Energy transition: “Hakuna Matata”

by: Hans van Cleef

Remarkably fast the sun sets into the Chobe river. Numerous birds are twittering while hippos prepare themselves in the background for their daily trip on land to graze. At the moment of writing this blog, I sit at a terrace in front of our room at a lodge in Kasane, Botswana. We love the calm environment, the nature, the wildlife as well as the friendly people in Southern Africa. This year, we decided to book a three-week nature and wildlife trip  in South Africa and Botswana. And like the previous time, it is awesome.

The energy transition is not on everybody’s mind. In fact, you hardly see any evidence of a transition at all. Almost everybody outside the cities  stoke and cook on wood fire. In the cities the electricity mix consists of 90%  of coal. Many of our lodges have a diesel- or gas generator for power generation. Only a handful of lodges – often the more remote ones – use solar panels for the generation of electricity. I have frequently asked the people here about  the African energy transition. They are barely familiar with energy transition. This is not on their minds as they have other priorities in life. For the poorer people the priority is to able to earn enough to buy food to survive. For  the more wealthy Africans the priority is ‘how can I raise my children in a healthy way’ or ‘how can I make sure that they can study’.

The daily affairs in South Africa are dominated by a high unemployment of thirty percent and high corruption. In Botswana things seem to be somewhat better. It makes you wonder. What if the people in these countries become more prosperous and if the wealth is more evenly spread. The government provides free condoms, not only to fight aids, but also in an attempt to cap population growth. What if the African population continues to grow anyway and starts using a similar amount of energy as we do  in Europe ? We leave aside the disastrous effects of the continuously growing population on nature and wildlife. These effects have already become more and more visible. This would harm the African, and thus global carbon emissions.  We think that the assumption that  the extra rise in energy demand from Africa will be fully  met by renewable energy is based on unrealistic assumptions.  In theory it may be possible to switch directly to renewable energy, but in practice wood and locally produced coal, are cheaper. The costs of living plays a crucial role and renewable energy is now simply too expensive for the majority of people in Southern African countries.

In the Netherlands, the energy transition seems to have turned into some sort of a hype. I experience an almost overenthusiastic urgency to shift our existing well-working and efficient energy system towards a carbon free alternative. Don’t get me wrong. I favour the energy transition, and I even more support energy savings and energy efficiency. We have ambitious targets and must – and will – be carbon neutral in 2050 to contribute to the Paris Climate Agreement. However, opinions are divided on how to reach these targets. This also becomes clear when we listen to the signals from the Dutch Government.  The new Dutch Energy Agreement – if reached at all – will be presented mid-July by minister Wiebes.

The debate surrounding the energy transition is polarised. The earthquakes in Groningen are in my view unfairly linked to the discussion on removing gas  from our  Dutch energy system. On top of that, electrification seems to have become the main target instead of carbon emission reduction according to Ed Nijpels, president of the climate consultation group. We have another 32 year to reach all the targets. This means that we have to speed up the energy transition. Our current energy system is not built to reach these goals. Therefore, it is likely that we need our current system for a longer period of time. In short, it is not wise to halt the current energy system when the new system is not ready.

The introduction and building of new technology is extremely fast. With the current technology a lot is possible, and these can – and should – be used to speed up the energy transition. However, thirty years ago nobody had a mobile phone, the pc was just invented, was the first payment using a pin code and  the Dutch soccer team won the European Championship. I’m not a specialist in soccer so I can’t predict when, or even if, our Dutch soccer team will be successful again. What I do know is in the next thirty years technological development will continue. Methods to generate energy will become more efficient and cheaper. It is important to ride this wave as long as it is there. Therefore I am really looking forward to the outcome of the Dutch energy agreement which will be announced on 10 July, 14h CET.

While the horizon starts to colour red and a huge Nile crocodile passes by, people start lighting the Braai, using wood. Our holiday is almost over and we will return to the Netherlands by airplane, and no, I did not compensate for the carbon emissions. Instead, I spent my holiday budget on local restaurants, the curio shop and wildlife conservation. You and me make these kind of choices on a daily basis. Choices of which I hope that support the local economy and wildlife. Or in other words, choices in which I can reach the best possible results in the most efficient way. This is a principle for our national energy transition as well. After all, challenges do exist, problems don’t: ‘Hakuna Matata’.


This column was published earlier in Dutch on