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As Sub-Saharan Africa becomes increasingly urban, environmental and research agencies are coming up with the means to ensure that future growth is managed sustainably.

December 2015

It’s no secret; Africa contributes very little to global climate change today, however the continent is in the midst of an economic boom as it holds some of the world’s fastest growing economies. In order for the continent not to repeat the mistakes of developed countries, it is essential that future growth be managed sustainably from the onset – and it begins with local government, experts say.

The pace at which urban growth is happening in Africa is inevitably placing strain on city authorities. At the moment the continent is experiencing a massive flow of people into urban areas, especially Lagos, Accra and Dar es Salaam. Local governments and environmental agencies are trying to come up with ways to implement climate active ingredients from the ground-up to effectively reduce the strain on urban cities.

Several initiatives are currently at play, including the action-oriented research project Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transitions (SAMSET) – a four-year project aimed to address sustainable energy transitions in Africa cities. The initiative provides practical planning and implementation support to municipalities in small or secondary cities to manage future energy planning and involves two cities from each of the three African countries – Ghana, Uganda and South Africa.

Energy issues in Sub-Saharan Africa

According to SAMSET project manager, Mark Borchers urbanisation rates in Africa are the highest in the world and in most Sub-Saharan countries service delivery is inadequate to keep up with the needs. Africa’s population is expected to nearly double from 2010 to 2040, by which time the population will be more than 50% urbanised.

African populations remain among the poorest in the world, and efforts to achieve the energy-related dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals have in most cases not had significant impact on urban populations.

“However, in spite of being resource-rich, access to modern energy in Sub-Saharan Africa remains low – even in many urban areas – and the use of unsafe and unhealthy fuels is widespread, energy infrastructure is poorly developed, and electricity supply is often unreliable. The region lags behind in terms of energy for economic growth as well as access to modern energy to improve welfare,” says Borchers.

While the impact of global warming on Sub-Saharan Africa will be devastating, currently the region’s contribution to global warming is insignificant at around 1.8% of the global total emissions, with per capita emissions from Europe being 50 to 100 times more, and from USA being 100 to 200 times more. “The IEA (International Energy Agency) expects that this contribution will not rise significantly in the decades to come, in spite of a partial move from biomass to ‘modern’ energy, because of an anticipated shift toward less energy intensive economic activity, including the service industry,” says Borchers.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa faces significant challenges regarding the transition to sustainable energy and a prosperous future, there is growing support for this transition which the region needs to tap into strategically. The region should not just draw on such support as a passive beneficiary, but must ensure that resulting initiatives support a truly developmental agenda,” he adds.

The role of local municipalities  

In order for African cities to transition and deploy energy modelling approaches, municipalities need to be stronger players in supporting a sustainable future for African cities, says Borchers. “Their core role around urban planning, transports planning, and building plan approvals, amongst others, are important factors in its cities transforming into sustainable energy efficient cities,” he says.

There is little experience engaging with local governments around sustainable energy in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, however, long-term local government support initiatives are slowly emerging. The SAMSET project is one of a growing number of programmes now focusing on helping local governments transition into a sustainable city.

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