Earth Day 2013: Fighting Climate Change to Advance Africa’s Competitiveness and Economic Growth

Wind farm in Cape Town, South Africa

On April 22, people around the world will mark the annual observance of Earth Day. This year’s theme is “The Face of Climate Change”. When we think about the faces of climate change often we rightly visualize people who lost homes to devastating hurricanes and tsunamis or farmers who lost their livelihoods due to rapidly changing weather patterns.

Yet there’s a direct correlation between climate change and AAI’s mission to strengthen human capacity in Africa. Throughout Africa, millions still live a life without electricity and other modern energy services. Consequently, many in rural communities are forced to rely on wood, coal, or charcoal to cook food on a daily basis and urban areas disproportionately use carbon-based fuels, further exacerbating the impact of climate change.

The human cost of work productivity due to the lack of electricity cannot be ignored. Think about it: without electricity and other modern energy services, Africa will continue to lag behind other countries in global competitiveness and economic growth.

For AAI, the faces of climate change are African young professionals. Our core mission is to advance higher education and professional development training for Africans. Today, young people in Africa make up nearly 40 percent of the working age population, yet 60 percent are unemployed. The McKinsey Global Institute Report estimates that Africa will add 122 million to its labor force between 2010 and 2020, creating a labor force of more than 500 million across the continent.

Lacking electricity, schools are not able to tap into world-class educational materials and resources available on the internet or easily connect to other sources to prepare students for a knowledge-based economy; entrepreneurs cannot access information to build a market and boost their operations; and worker productivity decidedly declines due to possible health challenges that could be improved with the convenience of modern medical practices. The list goes on.

Accelerating access to energy, particularly clean, renewable resources such as wind, water, the sun, and biomass among others, is a win-win in building human capital on the continent: it reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change for a healthier population, while promoting Africa’s work productivity and economic growth.

AAI alumni Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director-General of UNIDO, and the late Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai before her untimely death, have been in the forefront of making the link between climate change and poverty.

Maathai, in a 2011 interview prior to an African Union Summit in Equatorial Guinea, drew attention to the “high price” that Africa is paying for a rapidly changing climate. “We can see how climate change is already aggravating the competition for resources and the economic stability all over this continent,” said Maathai.

As Co-Chair of the UN Sustainable Energy for All, Dr. Yumkella is leading a global initiative that aims to provide sustainable energy worldwide that is accessible, cleaner and more efficient. Yumkella, who will receive the 2013 AAI Distinguished Alumnus Award, has noted in speeches that “eliminating energy poverty is of paramount importance in eradicating poverty.”

This Earth Day as we look at the faces of climate change, we must make the connection between climate change, energy and building human capacity on the continent. Supplying sustainable energy to Africa’s unpowered communities is imperative to today’s African professionals and future generations to expand the growing middle class and ensure that the continent maintains a competitive edge in the global economy. Doing any less will likely reverse the considerable gains the continent has been making.

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