11/25/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Fighting African Energy Poverty Without Serious Harm to the Environment

There are 589 million Africans living without access to modern forms of power. Access to reliable energy is directly linked to economic development and improved livelihoods. In fact, the achievement of nearly all human development goals is dependent upon modern energy access. It powers schools, hospitals, businesses and livelihoods and the lack of it can also disproportionately impact women and girls. In many places in Africa, women and girls are forced to spend hours each day finding firewood, one of the main reasons for the absences of girls in schools, and the lack of evening lighting in certain areas puts women at greater risk of attack or rape.

There is no simple response to the development dilemma of providing increased energy access to the poorest, particularly in light of impending threats of climate change and increasing international pressure for all countries to reduce their overall global carbon emissions. However, climate change concerns must be equitably balanced with the need to address Africa's immediate energy poverty needs.

The UN definition of 'sustainable energy' is energy that is produced and used in ways that will support long-term human development in all of its social, economic and environmental dimensions. Balancing these equally important objectives is the key to finding a long-term sustainable energy solution for Africa. There is a need to urgently reconcile both human development energy needs while maintaining and upholding the need for environmental integrity and climate change mitigation.

In Africa, responses will need to be defined by nationally appropriate commitments, aligned with national circumstances and capabilities. In the short-term, at least for the poorest and least emitting countries, this means responses will include a mixture of renewable and non-renewable solutions.

A call for the poorest African countries to refrain entirely from fossil fuel use in their immediate future is, in my perspective, unfair and divorced from the reality on the ground. It is important to recognize the need of African countries to access and make use of their own natural resources, to primarily focus on the growth and empowerment of their own populations first. For one thing, there are approximately 14 million additional sub-Saharan Africans entering the workforce every year who need jobs and government leaders face an increasing political imperative to address the energy-related constraints for their growing populations. Businesses in Africa cite unreliable power as their major growth constraint. It is therefore imperative that governments act using resources that are cost effective and readily available to address this important obstacle to private sector development -- a key driver for job creation and sub-Saharan Africa's inclusive growth.

Also, there is a need to take into account climate justice and equity. We all recognize there is a strong need to dramatically scale up renewables in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly for some of the larger more polluting countries. However it is also important to recognize that sub-Saharan Africa comprises 12.5 percent of the world's population, but it is currently responsible for less than 3 percent of global emissions. Indeed the majority of sub-Saharan African countries have per capita CO2 emissions of less than 1 percent of a United States' citizen. Even if the 589 million sub-Saharan Africans living without electricity got basic levels of access to modern energy, estimates show that it would only raise global emissions by 1 percent. From this it is clear that in the short-term the climate crisis is not going to be solved by unfairly impeding these poorest least emitting African nations from providing necessary power mixes as they see fit.

President Obama's Power Africa and Congress' Electrify Africa Act are two initiatives aimed at tackling energy poverty by empowering the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to mobilize private capital for energy projects. These U.S.-led proposals offer some solutions that can help bring power to millions of people without any significant harm to the environment.

In doing this, while these U.S.-led initiatives aim to positively increase renewable energy investments in Africa, it is important that this is also balanced with a scaling-up of traditional grid investment. As poverty-fighting groups like The ONE Campaign have pointed out, in the necessary scale-up of investment needed to address the African energy need, it is essential to ensure that OPIC has an appropriately flexible carbon cap for the poorest, least emitting nations. The agency's current 'one-size-fits-all' limit on total fossil fuel emissions can have the unintended consequence of limiting development and harming poverty alleviation efforts in some of the world's most impoverished and lowest emitting nations.

Africans need to make use of their own broad array of natural resources in order to unlock their economic growth potential and reduce their dependency on imported energy sources. Investment in energy infrastructure, both renewable and non-renewable, is urgently needed for the poorest countries to access these resources. This can be balanced with investments in an array of new technology to greatly improve energy efficiency and to capture and store carbon.