development energy

How Gabon hopes to turn off the oil tap

Gabon is a small West African country with a population of 2.1 million people. Oil was discovered in the country in the 1930s and it has at times been a significant regional producer and a member of OPEC. Revenues from oil account for around a quarter of the economy and have made Gabon statistically wealthier than many of its Sub-Saharan neighbours, though the wealth has not been evenly shared.

In the summer of 2020 however, Gabon made a remarkable announcement: they intend to remove oil from their GDP entirely by 2030, and replace it with sustainable alternatives.

After oil, timber is the country’s most significant resource. 85% of the country is forested, and much of it is already covered by extensive sustainable management plans. The government intends to invest in forestry, creating 50,000 jobs in the next five years. In order to make up for the lost revenue from oil, the plan is to increase income from forestry tenfold, but to do it sustainably. That will mean adding value in country, cutting down on exports of raw timber, and producing more timber products that can be sold at a higher profit.

“It is through this strategy that the Gabonese forest will contribute more significantly to the national economy”, says Lee White, a Manchester-born environmentalist who became a Gabonese citizen and is now Minister of Environment and Forests. “Wood, a renewable resource when exploited in a sustainable manner, could as early as 2030 replace oil in our economy.”

As often happens when countries discover oil, Gabon allowed its agricultural sector to dwindle and started buying in more food with the oil revenues. The country now hopes to invest in farming, bringing unused arable land back into production and reducing dependency on imports. Farming has not been an attractive career option for young Gabonese, so the government is creating training schemes to reskill and incentivise a return to the land.

It’s an ambitious plan, but a sensible one. Oil reserves don’t last forever, and it is wise to put together a transition plan for an economy beyond oil. Oil prices have been low and highly variable, which is a major vulnerability for the economy – and of course it’s the right thing to do for the climate too. I hope it works, and that Gabon can retool its economy to preserve and enhance its middle income status, and create a more inclusive and sustainable prosperity in the long term.

I’m also struck by the contrast with Britain. We have also been a briefly significant fossil fuel state, thanks to the oil and gas from the North Sea. As production has gone into steep decline, the right thing to do would be to invest in a just transition out of the industry, particularly for those parts of the country that are most dependent on fossil fuel jobs.

Instead, the Conservative government doubled down under David Cameron, writing a commitment into law to maximise production and pursue every last drop. There has been government support for new exploration, investment in technologies to extend the life of existing facilities, and Orwellian rhetoric about making the North Sea a zero carbon hub.

At a time when we should be leaving fossil fuels in the ground, national plans to desperately ‘maximise value’ from declining oil fields is backward-thinking and reckless. We should be learning from Gabon, and drawing up a strategy for sustainably eliminating fossil fuels from the economy. Once again, true leadership is coming from unexpected places.

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