Does COP28 have lessons for us in Uganda?

Does COP28 have lessons for us in Uganda?
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By Bravo Ronnie Katungi

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), final energy consumption for Uganda in 2021 was about 16,800 kilo tonnes of oil equivalent (ktoe).

  • 87% of it was from traditional biomass (wood and charcoal) mainly used for cooking.
  • 11% was from fossil fuels, mainly diesel and petrol for transportation.
  • 2% was from electricity that is almost completely from renewable sources.

87% of our energy is from charcoal and wood! This fuel source is mainly used in cooking. This is the reason why, despite our best efforts, Uganda's forest cover is fast decreasing, hence adding to the climate change crisis that COP28 is determined to halt. Additionally, traditional biomass is very inefficient, most of it is lost to the surroundings during use. Not to mention the direct exposure to toxins emitted during its use, which have adverse health effects on the users, who are disproportionately women.

For Uganda, urgent transition means finding an alternative energy source for cooking. So, what are the options? Gas it is, either LPG or natural gas. Thankfully Uganda is on the cusp of producing lots of LPG and our neighbour, Tanzania, has lots of natural gas that we can use.

Uganda needs goodwill, lots of financing and genuine partners to pull off this transition. Will we find any at COP28? Or will it be the same old rhetoric of a one-size-fits-all, net zero agenda to abandon all fossil fuel sources?

Let’s turn to electricity, which is only 2% of the total energy we use in Uganda, 93% of which is produced from renewable sources.

According to the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) Uganda has 29 hydropower plants, which supply 78% of Uganda’s electricity to the grid. This is without counting Karuma Hydropower Plant (600MW capacity) that government says will be ready for commissioning in Q3 2024.

Solar and sugarcane bagasse-based thermal power stations supply an additional 15% to Uganda’s electricity grid.

Considering this outlook, what does the urgent energy transition currently being preached at COP28 in Dubai (Thursday, November 30-Tuesday, December 12, 2023) mean for Uganda?

Three Things to Consider

  1. According to National Population Council’s, ‘Population Growth in Uganda: Challenges and Opportunities Issues Paper 2021,’ Uganda’s population is growing at a rate of 3% per annum. By 2022, online sources showed we were at 47 million with UNFPA Uganda projecting that Uganda’s population will hit 103 million by 2050. All these people will create an enormous increase in power demand.
  2. Recently Uganda has been pushing an industrialisation agenda in line with its Vision 2040 and these industries will inevitably drive-up power demand.
  3. Uganda is running out of places to build more hydropower plants. What is the effect of climate change our hydropower plants? We need to cushion our hydropower reliance with another source of electricity.

So, what are the alternatives? Nuclear energy it is! Well, at least if we want to stay away from fossil fuel-based power plants.

For many years Uganda has talked of building a nuclear power plant. In fact, Government of Uganda has said it intends to have this plant (1000MW capacity) commissioned by 2031, but at the current pace, this looks highly unlikely!

What does COP28 think about using nuclear power plants, in the pursuit of the net zero agenda? Can Uganda get genuine goodwill partners to invest in our nuclear power plant at COP28?

I saved the best for last. Uganda's oil and gas resource. Uganda has 6.5 billion barrels of crude oil proven reserves, out of which 1.4 billion barrels are estimated to be recoverable.

Four companies are still exploring for oil in the Albertine region, promising to add more to the proven reserves. Uganda and its partner international oil companies are in advanced stages of development, with First Oil expected in the next two years (2025)—or I predict it could well be three or four years from now.

This development stage has been extremely difficult for Uganda, mainly because of the net zero agenda set by COP. With traditional lenders refusing to finance Uganda’s oil projects (citing their new shift away from funding fossil fuel projects), the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project looks set to be delayed and the 60,000 barrels of oil per day refinery is still hanging in the balance, as Ugandan officials jump through hoops!

The Russia-Ukraine War has taught us that the net zero carbon agenda cannot measure up against energy security. We even see some European countries clearing wind farms, to reopen coal power plants and issuing new oil exploration licences to secure their energy supply!

Why then should Uganda abandon its oil and gas resources (as some radical environmentalists have argued) and completely focus on renewable energy? What is clear is that Uganda’s oil and gas resources offer a lifeline to Uganda’s energy security and transition agenda.

Government of Uganda has pledged to use revenues from the black gold (oil) to develop its infrastructure and modernise its agriculture, as it pursues its own transition agenda, in its own time.

If the past COPs are anything to go by, then I don’t have many expectations from COP28 in addressing Uganda's energy needs and by extension Africa's. I hope I am wrong.

The writer is a chemical engineer and a consultant at NEC

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