OPINION | UK champions green recovery after COVID-19 pandemic

The Riverside solar project in Mutoko, developed by UK firm PGI Group, became the first solar project by an independent power producer to feed into Zimbabwe's national grid in 2018.

By Tom Hill

Just over four years ago, Zimbabwe, the UK, and 194 other countries came together in Paris to reach an ambitious agreement to combat climate change and reduce global CO2 emissions.

The UK is leading the way in building on this landmark agreement. Last year the UK Government was the first major economy to legislate to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Next year,  we will be hosting the COP26 UN Climate Change conference, in partnership with Italy, to drive global action on climate and biodiversity. This Conference of Parties (COP for short), is significant because each UN nation is due to submit an updated five year emissions target and action plan. It is vital that these plans show increased ambition and that countries follow the UK’s lead and go net zero as soon as possible.

The effects of climate change are real, and they are already happening. The Earth is warming, rainfall patterns are changing, and sea levels are rising. These changes can increase the risk of heatwaves, floods, droughts, and fires, as we have seen with recent droughts in Zimbabwe and the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also another stark reminder of what happens when our relationship with the natural world breaks down. Almost every week we get reports from farmers who have had to shift crops, or in extreme circumstances have had to abandon their crops completely due to the twin impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The energy sector in Zimbabwe has also been significantly affected by climate change, with production at Kariba Hydro being severely constrained by the drought that affected the region. Between December 2018 and November 2019, levels at Lake Kariba dropped by approximately 8m in a striking example of the variations the lake has suffered in the last three decades.

Overall energy access in Zimbabwe remains quite low at 40% and this is slowing growth in both the formal and the informal sectors. I spoke with a chilli sauce manufacturer who has had to shift their manufacturing to overnight to be able to utilize commercial power. Another exporter for food chemicals has also cut down on production as it was unsustainable and uncompetitive for them to run their plant on diesel generators.

However, there are still significant opportunities for Zimbabwe to build up the Energy sector in a clean and sustainable way. Run-of-river hydroelectricity is being generated successfully in Honde Valley in the Eastern Highlands. We are proud to support this with UK-built turbines in use at these power plants.

Zimbabwe also has some of the highest solar potential in Southern Africa. We have seen distributed solar power take off in Zimbabwe over the past couple of years. In fact, I see more rooftop solar panels when driving in Zimbabwe than I do when I’m in the UK. Now is the time to push really hard on these sectors, and in particular, the distributed solar power sector as we will see the benefits for years to come.

The UK is committed to supporting Zimbabwe’s response to the current and ongoing energy deficit, including through reducing vulnerability and protecting the poor from climate shocks.

We continue to support innovations and investments into clean energy and green recovery. For example, the recently-launched Energy Catalyst programme supports both UK and international innovators with energy access innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South East Asia with available funding of up to £20m.

We are also supporting clean energy investors as they engage with ZETDC to ensure that Zimbabwe gets sustainable investment into the clean energy sector. Through the Africa Clean Energy (ACE) facility, the UK is working with the government and other stakeholders to improve a market-based approach for private sector delivery of renewable energy electrification technologies.

This facility has a specific focus on high quality stand-alone or household solar systems. The intention is to identify and overcome market access barriers in the renewable energy sector. We support calls to improve the investor environment and to open up solar procurement.

COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented shutdown of large parts of the global economy with severe consequences for all countries. As we recover, the decisions we make today will either lay the foundation for sound, sustainable and inclusive growth or lock-in polluting emissions for decades and in doing so make our society and the planet more vulnerable.

The UK achieved a major milestone earlier this year when we went for two months without generating any coal power. This would have been unthinkable 10 years ago! I hope we can all draw lessons from this and move quickly towards renewable energy.

Tom Hill is Zimbabwe Country Director for the Department of International Trade, British Embassy Harare.

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