Opinion | The Oil Pipeline East Africa Doesn’t Need

KAMPALA, Uganda — This week, the panel of climate experts convened by the United Nations delivered a clear message: To stand a chance of curbing dangerous climate change, we cannot afford to build more fossil fuel infrastructure. We must also quickly phase out the fossil fuels we are using.

At times like this, the media rarely focuses on African countries like my own, Uganda. When it does, it covers the impacts: the devastation we are already experiencing and the catastrophes that lie ahead. They are right: Mozambique has been hit in recent years by cyclones intensified by climate change. Climate change-related drought in Kenya has left millions of people hungry. In Uganda, we are now being affected more frequently by extreme flash floods destroying lives and livelihoods.

But this latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent more of these impacts, also has implications for Africa’s energy systems. Africa is not only a victim of the climate crisis, but also a place where the infrastructure decisions made in the coming years will shape its development.

TotalEnergies, a French energy company, this year announced a $10 billion investment decision, involving a nearly 900-mile pipeline from Kabaale, Uganda, to a peninsula near Tanga, Tanzania. From there, the oil would be exported to the international market.

Despite local opposition, TotalEnergies and a partner, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, have gone ahead. The project could find it difficult to obtain additional financing, as many banks have already scrapped the project. The multinational insurance company Munich Re has also pledged not to insure it, at least in part because of the damage it would cause to the climate.

Burning the oil to be transported by the pipeline could emit up to 36 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to one estimate. That’s about seven times Uganda’s total annual emissions.

More immediately, the East African crude oil pipeline will have dire consequences for the people of Uganda and Tanzania. An estimated 14,000 households will lose land, according to Oxfam International, with thousands of people displaced economically or physically. There are reports that the compensation payments offered to some communities are completely insufficient. The pipeline will also disturb wildlife habitats. Writer and climate activist Bill McKibben said it almost looks as if the route had been “charted to endanger as many animals as possible.” An oil spill would be even more catastrophic for habitats and our freshwater supplies. (TotalEnergies and China National Offshore Oil Corporation have previously said they are working to avoid causing harm to countries.)

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Pipelines have become a worldwide symbol of the fight for climate justice. In 2021, the Biden administration halted the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States after a decade-long fight led by indigenous groups, climate activists, and farmers. In East Africa, the Stop EACOP campaign is a similar alliance that emerged to fight fossil fuel infrastructure. More than a million people have signed a petition demanding that TotalEnergies and the other sponsors of the pipeline stop the project.

However, the Ugandan government remains overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline. Politicians have apparently staked their political future on the promise of revenue it could generate. Understandably, many people in Uganda who are not directly affected by the pipeline also think that oil could be a gateway to wealth. Our country has low levels of formal employment and many people struggle to feed their families. Oil was discovered in the Lake Albert Basin in 2006 when I was in primary school, and I remember my teacher proudly announcing to the class that Uganda had found “black gold”.

But the discovery of oil in Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not brought widespread prosperity. Instead, it has brought poverty, violence, and the loss of traditional lands and cultures. Much of the profits have gone to multinationals and foreign investors and to the pockets of corrupt local officials. TotalEnergies and China National Offshore Oil Corporation will own 70 percent of the East African crude pipeline, with Uganda and Tanzania sharing the remaining 30 percent. This pipeline is not an investment for the people.

Nor is it a long-term investment. The International Energy Agency projects that the growth of renewable energy will accelerate in the next four years. Fossil fuel projects like EACOP could lead to short-term gains but eventually big losses, and could end up among stranded oil and gas assets estimated at $1.3 trillion by around 2050.

Research presented by the International Renewable Energy Agency found that sub-Saharan Africa can meet almost 70 percent of its electricity needs with local renewable energy by 2030, which would create up to two million additional green jobs in the region by 2050. Africa it holds 39 percent of the world’s renewable energy potential, according to Carbon Tracker, but together with the Middle East, receives just 2 percent of annual investment. Africa needs climate finance promised by rich countries, as well as private institutions, to develop clean energy.

There is a huge appetite for clean energy alternatives here. I have seen this through my work to install solar panels and clean stoves in rural schools. These efforts sometimes feel futile when money from foreign banks and governments pours in for fossil fuels. But Africa is where critical investments must go in our fight for a stable climate in the years to come. Financial institutions must reject the East African Crude Oil Pipeline and fossil fuel projects like it, in favor of clean energy. The science is clear. So is the case with investment.

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