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Transition from fossil fuels to clean energy will not be a walk in the park

By Beatrice Nyabira and Judy Muigai

It has been unsettling to hear reports that January 2024 was the hottest January on record and the earth’s temperature in the year leading up to end of January 2024 rose by more than 1.5C. If global warming is accelerating, then efforts to address it require similar momentum. When we glance back at the outcome of COP 28, two words spring to mind – phased defossilization. 200 nations, including prominent petroeconomies acknowledged that a shift away from fossil fuels is necessary but there was less unanimity on how steep the gradient of the phase-out should be.  The reality is that we may not be able to transition as rapidly as the just-stop-oil activists would like because there is no simple kill switch for this. 

A key concern is whether there is sufficient, ready and accessible non-carbon energy to bridge the gap that would be left by hydrocarbons.  No country can afford an implementation gap during which production and revenues decrease due to inadequate supply of renewable energy.  Procuring, constructing and connecting renewable power plants with sufficient generative capacity to the grid is not something that can be completed in the short term. 

Another hurdle from a transition-readiness perspective is the slow uptake of electric mobility and the absence of the charging corridors needed to make it work. There is also a challenge in the substantial cost of electric vehicles and the supporting infrastructure, but the hope is that green financing commitments will kick in to rescue the situation. 

The clean energy transition is not without resistance. There are many players along the petroleum value chain who will be adversely impacted including employees who have spent their careers in oil & gas.  It will be necessary to consider how the affected investors and employees can be redeployed into the clean energy sector.  Other opponents to the changeover argue that there is a high opportunity cost in abandoning our untapped hydrocarbon reserves since their value could have contributed towards socio-economic development, as was the case with all the industrialized countries, which relied heavily on hydrocarbons for their development.  The counterargument is that there are vast opportunities for a country like ours to leapfrog straight into renewables due to our abundant solar, wind, and geothermal resources.  Moreover, providentially, deposits of minerals like coltan which is used to manufacture EV batteries have recently been found in Kenya.

COP 28 emphasized that the transition must be just, orderly and equitable so the path to defossilization needs clear guard rails in our legal and institutional framework.  We need policies and laws which clarify what the incentives are for selling, converting or replacing petroleum fed machinery including locomotives, trucks and buses.  Dismantling the oil-based infrastructure will also produce waste which means that safe disposal must be provided for.  The delicate issue of compensation for owners of oil-based assets or the provision of subsidies for producers and consumers of clean energy will also need to be clarified.  There is a lot to be done but we need to pick up the pace if we are to gain meaningful traction in the battle against harmful emissions.

The article was published in the Business Daily on 28 February 2024 and can be accessed here.