The perfect solution to the perfect storm

A gridlocked banking sector, rocketing food prices and volatile fuel costs pose a threat to Africa's

The body blow delivered to the global economy by the recent financial crisis arose from banking greed and bad regulation, primarily in the US and Western Europe. Yet Africa suffered collateral damage, once again the victim of an unequal relationship with the western world that goes back centuries.

But equality has been restored in another way. Indiscriminate threats to the planet through global warming and climate change mean our destiny is shared.

There is now the danger of a "perfect storm", with every country affected but Africa the main victim. Leaving aside terrorism, war and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, this "perfect storm" has a number of components.

First, the banking implosion has gridlocked private credit and investment and cut w estern government spending and investment. Although some European countries have protected their aid budgets, the economic squeeze is likely to produce a financial development crisis.

On top of this, rocketing food prices and an exponential increase in the demand for food are triggering an escalating food crisis. Food security is emerging as a major problem across the globe. Water security is similarly a potential source, not only of strategic shortages but also of conflicts between communities, regions and nations. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40% of the population, or 330-million people, have no accessible or decent water.

Add in extreme volatility in fuel costs and this "perfect storm" poses a threat to Africa's recent progress.

So what should we do? Absolutely key is harnessing Africa's vast natural resources to generate cheap and universally accessible energy from renewable generation.

That would not only provide African communities with much-needed light and power. Crucially, it would provide opportunities to generate sustainable and self-sufficient wealth and employment.

Green energy also reduces emissions and thereby confronts global warming from climate change, in turn reducing serious African food and water shortages. Could renewable energy be Africa's "perfect solution" to the "perfect storm"?

The scale of the challenge is daunting. Current electricity access in Africa is extremely low. Fifteen of the 20 countries with the lowest access on the planet are in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, only 40% of people in urban areas and 15% of people in rural areas have electricity.

All in all, 585-million people in Africa south of the Sahara are surviving without any electricity. Quite apart from the resulting misery and poverty, a huge number of Africans are thus without the essential prerequisite for any prosperous and stable modern society.

Energy is essential to investment in basic, let alone advanced, infrastructure. Without it, health and social services are nonexistent to primitive; educational opportunities limited; and there is a chronic lack of the skills and skilled employment essential to prosperity.

Europe needs to lead the change by investing in renewable energies in Africa, not least because much of Europe's prosperity is rooted in historic exploitation of Africa and many European companies continue to reap large profits from both the material and human resources of Africa.

That is why the Africa-European Union (EU) Energy Partnership could be important. Its Renewable Energy Co-operation Programme (RECP) recognises that, with the help of EU investment, Africa could be a world leader in renewable energy.

The RECP identifies the huge investment opportunity in Africa, for instance in hydro- electricity, in which only 7% of the potential resource is being u sed, and geothermal energy, where 1% is being exploited. European investors have an enormous opportunity here. But the RECP also understands that Africa is a diverse and complex continent. Intended as a democratically responsive partnership of politicians, diplomats, business leaders and civil society representatives from Europe and Africa, the RECP aims to make sure its projects are tailored to Africa's priorities, needs and market conditions.

Africa has an abundance of solar, wind and tidal stream, as well as other sources of power, enabling the RECP to mould projects to benefit individual African regions according to their resources and needs: hybrid generation and embedded generation, solar, tidal, wave, hydro, wind, biomass and geothermal -- all can make a contribution.

The RECP plans to bring modern and sustainable energy services to at least an additional 100-million Africans by 2020 and to take joint EU-Africa action to build renewable energy facilities. There are plans to produce 10000MW from new hydropower facilities, at least 5000MW of wind power and 500MW of solar energy. The establishment of this infrastructure will also triple the capability for other renewable energies and raise energy efficiency.

But helping ordinary Africans to make small changes is also important, which is why the RECP will encourage the use of renewable energy for cooking, heating water, processing heat and the more efficient use of wood fuels, as well as solar power. The ideal would be highly developed, integrated systems to enable energy to be diverted quickly and flexibly to where it is needed and to use intermittent renewable energy, such as wind and solar, on power grids.

Given the prohibitive cost of delivering a continent-wide grid with universal access, Africa has the potential to go its own way with stand-free renewable energy and leapfrog grid-based generation, as it did in telecommunications through mobile telephony.

Additionally, the RECP has proposed Des ertec -- an audacious plan to cover the deserts, mainly the Sahara, with solar panels. Remarkably, more energy falls from the sun on the planet's deserts in six hours than the world consumes in a year.

The Sahara Desert is virtually uninhabited and close to Europe, which is potentially a huge market for renewable energy.

EU planners hope the Sahara could one day realistically deliver 15% of Europe's electricity, by transmitting electricity via a super grid of high-voltage direct current cables; the Des ertec Industrial Initiative pilot project in Morocco is a step in this direction.

Meanwhile, China has invested more than any other nation in renewable energy technologies for its own needs, and is a big strategic investor in Africa.

Having escaped the worst of the financial crisis, and with its record of supplying soft loans, China could also be a key investment partner in African renewable energy.

SA may be in pole position here, now that China has overtaken the US as its largest trading partner -- perhaps a reason it has just been invited to join the increasingly important and influential Bric group of countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Additionally, the South African government recently announced an "integrated resource plan" to reduce carbon emissions by switching from the country's heavy dependency on coal.

The plan hopes to increase the percentage of energy that is generated by greener technologies such as wind, solar, biomass and nuclear. This commitment from within Africa to tackling climate change and broadening access to electricity makes the continent an attractive place for mutually beneficial investment in renewable technologies by international companies and countries such as China.

I would like to see part of Europe's aid and development budget allocated to funding a substantial investment programme in partnership with private companies. Europe can assist Africa and itself in sustainable development, with investment in renewable energy an absolute priority. Although the EU- Africa relationship has been one-sided for centuries, global climate change is binding our fates together. We need each other more than ever before in the search for a "perfect solution" to the "perfect storm".

Peter Hain is the Shadow Welsh Secretary.