih Birol, are inextricably linked to most of the sustainable development goals – from improving access to electricity to the use of better cooking fuel, from the reduction of energy subsidies to the decrease of air pollution.

6% of the world’s energy for 17% of the world’s population

It is not a coincidence that all African countries have joined both the UN Sustainable Development Program and the Paris Climate Agreement. Africa, home to 17% of the world’s population, is the most energy-deprived continent, accounting for only 5.9% of the world’s total primary energy supply (IEA: World Energy Outlook 2020. July 2020). Currently, about 640 million Africans – almost three-fifths of the continent’s population – don’t have access to electricity. According to the African Development Bank (African Development Bank Group), energy poverty reduces GDP growth in Africa by 4% each year.

The situation is worst of all in Sub-Saharan Africa where the average rate of electrification for housing is 42% with 595 million people – 55% of the population – do not always have basic access to electricity (Dr. Fatih Birol, Mouhamadou Makhtar Cissé. Energy can power Africa’s recovery from pandemic and recession, June 26, 2020). This is not acceptable.

Reliance on firewood

Another massive challenge for Africa is its extreme energy reliance on the production and consumption of biofuel (primarily firewood). Biofuel represents more than 45% of the total energy supply (compare to the world average of 9%). For example, in Nigeria, the most populated country of the continent, despite the abundance of hydrocarbons and renewable energy sources, more than 60% of the population is not connected to the national network, and about 112 million people depend solely on wood as fuel (IEA: World Energy Outlook 2020. July 2020).

This energy mix has an important anthropogenic impact on the environment, while the small carbon footprint of the continent can be linked only to extremely low energy consumption by Africans.

South Africa: coal power plants, pollution, and energy shortage

The Republic of South Africa, one of the largest regional economies, is representative in this respect. South Africa produces 31% of African electricity and 54% of all energy produced in Sub-Saharan Africa. About 95% of the country’s electricity needs are covered by the South African vertically integrated public company Eskom.

According to the 2019 Eskom annual report, 91.4% of electricity produced by the company is obtained from carbon. As noted by Britain expert Mike Holland, air pollution from the coal power plants of Eskom leads to tens of thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children of South Africa each year.

At the same time, South Africa has suffered for many years from a shortage of energy, which has provoked significant crashes at infrastructure and housing projects, as well as a prolonged economic recession. This situation is related both to the depletion of existing quality anthracite deposits and insufficient investments for the modernization of production capacities. The latter problem is primarily due to the lack of interest of foreign investors to finance an industry under pressure because of its carbon footprint.

Is there really no way out of this situation?

Will green energy be enough?

The necessity to develop green energy in Africa, primarily solar and wind energy, is currently being discussed. Such discussions are entirely justified if we admit the variability in the production of energy from renewable sources and admit that such energy cannot compare in terms of cost for kilowatt-hour with conventional energy. This notion becomes problematic in relation to the extreme poverty of the African population and the limited recovery measures that can be effectuated with the budgets of the continent. At the same time, important reserves of natural gas were discovered in the South-Eastern part of Africa. For example, according to the data of the industrial intelligence company Rystad Energy, the recoverable reserves of gas in neighboring Mozambique are valued at 3.6 billion barrels of oil equivalent (about 612 billion cubic m).

The gas is there. But who will benefit from it?

Given the considerable investments not only in gas production within the country but also in the infrastructure (the project for the creation of a consortium headed by the French double flow liquefaction plant Total with a capacity of 13.1 million tonnes per year), Rystad Energy forecasts that the production of natural gas in Mozambique by 2039 will reach 347 billion cubic meters and that the country will become the largest producer of gas in Africa with production costs of about 6 dollars per mcf (92.9 cubic meters). At the same time, most of the gas production will be oriented towards the markets of Europe and South-East Asia rather than the internal market of Africa.

However, given the development of gas production in the neighbouring country, South Africa has a possibility to convert a part of its gas-producing capacities (one can be sure that foreign investments will be available for such projects). This could help resolve the energy issues of South Africa and, thanks to the cooperation within the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), all the countries of Southern Africa. We are talking about stimulating economic growth and creation of job opportunities in South Africa. Besides purely economic notions, gas can considerably improve the environmental situation in the region. After all, greenhouse gas emissions at a gas power plant are two times lower than at a coal power plant.

As was remarked by Bobby Peek, well-known South African environmentalist and director of the GroundWork Foundation, “we must… ensure a fair transition away from coal energy which kills people and ensure that people who currently do not have access to energy be provided access to clean and healthy energy. We must also begin to dismantle the polluting coal power plants and support the establishment of a new, cleaner, healthier, more efficient energy industry… Let us seize this unique moment to create healthier energy for a healthier people, for a healthier South Africa.”

In the past century, gas contributed to the economic and ecological improvement of Europe

In the 1970-80s, the gradual transition to production of electricity from gas contributed to the modernization of European economies and a significant improvement of their ecology. Since then, this trend went global. According to the estimates of experts from the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), by 2050, global energy demand will grow almost by 30%. At the same time, natural gas will be the only hydrocarbon resource that will increase its share in the global energy mix: from 23% to 27% by 2050, surpassing coal at the end of 2020 and catching up with oil by the end of the projection period.

One can also agree with the participants of the GECF summit that was held in November 2019 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. They specifically noted in the final declaration that natural gas should be central to energy sector of Africa and contribute to the continent’s progress in accordance with the concept of sustainable development to overcome energy poverty and reduce CO2 emissions.

Too frequently in the history of humanity, access to reliable and affordable energy was a privilege for the few select parties rather than a fundamental right of everyone.

* Based on data from the IEA report: World Energy Balances 2020. July 2020

Estimate of the impact of electricity production from coal on health in South Africa

Here is an extract from research into the total quantifiable impact on health of electricity production from carbon in South Africa. The results are presented in the table below. The death estimate is taken from research done on behalf of Greenpeace. The estimated morbidity effects and evaluations are extrapolated in relation to the number of deaths using the CIRCLE study results by the OCDE based on data from 2014.

Equivalent attributable deaths from Number Price, in mln of dollars
Lung cancer 157  
Ischemic heart disease 1110
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 73
Stroke 719
Lower respiratory tract infection 180
Total equivalent attributable deaths 2239 2121.94
Chronic bronchitis (adults, cases) 2781 64.64
Bronchitis (children, 6-12) 9533 2.19
Equivalent hospital admissions 2379 2.79
Days of limited activity (all ages) 3972 902132.72
Days with asthma symptoms

(children, 5-19)

94680 1.44
Lost workdays 996628 47.05
Total expenses   2372.78

The annual impact of electricity production from carbon on health in South Africa.

Distribution of impact among power plants

Utilizing the methods described above and taking into account the variations of pollutant emissions at different power plants, as well as the varying harmful health effects of PM2.5, SO2 and NOx emissions, the total impact on health as described in the table was distributed between different power plants.

It should be noted that special attention was given to the formation of the impact, most notably mortality, which is referred to as “equivalent attributable deaths” rather than just “deaths” in reference to the related arguments of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP). A reference to “deaths” could signify only a certain number of specific people, relating that only these people are relevant and even that these individuals might be discovered. The point of view of COMEAP, as presented here, is that air pollution is followed by a certain number of other factors that draw closer the time of a person’s death.

An individual whose cause of death is stated to be “a cardiovascular sickness” probably developed the sickness in question due to being exposed to a certain quantity of stress factors, notably air pollution, smoking, diet, lack of necessary physical exercise, etc. COMEAP has concluded that the number of people susceptible to air pollution in one way or another was more important than the estimated number of deaths but that the estimation could indicate mortality “by equivalence” due to air pollution.

About the author: Dr. Michael Holland has been working to quantify the impacts of air pollution from electric power systems since 1990, when he worked at the heart of the influential EC-US Fuel Cycles Study financed by the European Commission, European Union Member States, and the United States Department of Energy. Following the completion of the initial study in 1995, this work continued in Europe as the ExternE Study until 2005. Since 1996, Mr. Holland has provided cost-benefit analyses of air quality and industrial policies for a variety of organizations, including the governments of UK, France, Sweden, China, and a number of other countries, as well as for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank.

Declaration of the Fifth Summit of Heads of State and Government of the GECF Member Countries

The Heads of State and Government of Member Countries of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) at the invitation of His Excellency President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, gathered in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on November 29, 2019, for the 5th GECF Summit in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation and reaffirming the absolute and permanent sovereign rights of Member Countries.

The strategic role of the development, deployment and transfer of advanced technologies for more effective production and use of natural gas to enhance its economic and environmental benefits is essential. To fully implement this role, a number of common positions have been reached during the meeting:

– Promote natural gas as an affordable, abundant, and reliable source of energy by encouraging the expansion of natural gas utilization domestically and internationally in different forms and sectors.

– Enhance the contribution of natural gas as destination fuel for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the protection of the environment.

– Support the common interests of Member Countries, as stipulated in the Summit Declarations, GECF Statute and Long Term Strategy, through appropriate policies and measures to maximize the benefits of natural gas for economic development and social progress of our peoples.

– Strengthen the GECF as an effective platform for the Member Countries to cooperate on issues related to natural gas by further developing expertise of the organization, mechanisms for sharing information, experience and best practices; encourage the exchange of views and joint analysis of market conditions and prospects of natural gas through the appropriate GECF mechanisms, to promote international gas trade.

– Support the fundamental role of long-term gas contracts as well as the gas pricing based on oil/oil products indexation, to ensure stable investments in the development of natural gas resources.

– Enhance international positioning of the GECF by attracting new members, promoting dialogue between producers and consumers, and broadening cooperation with the relevant intergovernmental and international organizations and entities.

– Promote the GECF cooperation with African countries to use gas as the core source of energy in their development programs and climate change policies to overcome energy poverty.

– Enhance development and mitigate CO2 emissions.

Dimitri de Kochko is an independent journalist, specialist in economics and international relations.