As I was getting ready to leave my hotel room, what I assumed to be a power cut had descended the room into darkness, silenced the radio and switched off the Wi-Fi. It was my first experience of load-shedding in Cape Town, a daily occurrence across South Africa where all connections to the grid are shut down for a number of hours per day to save energy.

Tavistock’s energy team were in Cape Town for Africa Oil Week, an international conference exploring the opportunities and challenges facing the oil sector across Africa. As the conference progressed, I soon realised that this would not be my last time experiencing load-shedding, likely not even this year as countries around the world including the UK are likely to face rolling blackouts this winter.

The UK’s National Grid does not like to talk about blackouts, however whilst in Cape Town it issued its first ever warning that it may “need to interrupt supply to some customers” over winter as Britain continues to grapple with energy security.

Despite not strictly using the term “blackout”, we all know what this means. National Grid is setting out a scenario where Britain’s gas supply to its power plants means that our island’s demand is not met and “customers could be without power for pre-defined periods during a day” – exactly what I came to experience in Cape Town. Surely this means it’s not also lights out for the fossil fuel industry?

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the concept of load-shedding in the UK was ludicrous. Whilst National Grid admits this scenario is unlikely, the fact it is even considering it shows where global energy supply has come to and the crisis we are truly in.

For the last five years, companies and governments have committed to net zero targets with competing ambition. The UK remains the only government in the world that has legislated its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, until our anti U-turn PM turns this around. Yet this year we have been a victim of global energy supply’s dependence on Russian gas.

The transition to cleaner and greener sources of power represents an opportunity not only to combat our warming climate, but also to tackle rising energy bills by diversifying our supply chain. Whether we are ready to transition is now a different question. It remains an expensive solution to decarbonise industries which cannot be electrified or addressed by utilising biofuels and/or hydrogen.

Are we then too quick to turn the lights out on our oil and gas production? We might be saving the planet, but putting our own wallets, health and stability in jeopardy. This was certainly the key takeaway from Africa Oil Week, as ministers from across the continent established Africa as the emerging solution to diversify away from Russian fossil fuels tomorrow, not in the next decade or two.

As a personal advocate for transitioning to a cleaner and greener future today, this week certainly opened my eyes to the pace at which we transition. I am not doubting that we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels quickly, but the pace at which we do so must be appropriate for our stability. The same can be said for Africa.

This was the first year that Africa Oil Week had included a dedicated summit to green energy, reflecting the growing positivity towards the transition amongst the key oil players. However, another key message of the conference was that Africa’s transition to greener sources of power should be done so in a just and responsible manner.

What this means is that whilst European governments may be in a position to transition to sources like hydrogen, biofuels or renewable energy (although maybe not today), this does not mean all governments are ready to do so. As an emerging continent that is fighting for its place in an economic system that has focused in the past on colonisation, Africa should not sacrifice its economic rise in favour of a global energy transition.

Almost every conversation I had about the energy transition at Africa Oil Week included this key stat: Africa is home to 1.4 billion people, 16.72% of the global population that emit just 2.73% of total carbon emissions. Africa is also the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts under all climate scenarios above a rise of 1.5°C, vividly illustrating a key imbalance in the global energy transition.

The message at the heart of a just energy transition is that no country should be left behind. Energy is the foundation of economic development, and energy poverty is the greatest obstacle to that development, so Africa is rightly focused on eradicating energy poverty. If we were to transition at a uniform pace to greener and cleaner sources of energy around the world, Africa’s rise as a key player in international trade would be significantly hindered. That means that the lights are well and truly on for African oil and gas production.

The same can almost be said for the UK. Putin’s weaponization of gas has had catastrophic results on our global economy, including the anticipated “blackouts” we will experience this winter. Our transition to cleaner and greener sources of energy can only be done if we first diversify our overall energy dependence and improve on our energy security. Otherwise, it will be two steps forward and one step back for years to come.

– Charlie Baister, Consultant