Seventeen of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change are found in Africa, with the continent requiring an infusion of funding to help it adapt to the economic and humanitarian challenge of repeated climate disasters. Africa is also home to about 60% of the most solar-rich environments in the world, according to the United Nations, although the west has so far been far less interested in harnessing the continent’s sun than its fossil fuels.
The US government has funneled more than $9bn (£7.7bn) into oil and gas projects in Africa since it signed up to restrain global heating in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a tally of official data shows, committing just $682m (£587m) to clean energy developments such as wind and solar over the same period.
Two-thirds of all the money the US has committed globally to fossil fuels in this time has been plowed into Africa, a continent rich in various minerals but also one in which 600 million people live without electricity and where floods, severe heatwaves and droughts are taking an increasingly devastating toll as the planet heats due to the combustion of coal, oil and gas.
Last year, the Biden administration ordered a halt to investments in “carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy projects” globally, promising to usher in a new era of renewables. But sources close to the main agencies involved said that there was no plan as yet to adhere to the president’s goal, risking further greenhouse gas emissions.
“I was thrilled with the promises from the Biden administration but over the last two years its been a slow walk back to the point where you couldn’t tell the difference between Biden and Trump on overseas fossil fuel finance,” said Kate DeAngelis, international finance program manager at Friends of the Earth. She said, “It’s just business as usual. We are seeing some of the most vulnerable communities in Africa be negatively impacted and they don’t have a voice.”
The Export-Import Bank of the United States (Exim) is the official export credit agency of the US, established as an independent body and tasked with bolstering American jobs by facilitating exports through financing that private lenders are unwilling to provide. Over the past decade, the agency has propped up coal mining in South Africa, oil drilling in Nigeria and is now supporting a vast gas project in Mozambique as part of a mission to “increase American exports across the continent”, as Reta Jo Lewis, Exim’s president, put it in September. Exim is bound by statute to not explicitly favor one sector, such as wind or solar, over another, such as oil or gas.
From 2016 until last year, Exim’s financing of fossil fuels in Africa dwarfed renewable funding by a factor of 51 to one. The billions of dollars in finance provided by Exim and the United States International Development Finance Corporation, which in the past five years has spent $3.4bn (£2.9bn) bankrolling fossil projects such as oil facilities Guinea and Senegal and a gas pipeline in Egypt. In 2019, Exim made its biggest bet yet on gas, agreeing to provide a $4.7bn (£4bn) loan to finance a project in northern Mozambique overseen by Total, the French oil giant. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world but the push to exploit its deep reserves of gas is only likely to enrich members of the country’s elite and do nothing to bring electricity to the 70% of people who do not have it.
Youba Sokona, a climate scientist from Mali who is a vice-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said there was a “tremendous” opportunity to deploy solar-sourced electricity to shift communities away from practices such as cooking with charcoal but that such decisions were largely not being made by Africans themselves.
He explained, “Unfortunately this investment from the US is not feeding the development of Africa, it’s creating fossil fuels for export, this is the problem. The US isn’t investing for the interest of Africans, it’s investing for the interests of the US.
Daniel Ribeiro, a campaign coordinator at Justiça Ambiental, a Mozambique environmental group pointed out, “It saddens me that the US continues to say pretty words but do bad things. Whenever there’s a conflict between making money and making a moral decision, we know what is going to win. That is where the US’s ability to produce beautiful narratives that hide the blood on their hands comes in. He added, “At least China doesn’t pretend that they are investing in Mozambique for any other reason than to make money. The US could at least be honest that this project will be terrible.”