The easiest climate action Africa can take? Cut petrol subsidies
It’s big. It’s immediate. And it even saves money. To end government funding for fossil fuel is a game-changer. And at last it’s happening.
1. Africa's bold move to end fuel subsidies
Angola just joined the bandwagon of nations phasing out cheap petrol. All subsidies will be gone by late 2025, the government announced.
This is despite public protests over rising prices, including for fuel.
Senegal: January 2023
Ghana: March 2023
Nigeria: May 2023
Kenya: September 2022
Cold reason: Climate consciousness is not the main driver. Surging debts and fuel prices are.
Many governments can simply no longer afford to pay.
Nigeria spent 15% of its government budget on subsidies.
More than education (8.2%) and health (5.3%) together.
Climate impact: Fossil fuel use is one of Africa’s largest generators of CO2.
Transport contributes about 40% of the continent’s emissions.
Why it matters: Amid slow and expensive climate progress, removing subsidies is an accessible and immediate step toward cutting harmful emissions.
Fossil fuel use may go down by as much as 30% after subsidy removal.
Nigeria expects to save as much as 15 million tonnes of CO2 annually (the equivalent of planting 600 million trees).
Even better: Reducing emissions is not the only benefit of subsidy cuts. They also make sustainable alternatives more competitive, thus boosting investment in clean-tech.
Electric vehicles win as more expensive fuel renders them comparatively cheaper, which should boost transition and adoption.
Renewable energy also wins. Power generation from fossil fuel becomes more expensive, levelling the playing field for solar, geothermal and more.
Less obviously: Other climate sectors on the continent also get a boost.
Sustainable agriculture benefits as the advantages of using diesel pumps for watering decline. A cost increase for old-style agriculture makes eco-farming more competitive.
Carbon markets benefit indirectly as competitive opportunities to buy & sell credits increase with the overall acceleration of the green transition.
Reality check: The survival of fuel subsidies until now, especially in Africa, is not an oversight. Strong political constituencies have long demanded them, including business and the poor.
This makes removing subsidies tricky.
Cuts are often met with violent unrest.
Strategic clarity: What African governments are learning to do now is explain the need for cuts better and finesse the implementation.
Experts advocate phased or gradual cuts rather than all-in-one.
Also useful is the reallocation of funds to benefit those hardest hit by higher fuel prices.
This may take the form of tax cuts and more generous welfare payments.
Economic logic: Above all, governments need to win the battle of ideas by convincing the public of the toxicity of subsidies.
They cause fiscal strain, distort resource allocation, pile up public debts, deplete foreign exchange reserves, foster pollution and primarily benefit higher-income households.
Removing subsidies and revising foreign exchange controls could save Nigeria $27 billion by 2025, says the World Bank – money that could be invested otherwise.
Global nominal fuel subsidies cost a record $1 trillion in 2022. The IMF reckons the true cost is more like $7 trillion, equal to about 7% of global GDP. What if a fraction of that was invested in African climate solutions…?
2. Making tree-planting count
Political gimmick or killer app for Africa’s climate? It depends on the way you do it.
The news: Kenya took the unusual step of declaring a national holiday this week to plant 100 million trees – two for every citizen.
The government supplied 150 million seedlings in public nurseries.
Software recommended species by location and monitored progress.
Numeric ambition: Few could fault Kenya’s goals.
Plant 15 billion trees by 2032
Increase national forest cover from 7% to 10%
The logic: Tree planting can have massive benefits in terms of carbon storage, soil preservation, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods for local communities.
Forests support the livelihood of 1.6 billion people worldwide in timber harvesting, other forestry products and tourism.
John Clark, CEO of Tupande by One Acre Fund, said, “Trees are one of the most important livelihood assets for a farmer.”
Quality matters: What’s often overlooked is that tree planting has its pitfalls.
Will the trees live long enough to store significant amounts of carbon?
Survive & thrive: Best practices are hard to follow on colourful mass activations.
Local residents need to look after the trees for decades, so best to get their buy-in.
Paying local communities for maintenance reduces incentives to cut down trees.
Figure out beforehand what grows well where, and when it should be planted.
Avoid monocultures to ensure biodiversity and sustain supportive ecosystems.
Trees need enough water – best to figure out supply and infrastructure.
The backlash: When such practices are ignored, the result is often damaged ecology.
Threatening water supplies
Making ecosystems less resilient
Speeding extinctions by introducing competing foreign species
Increasing temperatures as some trees absorb more heat than grasslands
Not new: In the 19th century, South Africa planted Australian acacias to stabilise dunes and produce timber. But they lowered the water table and even depleted it in places.
The country now spends millions of dollars every year to remove them.
Complex dynamics: Determining when tree-planting removes carbon can be difficult.
Existing ecosystems in open areas may already function as carbon sinks.
When one then plants trees, this might only add marginally more carbon storage.
In some cases, land clearing and frequent tree harvesting in fact lead to a net negative impact.
Done right: The Great Green Wall project across 20 countries in the African Sahel once aimed to fight desertification by planting a continuous line of trees.
But maintenance turned out to be near-impossible in vast uninhabited areas.
The project adapted and became a mosaic of green land use practices managed by local farmers instead.
3. Q&A: Climate leaders with answers
Q: What’s the best climate book you would recommend to others? A: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.
Q: Which African country has impressed the most for its green agenda? A: Ethiopia - I believe there is a lot of political commitment they are demonstrating for landscape restoration and their public is responding to it.
Q: What’s your earliest personal memory of the climate crisis? A: My family relied on subsistence farming. One season, we sowed about 20 acres with maize. My mum was certain the harvest would cover school fees. But the rains failed.
Q: What’s the most recent step you’ve taken to help the climate crisis? A: Our TreeAdoption mobile app records tree data on species, GPS coordinates, date of planting, among others. This removes any doubts on the number of trees planted and improves reporting on global reforestation efforts.
4. Media monitoring
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Thanks to the Green Rising team for putting this together.