2009 Tutu Fellow James Mwangi connects the dots between climate change and climate action in his TED Talk from June 2022 in New York. He argues that with the planet missing the IPCC emissions goals that negatively impact climate change, it will be necessary to both push harder on that front, and then also remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at a massive scale. He says that estimates suggest that the world will need to remove 5-16 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every single year by 2050.
The Rift Valley, he says, provides a scalable way to remove carbon from the air - and end energy poverty.
James then talks about what's being done at the Orca plant in Iceland using a technology called Direct Air Capture (DAC) - but in Africa could help the planet get closer to it's climate goals.
The Orca plant uses plentiful green geothermal energy to capture carbon dioxide, dissolve it in water, and inject it into porous basalt deep underground, where it chemically reacts to create a stable solid that can stay there for centuries.
It takes the equivalent of between two and three megawatt hours of energy to take a single ton of carbon dioxide and render it in that way. Scaling up to get to the hundred millions of tons needed by 2030 would entail producing something like 300 terawatt hours of electricity.
Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya - with African wildlife - is also home to the Olkaria Geothermal Energy Plant, which provides about a third of Kenya's electricity. At just under 1,000 megawatts, Olkaria is one of the largest geothermal electricity installations in the world. But it's barely scratching the surface of the potential in Kenya. James says there are 10 gigawatts of proven, high-quality geothermal resources in the country, widely recognized, ready to be tapped. And yet, Kenya remains an energy-poor country where, despite a lot of progress in recent years, more than a quarter of the population still does not have access to basic electricity.
A particularly cruel paradox of energy economics in countries like Kenya is that those consumers who are on the grid have to pay for capacity that is not currently being used. Approximately 1,000 megawatt hours every day goes begging because there isn’t sufficient industrial demand. At the same time, those very same high energy prices make the country unattractive for manufacturers and other users of energy looking for places to site their industries.
James' pitch is this: Introducing DAC and other energy-hungry climate technologies into places like the Rift Valley would give them the space and capacity they need to really scale to planetary levels. With no competition and with none of the trade-offs they would face in other parts of the world. At the same time, having that energy-hungry anchor industry available, suddenly creates the basis on which people are willing to invest in expanding the country's renewable energy potential. Having plentiful, cheap electricity obviously has numerous advantages to the local population.
He calls this idea the “Great Carbon Valley.” And it's just one of the ways in which Africa, as the continent, which, per capita, is the closest to net-zero and has contributed the least to climate change, can play a role in helping the planet avert climate disaster.
Watch the entire TED talk here: