Building low carbon, high growth futures in Africa

Solar lighting / Rising Powers projectAn article in New Scientist magazine pubished today sets out one of the most hotly-contestated questions about increasing energy access in the global south: can low carbon techology deliver meaningful opportunities for economic growth?

Author Fred Pearce, who sits on the STEPS Centre’s Advisory Committee, in unconvinced that those on either side of the low carbon argument have made a strong enough case yet. On the one hand, Pearce says, those who advocate large scale hydroelectric projects have not adequately addressed the climatic impact. While those in favour of low-tech, small scale solutions, such as solar, are not forthright about the chances of economic growth.

In his piece, Pearce refers to a STEPS Centre affiliate research project, Pro-poor, low carbon development: Improving low carbon energy access and development benefits in Least Developed Countries which analysed the success of solar home systems in Kenya, a collaboration with the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS). The aim was to help improve the transfer and uptake of low carbon technologies in developing countries, and to do so in ways – and here’s the bit that is pertinent to this debate – that can assist in their economic development.

The project team made a series of recommendations suggesting practical ways in which public policy could help foster sustainable energy technologies markets whilst contributing significantly to both human development and economic growth in low-income countries. For instance, building ‘innovation systems’ that  link institutions who can initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies and that developing capabilities – the right skills, knowledgeand links between different actors – is vital.

However, the findings of this particular study were based on one specific case: off-grid PV in Kenya providing electricity for lighting, phone-charging and so on. So whilst these policy recommendations might prove valuable across other technological and country contexts, there is an urgent need for further research to test this through comparative analysis.

In his New Scientist piece, Pearce concludes: “There are no easy answers. We need more than rhetoric to be sure that low-carbon technologies are not developed at the expense of the poor. We need more voices from the people of Africa saying what they want.” And on that, we can all agree.

To that end, the STEPS Centre is establishing a hub with partners in Africa to build on the project mentioned here and a rich history of collaborative research over decades, to continue demonstrating that both economic growth and the needs of poor and marginalised people across the continent can be addressed in sustainable ways.

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