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Industrialization beyond the African climate paradox

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By Evelyn Dan Epelle

· 8 min read

Africa's vulnerability to climate change stems from a combination of geographical, socio-economic, and political factors. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the continent experiences higher temperature increases than the global average, leading to severe droughts, floods, and rising sea levels. These climatic changes exacerbate existing issues such as poverty, food insecurity, and inadequate infrastructure.

Africa, a continent rich in natural resources and cultural heritage, faces an existential threat from climate change. Despite contributing a mere 4% to global greenhouse gas emissions, African nations disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

The above paradox places Africa at a unique juncture where the need for industrialization to foster development must be balanced with the imperative to align with global calls for a green energy transition. Africa’s climate paradox is typified by ‘minimal contribution, maximum suffering,’ and this article explores how African governments can strategically position their countries to secure climate financing and take robust climate action to address the dual challenge of industrialization and climate justice. 

The imperatives for Africa’s industrialization

The historical and ongoing industrial activities in developed nations are the primary drivers of global warming. In contrast, Africa's limited industrial base means its contribution to global emissions is negligible. As such, the demands that countries most responsible for emissions should bear the largest burden of mitigation and adaptation efforts are justified. Industrialization is critical for African countries to achieve economic growth, create jobs, and improve living standards.

The African Union's Agenda 2063 and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) both emphasize the importance of industrial development in eradicating poverty and fostering sustainable economic growth. However, traditional industrialization pathways, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, are unsustainable in the context of climate change. Green industrialization offers a solution, enabling African countries to pursue economic development while minimizing environmental impacts. This approach involves adopting clean technologies, enhancing energy efficiency, and transitioning to renewable energy sources to avert a climate crisis.

In March 2024, stakeholders convened for the annual African Diaspora Investment Symposium (ADIS24) in Silicon Valley, exploring how to build a sustainable, thriving future for Africa under the theme “Activate with Africa: Climate Change, Connections, and Action.” I spoke on the African climate paradox with Thomas Dabass, Managing Director of the Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State,  who moderated a panel on ‘Sustaining the Future: Beyond Remittances to Diaspora Investment in Green Energy’ at ADIS24. His comments provide much-needed thought leadership on how Africa may advance its developmental objectives:

“Africa indeed contributes the least to the climate crisis; but should Africa contribute more? Africa has to industrialize but not in a way that further worsens the climate crisis. What needs to change is our perspective towards climate negotiations. Africa can develop an energy mix to meet the energy demands of its growing population, against the realities of this dire need for a just transition,”

Mr. Dabass calls for a shift in perspective that will position Africa as part of the solution to the climate crisis. Harnessing new and cleaner energy resources is key to reducing reliance on fossil fuels and achieving sustainable industrialization. African countries can meet their industrialization and energy needs while positioning themselves as key players in the global green economy. 

Africa’s renewable energy resources 

Africa is endowed with abundant natural resources that are critical for the green energy transition, including solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal. These resources include minerals and metals essential for renewable energy technologies and energy storage systems. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the world's largest producer of cobalt, a crucial component of lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used in electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy storage systems. Countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia have significant lithium reserves, a vital element for the burgeoning electric vehicle market and renewable energy storage solutions. Rare earth elements (REEs) are essential for the production of wind turbines, solar panels, and various electronic devices. 

Fig 1.1 - Resources for Green Energy Transition and Industrialization

Africa also has substantial reserves of REEs, particularly in countries like South Africa, Burundi, and Malawi. Harnessing REEs and expanding copper production in Zambia and the DRC can enhance local industrial capacities and supply the global market with essential materials for green technologies.

According to the African Diaspora Network (ADN), Africa received almost $60 billion in renewable energy investments from 2000 to 2020, leading to an impressive average growth rate of 96% in renewable energy investments during this period, compared to 15% in Asia-Oceania and 7% globally (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2022). Despite this rapid growth, renewable energy investment in Africa only accounts for 2% of global investment over those two decades. Africa's vast renewable energy resources present a significant opportunity for investments in the green energy sector, contributing to the continent's sustainable development while generating financial returns. 

Strategies for climate financing and action

Africa's wealth of natural resources presents a unique opportunity to drive green industrialization and support the global energy transition. The exploitation of Africa’s natural resources in the past however calls for the adoption of sustainable extracting practices, focusing on value addition, regional cooperation, and mutually beneficial trade agreements. These strategies will enable Africa to transform its natural resource wealth into a catalyst for sustainable development and prosperity, meet its development goals, create economic opportunities, and play a crucial role in the global fight against climate change. Africa's energy resources are advantageous for realizing its green energy transition and industrialization agendas. A few ways that Africa can take action to finance targeted green growth initiatives include:

Leveraging international climate finance - International climate finance is crucial for African countries to implement green industrialization and climate adaptation projects. Sources of climate finance include multilateral funds like the Green Climate Fund (GCF), bilateral aid from developed countries, and private sector investments.

Green climate fund - The GCF, established under the UNFCCC, aims to assist developing countries in limiting or reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. African governments can access these funds by developing robust proposals that align with GCF's investment criteria, which emphasize transformational impacts, sustainable development, and the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

Bilateral and multilateral aid - Developed countries have committed to mobilizing $100 billion annually in climate finance to support developing nations. African governments should actively engage in international negotiations to ensure fair allocation of these funds. They can also form strategic partnerships with donor countries and multilateral organizations to secure funding for green projects.

Debt for climate swaps - Researchers at the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA) have explored the need for, viability of, and impacts of debt swaps in Nigeria. The Paris Club ODA debt and underperforming private sector debt together comprise a sum of more than $3.7 billion whose exchange could free up resources to fund development priorities for facilitators of the debt swap. 

Private sector investment - Encouraging private sector investment in green technologies is vital. African governments can create conducive environments for private investment by offering incentives such as tax breaks, subsidies, and public-private partnerships (PPPs). Regulatory frameworks that provide clarity and stability are also essential to attract investors.

Green industrial policies - Governments should formulate green industrial policies that promote the adoption of clean technologies and sustainable practices. These policies could include support for research and development, capacity building, and technology transfer. Establishing special economic zones (SEZs) focused on green industries can also drive innovation and attract investments.

Strengthening institutions - Effective implementation of climate policies requires strong institutions with adequate resources and capacities. African governments should invest in building the capacities of relevant institutions, including ministries of environment, energy, and industry. This includes training personnel, improving data collection and analysis capabilities, and enhancing coordination among different sectors and levels of government.

Regional cooperation and knowledge sharing - Regional cooperation is critical for addressing climate change, given the transboundary nature of many environmental issues. African countries can benefit from sharing knowledge, experiences, and resources.

African union and regional economic communities - The African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (RECs) like ECOWAS, SADC, and EAC can facilitate the development of regional climate strategies, promote cross-border projects, and coordinate advocacy efforts at international forums.

South-South cooperation - South-South cooperation involves collaboration among developing countries to learn from each other's experiences in implementing green technologies and policies. Platforms such as the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) provide opportunities for such exchanges.


Africa stands at a critical crossroads in its pursuit of development and climate justice. By strategically leveraging international climate finance, implementing robust national policies, promoting regional cooperation, and investing in renewable energy and sustainable practices, African governments can position their countries for a green and prosperous future. The path to green industrialization is feasible and necessary to ensure that Africa contributes to global climate goals while achieving its development objectives. Through collective efforts and innovative approaches, Africa can turn the climate crisis into an opportunity for sustainable growth and resilience.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Evelyn Dan Epelle is a resident Communications Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA). She is a foreign correspondent at KAFTAN TV and a Catalyst at Baobab Consulting LLC. She holds a Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Engineering degree from All Nations University, Ghana.

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