ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Africa's growing economy and reliance on carbon-emitting energy from wood and charcoal could "exponentially" worsen global warming unless the continent steps up its investment in wind, solar and hydro power, the head of a new international energy agency said Friday.
The key to ramping up renewable energy resources is to develop a regulatory framework to convince institutional investors it's safe to put their money into these cutting-edge technologies, Adnan Amin told nearly 30 African energy and foreign affairs ministers at the start of a two-day meeting.
"If Africa continues to grow at pace it is growing and intensifies that growth and uses only carbon-emitting forms of energy, it will exponentially change the picture on climate change and make it much worse," said Amin, a Kenyan who is director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency.
"We need right now to start making the kinds of investment that will lead Africa on a very different path," he said.
There is a global push to reduce dependence on traditional forms of energy like oil and coal as part of efforts to combat global warming and keep temperatures from rising more than 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius) above preindustrial-era levels. Such a rise could have a catastrophic effect on the climate.
Until now, Africa has largely been left on the sidelines of discussions about climate change, mostly because its poor nations only use 5 percent of the world's energy.
But that thinking is beginning to change, as Africa's economy picks up steam and demands intensify to provide electricity to the more than half a billion mostly rural residents who live without it. There is also a push in Africa to find cleaner sources of energy, since almost half now come from burning wood and charcoal.
Rajendar Pachauri, who chairs the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the meeting in Abu Dhabi that he sees great potential for renewable energy in Africa, especially hydro, solar and wind power.
He said renewables will be cheaper than traditional sources and that Africa has an abundance of land that could be used for solar and wind farms.
"The potential is enormous," he said on the sidelines of the meeting. "Given the fact we have over 500 million people without access to electricity, that is a huge niche market that could be tapped in an economically viable way. If you would provide this section of society with electricity from the grid, it would turn out to be far more expensive."
Ministers and officials from the African Union and African development agencies all talked up the potential for renewables, with many saying the best hopes lie with hydro power in countries with large rivers, geothermal in Kenya's Rift Valley and solar almost everywhere on the continent.
Sugarcane-producing countries could also burn the refuse to produce energy in a process known as biogas.
"We have sun in abundance and that is an area we can tap," Gambia's Foreign Minister Mamadou Tangara said. "The initial investment is very high but in terms of sustainability and the long term impact, renewable energy is the way forward for Africa."
Already, the United Nation's Environment Program said there are signs that renewable energy is starting to catch on in Africa. In a report released Thursday, it found renewable investment in the past year has increased 104 percent in the Middle East and Africa, including wind and geothermal projects in Kenya as well as wind projects in Egypt and Cape Verde.
Experts predicted Friday that renewables could represent up to 60 percent of the energy mix in Africa by 2035. However, several African ministers, including Mali's Minister of Energy and Water Habib Ouane, acknowledged that plenty of challenges remain.
Currently Africa only spends $10 billion a year on the power sector or about one-fifth of what is required to meet demand. It would have to train workers for green jobs and work on a regional level to get projects built.
"What we really need to make difference here is not to have few consultants from northern countries coming to you, writing reports and going back," Amin said. "If we can get the policy framework right and create incentives and provide security of the investments, over time the Africa market can be massive for renewable energy."
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