Africa is the Dumping Ground for Used Cars and Fertilizer

As we head towards COP27, there has been an increasing push to squeeze action from all state and non-state parties towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. For a continent like Africa, a new narrative is taking shape, one with Africa being labeled an “enabler” of high-carbon-emitting economies. This warrants urgent remedy as it risks diluting Africa’s contribution to global climate stability.

Africa holds up to 17% of the global population and accounts for around 4% of cumulative global carbon emissions. This makes the region net carbon positive, a critical status that should not be downplayed. Furthermore, African rainforests are famed for being carbon sponges.

The rainforest in the Congo Basin alone offsets Africa’s annual emissions. In 2019, it offset up to three times the amount emitted by the UK. The peatland swamp forest in the Congo Basin holds the equivalent of 20 years of U.S. fossil fuel emissions. This contribution to global climate stability is outstanding, and the continent needs to ensure it does not get neutralized by emerging trends in the world’s progressive steps towards net zero carbon. This means that Africa must urgently take steps to distance itself from the narrative of “enabling carbon.”

But is Africa an enabler of carbon?

From automobiles to fertilizers, Africa will find it hard to shake the narrative of enabling carbon. For example, it is estimated that up to 40% of global used cars, most of which fall below emissions standards, have been imported into Africa. Africa accounts for the highest annual global imports of used vehicles, a billion-dollar industry on the one hand, but one which worsens air pollution and emissions.

While most of the imported vehicles would not be allowed to circulate on the roads of Western countries, most African countries lack vehicle emissions standards. It is estimated that only 5 African countries have emissions standards, most of which are not being enforced. In addition, emissions from transportation are growing at an annual rate of 7%. This means that vehicles with a relatively higher capacity to pollute find a second home in Africa, which encourages the tag of Africa being an enabler of carbon.

But vehicles alone are not the only source of the indictment. Across Africa, the demand for cooling devices has doubled or tripled over the past decade, and with the continent projected to heat faster than the global average, this trend is set to continue. However, most of the cooling solutions imported into Africa are used low-efficiency units that could not be sold legally in the countries where they were made. Once again, Africa has become the dumping ground of otherwise outdated cooling solutions that should not be used anywhere on the planet.

Africa is also a destination for fertilizer imports. Africa is a leading destination served by this supply chain. It is estimated that over 93% of fertilizers imported into just one African sub-region are nitrogen-based fertilizers that leave a significant carbon footprint. This puts Africa in the crosshairs as an enabler of emissions related to the production, and transportation of nitrogen-based fertilizers into the continent.

While these are just a few examples, they put a stain on a continent that is otherwise a net positive region. The urgency for a continent that accounts for two-thirds of the global extremely poor and where over 50% of countries are categorized by low human development is to shift investments to alternative pathways that are not only green but inclusive, capable of unlocking multiple income opportunities for the majority. While this is an expansive area, there are alternatives in the areas highlighted above, where the continent can take the lead.

The first is to tap the e-transport supply chain. It is estimated that Africa accounts for only 1% of cars sold worldwide, compared to 30% in China, 22% in Europe, and 17% in North America. The continent should tap the e-vehicles supply chain leveraging its comparative advantage in relevant minerals needed for this sector – both for the development of the batteries and for greening the charging infrastructure by transitioning to clean energy.

It is estimated that over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed for wind, solar, geothermal power, and energy storage technologies required to comply with the below 2°C warming future. The production of minerals such as graphite, lithium, and cobalt may increase by up to 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies. Africa, a major supplier of these vital minerals, must go beyond exporting raw materials and instead plug into the value-added dimension of the supply chains. For example, the region needs to look beyond being paid export rents and instead prioritize partnerships that will enable the domestic setting up of component manufacturing industries.

The second is greening the cooling sector. With Africa already warming at 1.5 times the global average, temperature increases in Africa are also likely to become more intense. In addition, only 3% of total agricultural output in Africa has access to cold chains in the first mile, which is a driver for high post-harvest losses in perishables. It is estimated that an average of 50% of what is produced in Africa is lost – an amount that could feed 300 million people. In one year, the continent lost a record $48 billion.

Making available solar cold chain solutions can create inclusive income opportunities in the agro-value chain and in the manufacturing of solar fridges while offsetting cold chain emissions that are a source of indictment for the continent. In addition, such solar fridges have proven to reduce annual refrigeration costs by 39%.

The third is tapping the organic fertilizer chain. Waste to biofertilizer solutions has the potential of bridging the continent’s fertilizer gap while also creating alternative, inclusive income opportunities for its population, especially young people. The African biofertilizer market is projected to experience a growth rate of 5.9% over the next few years.

Such biofertilizers can substitute nearly 50% of chemical fertilizer needs and abate the accompanying emissions. The non-capital-intensive nature of waste to biofertilizer also means it can be an area for accessible enterprise opportunities for the youth. Actualising much-needed growth in this sub-sector calls for specific actions – including increased investments in localized research to develop competitive products, incentives for private sector actors, including the informal sector that engages up to 80% of Africa’s active population, and establishment of adequate regulations, and market promotion of biofertilizers.

Such active steps are needed to ensure Africa does not soil its reputation as the most carbon-positive region globally. Africa needs to distance itself from any semblance of being an enabler of carbon. Africa’s critical contribution to global climate stability must be recognized at every level because it’s a treasure to the world.