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Shaping the Future of Energy Towards the Global Good – How the Northern and Southern Hemispheres Can Find Common Ground

The Global North has often been accused of hypocrisy when it comes to the energy transition, by putting pressure on developing nations to move to renewables whilst they continue to invest in fossil fuels. At the same time, oil and gas from Africa are routinely being used to power European countries.

These were just some of the hot topics that emerged in an interactive, multi-country debate co-hosted by Wits Business School (WBS) which looked at the energy transition from the perspectives of the Global North and South. In Part 1 of a virtual series Powering the Energy Transition: A Tale of Two Hemispheres the stage was set, and with two academics and two industry practitioners representing each hemisphere, the debate was robust and insightful.

When, at the beginning of the session, Head of WBS Prof Maurice Radebe’s introduction was interrupted by a power outage caused by load-shedding, the irony was not lost on the participants, all of whom emphasised the importance of basic energy security and access as a global human right.

Representing the Global South from an academic perspective, Prof Lwazi Ngubevana, Director of WBS’s Africa Energy Leadership Centre (AELC), noted that a key message that emerges time and again in the research is that of justice. “There are many aspects to justice, but top of the list is energy security and access .Six hundred  million Africans have no access to electricity and 100 million no access to clean cooking – so what comes out of all our research is Africa needs access to modern energy. But when it comes to transitioning to a low-carbon economy, we cannot do so recklessly, because we will find ourselves in a situation where our energy security is at risk.”

Also representing the Global South was NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman of the African Energy Chamber,  who spoke passionately about the need for Africa to utilise its own resources, including oil and gas, in order to reach its industrial potential. “The Global North needs to decarbonise while the Global South needs to industrialise. This is not the time to abandon our fossil fuels. We need to industrialise using our resources.”

“Meanwhile,” he continued, “less than two percent of global investment into renewables has gone to the African continent. Africa has been told to wait for aid from the Global North in order for us to have renewables…. So, the idea is that we have to wait for aid when we have abundant resources within this continent. And then to have our own gas used to power countries in Europe? This is hypocrisy. Climate change and energy poverty are two sides of the same coin.”

Speaking from a Global North corporate perspective, Mr Burhan Koç, Executive Director of Business Development at ENGIE North America (a global renewable energy company), detailed the many decentralised initiatives taking place in the US. There is a huge uptake on the part of corporates subscribing to the RE100 global corporate renewables initiative, but also individual states, cities and towns are making their own pledges towards a 100% renewable future. “But it’s not as simple as wind or solar, it’s making renewable energies economical and consumable for the population. Therefore, there are many initiatives – both corporate and non-corporate – which are looking at decentralised infrastructural solutions to providing affordable access to renewable energy for the consumer.”

From an academic perspective, Dr Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Chief Energy Officer at the University of Houston, USA, echoed that energy is a human necessity which needs to be reliable, affordable and sustainable for all. “This is a ‘trilemma’ which no one solution can address. That renewable electricity is a silver bullet is the biggest myth.”

“We are not paying sufficient attention to global supply chain challenges and global demand challenges. There is a mismatch, because energy is still unaffordable for most people,” he said, noting that even in the US, one-sixth of the population lives in energy poverty.

“We have to reduce emissions, while at the same time reduce the costs and risks associated with the new energy paradigm. Capacity and growth are the big issues going forward: how to grow capacity in a distributive way and find ways to ensure equitable jobs around the world.”

The issue of jobs was also highlighted by Prof Ngubevana, who noted that around 120 000 people in South Africa are directly employed by the coal industry, let alone the multiplier effect of the many businesses who depend on the fossil fuels industry. “As we transition, we have to find ways to protect those jobs, and to ensure new jobs are created in the lower carbon future.”

“Africa absolutely has to own its own agenda when it comes to a just energy transition. We have to determine our own timelines and it cannot be that we are influenced by global policy,” he added.

Policy is just one of the many drivers of a global just energy transition. Dr Krishnamoorti detailed the key technology pillars of a net-zero energy transition, as well as the key technology enablers, including digital transformation, automation and robotics, and the measurement of energy intensity and carbon footprint.

“But most important, we have to ask ourselves about the social impact. We have routinely used lifecycle analysis and techno-economic analysis around the world to drive energy policy. Adding a social component starts to address quality of life for humans, as well as jobs and economic development. In this there are many opportunities for the Global North and the Global South to collaborate.”

Powering the Energy Transition: A Tale of Two Hemispheres was the first in a series of six virtual sessions, an initiative of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) for Energy Transition Impact Community. The series is being co-hosted by Rotterdam School of School of Management at Erasmus University, Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, and Wits Business School.