Climate Change Mitigation Policies Could Facilitate Universal Electricity Access In Sub-Saharan Africa

Energy is fundamental to development. SDG7 acknowledges that ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all is one of the main goals for development, while it is also embraced by the Paris Agreement.

The use of appliances like mobile phones, radios, and fans require access to electricity, while lighting provides extra hours to study or work. Still, more than half of the 1.2 billion people without access to electricity in 2013 live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, achieving SDG7 requires Sub-Saharan African countries to expand electricity access substantially, especially since the population is projected to grow rapidly.

Figure 1: Least-cost electrification systems for universal electricity access with and without climate policy. (Republished with permission from Elsevier)

However, providing access to electricity to over a billion people in just over 10 years will have consequences on the climate. Several studies show that there are a number of possible trade-offs between providing access to electricity and climate policy. For instance, increasing electricity access at a pace that enables universal access by 2030 could contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, both directly by increasing energy consumption, and indirectly by promoting economic growth. Others argue that, since the additional energy consumed by poor households is expected to be very small, the impact on the climate dwarfs its contribution to human development.

In our study, we looked at a number of indicators that describe demand, production, and costs of future developments in the power system in Sub-Saharan Africa under several scenarios, in a bid to understand the relation of increasing electricity access and climate change mitigation policies.  The study employed the Integrated Assessment Model (IAM) IMAGE-TIMER, including a purpose designed electrification model and a household electricity demand model.

This model is particularly suited to the analysis, as it combines a detailed electrification model containing several on-grid and off-grid electrification options, with an IAM that takes into account the synergies and trade-offs with (global) climate change mitigation policies. The choice between electrification systems (grid, mini-grid, and stand-alone) is based on local data about socioeconomic characteristics and potentials and prices of various off-grid technologies (solar PV, wind power, mini-hydro, diesel generators).

The study explored the future developments in the sector focusing on differences in electricity demand, production, and costs under various plausible scenarios. Climate policy is represented by a globally-coordinated carbon price imposed in all regions, including Sub-Saharan Africa. Based on the results of the model, the study concludes that there is a strong synergy between universal electricity access and climate change mitigation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Universal electricity access results in a modest increase in CO2 emissions compared to the projected global CO2 emissions. Due to the low per capita electricity consumption, current electricity-related residential CO2 emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa are very low. These emissions are projected to increase considerably relative to the baseline development if universal access to electricity is to be achieved without climate policy. However, since the global emission is also projected to increase much faster, which makes the increase in emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa negligible. At the same time, this projected increase in emissions can be completely offset through a coordinated climate policy due to efficiency improvements and a shift to low-carbon energy sources.

The strong synergy between climate change mitigation policy and universal electricity access in the region is actually related to significant efficiency improvements and declining costs of renewable energy technologies, which seem to be mutually reinforcing. The efficiency improvements are the result of consumers increasingly choosing more efficient appliances and consumers using their appliances more efficiently. Sub-Saharan Africa also benefits from declining costs of renewable energy technologies due to rapid learning resulting from an increased adoption of renewable energy technologies forced by increasing fossil fuel prices. This could be an opportunity for Sub-Saharan Africa to leapfrog to renewable energy based electricity system, decarbonize the system, ensure sustainable development, establish energy security, and avoid fossil fuel lock-in in the long term, while at the same time avoiding billions of USD in energy-system investments.

Achieving universal electricity access comes with a heavy price tag that requires a tripling of the current annual investment in the Sub-Saharan Africa electricity-system. The study shows that the annual cost of providing universal electricity requires USD 27 billion (with climate policies) and could even be as high as USD 33 billion if we fail to implement globally coordinated climate policies. A large chunk of the investment is projected to go to expanding the transmission and distribution networks since the regions’ energy potential is neither evenly distributed, nor always located close to demand centers. According to our study, achieving universal access electricity requires a considerable amount of investment, but regional challenges, such as lack of political will and corruption, are likely to increase the true cost of the transition.

One important trade-off that our study identified is the increase in regional electricity costs per kWh for households that will affect the bottom billion. However, one can argue that the poor already pay more for alternative (and mostly polluting) electricity sources like kerosene and candles, while being hindered from connecting to existing power lines by high connection fees. Studies show that by replacing kerosene lamp and candle lighting with electric bulbs improves household health and safety considerably, while at the same time providing higher qualities and quantities of light. Therefore, we recommend that climate mitigation policies should be combined with complementary policies that protect the poor from increasing electricity prices (such as free basic electricity, low consumption low tariff, cross-subsidization, etc…).

Figure 2: 2010-2030 cumulative investments on top of the baseline for universal electricity access with and without climate policy. (Republished with permission from Elsevier)

These findings are described in the article entitled Trade-offs and synergies between universal electricity access and climate change mitigation in Sub-Saharan Africa, recently published in the journal Energy Policy. This work was conducted by Anteneh G. Dagnachew, Paul L. Lucas, Andries F. Hof, and Detlef P. van Vuuren from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

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