For many years, Africa has always been regarded as a key frontier globally, revered immensely for her abundance in resources. It is for this reason that multinational corporations and foreign states have traversed the length and breadth of the expansive continent seeking a share of the wealth arising from natural resources. It is safe to say that the most lucrative of these have always been existing below the ground, in the name of mineral resources. Oil for instance, which has earned the nickname ‘black gold’ in the global arena has proven to be key in driving economies in Africa such as Angola, Ghana and Nigeria and contributing to industrial and societal renaissance. That speaks to the fact that any discovery of a fossil fuel in any country is greeted with enthusiasm and a great deal of expectation.
This is the case for the East African region in the case of Kenya and Uganda. In addition to oil discoveries in Kenya, Coal discoveries and exploration have added to the high expectation in the energy sector, informing debate and discussions about anticipated benefits with vague considerations of any cost or implications. The truth however is that considering the anticipated boost to energy production in isolation will be missing the whole picture. There are social and environmental cost intricately entwined to every endeavor to pursue fossil fuels. This realization needs to be vivid for Kenya.
Confronting Deeply Entrenched Perceptions about Fossil Fuels
For many years Kenya has grappled with a deficit in energy production which has been insufficient to meet domestic and industrial needs, and very often has been cited as a cause for slow economic growth and high costs of investment. With a burgeoning population and mid-income status to maintain, energy alternatives have been long overdue. Traditionally, hydropower has always accounted for the bulk of electricity generated in the country. However, while the apparent energy deficit may have been a good opportunity for government and industry players to explore the immense possibilities that come with renewable energy sources readily available to the country, a totally different path was charted. The narrative of coal, petroleum and even nuclear power is said to be on the cards. That regardless, positions on amount of reserves of the aforementioned resources as well as viability have been shaky.
Many have touted this move as the ultimate solution to the energy shortcomings as is perceived from scenarios in other countries that have experienced progress from fossil fuels such as Ghana, Nigeria and Angola. This perception that has always been perpetuated that exploration and use of fossil fuels is in itself a gateway to prosperity is lopsided and misleading in the current global times. We live in environmental times where the world over people have woken up to the realization that fossil fuels are themselves driving unprecedented phenomena such as global warming and climate change and variability through greenhouse gas emissions.
Therefore, a paradigm shift as far as the energy sector in Kenya is concerned is needed so that the spirit of pursuit of clean, non-polluting energy sources which resonates with global consensus and agreements such as the recent Paris Climate agreement.
Harm Associated with Fossil Fuels
The use of coal and petroleum has single-handedly brought untold environmental and social effects. Right from extraction to use, fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum have been known to contribute to proliferation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting in global warming. Air pollution is also an associated effect that has caused respiratory illnesses to communities. Residues and effluent from fossil fuels have contaminated soil, water and other environmental pathways. This has even affected crop production which is at the heart of human well-being. China and India which have extensive coal use have paid high environmental and social costs with fatalities being reported.
Kenya is thus occupying a unique position and vantage point in the decision to shift to extensive use of fossil fuels as the harm is apparent and real. Civil society activities in other countries such as Nigeria, under ‘Break Free from Fossil Fuels’ have organized demonstrations to express their displeasure in the environmental damage the petroleum industry is bringing as well as show that a future without petroleum is possible. They have demanded closure of companies involved in offshore extraction of petroleum.
Kenya’s Transition into Green Energy
In 2013, 74.5% of electricity generated in Kenya was from renewable energy sources. This same spirit and momentum needs to be maintained since immense opportunities in energy production lie in solar, wind and geothermal energy in addition to the hydropower background that the country depends on. Foreign nations and international development organizations such as the World Bank have announced that they would no longer fund projects in fossil fuel such as coal. This has opened the door for Kenya to upscale it investments in green energy, rather than backtrack into a path of pollution many nations are striving to avoid. Geothermal energy in Kenya has not been fully explored, neither has wind energy. Experts in the energy sector have written and explained the viability and potential that these sources can contribute collectively towards achieving the near 18,000 MW of power due by 2030 to contribute toward attainment of the Vision 2030.
Civil society in Kenya can learn a lot from actions of organizations in other countries to fight for environmental rights in the energy sector, for instance through Break Free from Fossil Fuels. It is encouraging to note the effort by ‘Kenya civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas’ which has published a detailed report on the Agenda for Kenya’s Oil and Gas Development detailing various resolutions intended for government agencies and sector players on tackling environmental and social challenges that Kenya may face as new nation to oil production.
Civil society organizations always form a critical part of international meetings such as climate conferences like COP and thus need to translate the same zeal at national level. With every intent to pursue fossil fuel in Kenya by the government, civil society organizations can voice their displeasure at this move and send a clear message to the Kenyan masses that the future of energy sustainability in the country lies not in fossil fuel but renewable energy.