Introduction: Just in time

The urgent need for a just transition in North Africa

Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell

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It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.’ That’s the warning from Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the latest comprehensive review (2022) of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The review report warns that the world is set to reach 1.5ºC of warming within the next two decades and states that only the most drastic cuts in carbon emissions, starting today, can prevent an environmental and climate disaster. Since these reviews are conducted every six to seven years, this can be seen as the last warning from the IPCC before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown, with terrifying consequences. The planet is overheating all too quickly, with already noticeable and catastrophic impacts. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared when the report was released: ‘In concrete terms, this means major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.

This reality of climate breakdown is already visible in North Africa and the Arab region,1 undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt are experiencing recurrent severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and small-scale farmers. In the summer of 2021, Algeria was struck by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Tunisia experienced a suffocating heat wave, with temperatures soaring close to 50ºC; southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third year in a row; and in southeast Egypt 1,100 people lost their homes to flooding and hundreds were injured by scorpions driven out of the ground by the severe weather conditions. In the years ahead, the IPCC projects that the Mediterranean region will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.2

The impacts of these changes are disproportionately felt by the marginalized in society, especially small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists, agricultural labourers and fisherfolk. Already, people are being forced off their lands by stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, expanding deserts and rising sea levels.3 Crops are failing and water supplies are dwindling, deeply impacting food production in a region that is chronically dependent on food imports.4 There will be huge pressure on already scarce water supplies due to changes in rainfall and seawater intrusion into groundwater reserves, as well as groundwater overuse. According to an article in the Lancet, this will place most Arab countries under the absolute water-poverty level of 500 m³ per person per year by 2050.5

Climate scientists are predicting that the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could change in such a manner that the very survival of its inhabitants will be in jeopardy.6 In North Africa, for example, those whose lives will be changed the most by climate change include the small farmers in the Nile Delta and rural areas in Morocco and Tunisia, the fisherfolk of Jerba and Kerkennah (Tunisia), the inhabitants of In Salah in Algeria, the Saharawi refugees in the Tindouf camps (Algeria), and the millions living in informal settlements in Cairo, Khartoum, Tunis and Casablanca.

The violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice that is made by corporations and Western governments, together with national ruling classes in individual countries. Energy and climate plans are shaped by authoritarian regimes and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Despite all their promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are enemies of climate justice and of humanity’s survival.

Every year, the world’s political leaders, advisers, media and corporate lobbyists gather for another United Nations climate Conference of the Parties (COP). But despite the threat facing the planet, governments continue to allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. After three decades of what the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called ‘blah blah blah’, it has become evident that the climate talks are bankrupt and are failing. They have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions, like carbon trading and so-called ‘net-zero’ and ‘nature-based solutions’, instead of forcing industrialized nations and multinationals to reduce carbon emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground.7

COP26, held in Glasgow in 2021, attracted massive media attention but achieved no major breakthroughs. The 2022 and 2023 climate talks that will be held in the Arab region (COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates) are likewise not expected to achieve much, especially in the context of the intensification of geopolitical rivalries unleashed by the war in Ukraine, a context that is not amenable to cooperation between major powers and which provides yet another pretext for continuing the global addiction to fossil fuels. This could be the final nail in the coffin of global climate talks.

Humanity’s survival depends on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and adapting to the already changing climate while moving towards renewable energies, sustainable levels of energy use and other social transformations. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt – finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and changing the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities – and on trying to shift to green sources of energy by building the required infrastructure and investing in green jobs and technology. But whose interest will this adaptation and energy transition serve? And who will be expected to bear the heaviest costs of the climate crisis, and of responses to it?

The same authoritarian and greedy power structures that have contributed to climate change are now shaping the response to it. Their main goal is to protect private interests and to make even greater profits. While international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF are now articulating the need for a climate transition, their vision is of a capitalist and often corporate-led transition, not one led by and for working people. The voices of civil society organizations and social movements are largely unheard when it comes to the implications of this transition and the need for just and democratic alternatives. By contrast, the international financial institutions, alongside the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the different European Union (EU) agencies, speak loudly, organizing events and publishing reports in all the countries of the Arab region. They highlight the dangers of a warmer world and argue for urgent action, including using more renewable energy and adaptation plans. However, their analysis of climate change and the needed transition is limited and in fact dangerous as it threatens to reproduce the patterns of dispossession and resource plunder that characterize the prevailing fossil fuel regime.

The vision of the future that is pushed by the World Bank, the GIZ, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the French Development Agency and much of the EU is one where economies are subjugated to private profit, including through further privatization of water, land, resources, energy – and even the atmosphere. The latest stage in this development includes the public–private partnerships (PPPs) being implemented in every sector in the region, including in renewable energies. The drive towards the privatization of energy and corporate control of the energy transition is global and is not unique to North Africa and the Arab region, but the dynamic is quite advanced here and has so far been met with only limited resistance. Morocco is already advancing along this path, and so is Tunisia. A major push is under way to expand the privatization of the Tunisian renewable energy sector and to give huge incentives to foreign investors to produce green energy in the country, including for export. Tunisian law (modified in 2019) even allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects in a country that suffers from acute food dependency8 (as revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic and again at the time of writing, as war rages in Ukraine).

As developments like this take place across the region, they highlight the importance of asking: ‘Energy for what and for whom?’ ‘Who is the energy transition intended to serve?’ The supposedly ‘green economy’ and the broader mainstream vision of so-called ‘sustainable development’ are being presented by international financial institutions, corporations and governments as a new paradigm. But in reality, this is merely an extension of the existing logics of capital accumulation, commodification and financialization, including of the natural world.

The historical, political and geophysical realities of the North Africa region mean that both the effects of and the solutions to the climate crisis there will be distinct from those in other contexts. North Africa was forcibly integrated into the global capitalist economy in a subordinate position: colonial powers influenced or forced North African countries to structure their economies around the extraction and export of resources – usually provided cheaply and in raw form – coupled with the import of high-value industrial goods. The result was large-scale transfer of wealth to the imperial centres, at the expense of local development.9 The persistence till today of such unequal and asymmetric relations reaffirms the role of North African countries as exporters of natural resources, such as oil and gas, and primary commodities that are heavily dependent on water and land, such as monoculture cash crops. This entrenches an outward-looking extractivist economy, exacerbating food dependency and the ecological crisis while maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neocolonial hierarchies.10

There are therefore crucial questions that need to be raised when talking about addressing climate change and transitioning towards renewable energies in the region: What does a just response to climate change look like here? Does it mean the freedom to move to, and open borders with, Europe? Does it mean the payment of climate debt, restitution and redistribution – by Western governments, by multinational corporations, and by rich local elites? Does it mean a radical break with the capitalist system? What should happen to fossil fuel resources in the region that are currently largely being extracted by Western corporations? Who should control and own renewable energy? What does adapting to a changing climate mean, and who will shape and benefit from it? And who are the key agents and actors that will fight for meaningful change and radical transformation?

Where governments are beginning to take climate change seriously, they are often doing so through a ‘climate security’ lens11 – bolstering defences against rising sea levels and extreme weather events, but too often also against the ‘threat’ of climate refugees, and against renegotiations of global power. We need to start looking at the issue of climate change through a justice lens rather than a security one. A future framed around ‘security’ subjugates our struggles to a conceptual and imaginative framework that ultimately re-empowers the state’s repressive power, and securitizes and militarizes the response. More tanks and guns, higher walls and more militarized borders will not solve the climate crisis. At best they will allow the rich to survive in comfort while the rest of the world pays the price for climate inaction. We need to break with the system of capitalist exploitation of people and the planet that has given rise to the climate crisis, not arm and entrench it.

Environmental orientalism

Just as economic subjugation and imperialist domination have undermined the political and economic autonomy of the Arab region, knowledge production about, and representations of, Arab people and their environments have equally been used by colonial powers to legitimate their colonial project and imperial goals. Such strategies of domination continue today as countries in the region are being recast (once again) as objects of development, echoing the colonial mission civilisatrice (‘civilizing mission’). 

Diana K. Davis argues that Anglo-European environmental imaginaries in the nineteenth century represented the environment in the Arab world most often as ‘alien, exotic, fantastic, or abnormal, and frequently as degraded in some way’. She aptly uses Edward Said’s concept of orientalism12 as a framework to interpret early Western representations of the Middle Eastern and North African environment as displaying a form of ‘environmental orientalism’. The environment was narrated by those who became the imperial powers, primarily Britain and France, as a ‘strange and defective’ environment compared to Europe’s ‘normal and productive’ environment. This implied the need for some kind of intervention ‘to improve, restore, normalise and repair’ it.13

This deceptive representation of presumed environmental degradation and ecological disaster was used by colonial authorities to justify all sorts of dispossession, as well as policies designed to control the populations of the region and their environments. In North Africa, the French constructed an environmental narrative of degradation in order to implement ‘dramatic economic, social, political and environmental changes’.14 According to this perspective, the natives and their environments warranted the blessings of the ‘mission civilisatrice’ and required the attentions of the white man.

Narratives are always the product of their historical moment and are never innocent, and therefore one always needs to ask: in whose benefit do knowledge production, representations and narratives work? One glaring contemporary example is the current representation of the North African Sahara, which is usually described as a vast, empty and dead land that is sparsely populated, representing an Eldorado of renewable energy, thus constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europe with cheap energy so it can continue its extravagant consumerist lifestyle and excessive energy consumption. This false narrative overlooks questions of ownership and sovereignty and masks ongoing global relations of hegemony and domination that facilitate the plunder of resources, the privatization of commons and the dispossession of communities, thus consolidating undemocratic and exclusionary ways of governing the energy transition. As in many places where working people’s lives and livelihoods are invisible or ‘illegible’ to colonizing states, ‘there is no vacant land’ in North Africa.15 Even when sparsely populated, traditional landscapes and territories are embedded in cultures and communities, and people’s rights and sovereignty must be respected in any socio-ecological transformation.

It is crucial to analyse the mechanisms by which the other is dehumanized and how the power of representing and constructing imaginaries about them (and their environments) is used to entrench structures of power, domination and dispossession. In this regard, what is described in Said’s Orientalism as ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity’ of another culture, people or geographical region continues today to be employed to justify violence towards the other and towards nature. This violence takes the shape of displacing populations, grabbing land and resources, making people pay for the social and environmental costs of extractive and renewable projects, bombing, massacring, letting people drown in the Mediterranean, and destroying the earth in the name of progress.

As Naomi Klein eloquently put it in her 2016 Edward Said Lecture,16 when describing a white-supremacist/racist culture: ‘A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives, that is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. And it won’t blink an eye when it places catastrophic socio-environmental costs onto the poor in these countries. Resisting and dismantling the orientalist and (neo)colonial environmental narrative on North Africa will both enable and require building visions of collective climate action, social justice, and socio-ecological transformation that are rooted in the experiences, analyses and emancipatory visions of the African and Arab regions and beyond.

Why this collection? Why now?

Most writing on climate change, the ecological crisis and the energy transition in North Africa and the Arab region more broadly is dominated by international neoliberal institutions. Their analyses are biased and do not include questions of class, race, gender, justice, power or colonial history. Their proposed solutions and prescriptions are market-based, top-down, and do not address the root causes of the climate, ecological, food and energy crises. The knowledge produced by such institutions is profoundly disempowering and overlooks questions of oppression and resistance, focusing largely on the advice of ‘experts’, to the exclusion of voices ‘from below’. 

This Collection of articles is one attempt to remedy that. It is a collection of essays from various North African countries focusing on dimensions of the energy transition and how to make this process equitable and just. The articles cover a wide range of countries, from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt and Sudan. It also includes regional contributions on agricultural transitions and the new hydrogen scramble in North Africa.

Until now, no widely available collection of writings by critical North African researchers or activists on a just energy transition has been published in Arabic, English or French – either as a Collection of essays or an online resource. While important documents on various Green New Deals17 and the needed energy transition are gaining increasing attention, writings by critical authors from the Global South remain marginal, including in North Africa and the Arab region. Given the critical importance of challenging eurocentrism and the need for a class-conscious approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation (including an urgent move towards renewable energies), this is a massive gap.

This Collection adopts an explicit ‘justice’ lens. It aims to expose policies and practices that protect political elites, multinational corporations and authoritarian/military regimes. It seeks to recognize and contribute to processes of knowledge production and resistance against ‘extractivism’, land-/resource-grabbing and neocolonial agendas and towards transformative sustainability from the ground up, based on the assumption that this offers the greatest potential for dealing with environmental, food, energy and social crises.

This is the first collection of essays in Arabic to directly tackle the question of the energy transition in North Africa using a justice lens and a just transition framework (see below).

The Collection of articles aims to do the following:

  •    Increase the structural critique in ‘green’ transition debates, by centring the voices of activists, scholars and writers from North Africa and the Arab region;
  •    Highlight the urgency of the climate crisis in North Africa and to push back against the entrenchment of extractivism and energy colonialism, emphasizing the need for holistic analyses and structural change;
  •  Counteract the dominant neoliberal/neocolonial discourse on the ‘green’ transition that is promoted by various international actors in the region;
  • Overcome the ‘security’ discourse – the Collection avoids demands framed around ‘security’, like climate security, food security or energy security; instead, it promotes notions of justice, sovereignty and decoloniality;
  •   Support progressive forces/movements/grassroots groups in North Africa and in the Arab region more broadly to articulate a localized, democratic and public response to the urgently needed energy transition, incorporating political, economic, social, class and environmental analyses;
  •    Help mobilize North African and Arab groups around the next climate talks (COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates).

This educational and political project aims to contribute to the emerging study of energy transitions through a political economy lens, which investigates the relationships between fossil fuel industries, the renewable energy sector, regional elites and international capital. It also aims to articulate and explore concepts and political ideas that can help to guide and galvanize transformative grassroots-led change in the region.

What is ‘just transition’?

As outlined above, discussions of climate action are often narrow and technocratic, neoliberal and market-based, top-down and implicitly focused on preserving the structures of racist, imperialist, and patriarchal capitalism. Against this backdrop of proposals that, at best, largely ignore questions of power and justice, the concept of ‘just transition’ has emerged as a framework that places justice at the centre of the discussion. This approach recognizes that, in the words of Eduardo Galeano, ‘the rights of human beings and the rights of nature are two names for the same dignity’.18 Where did the idea of just transition come from, and what might it have to offer to the project of developing grounded, bottom-up and anti-imperialist visions of emancipation and climate action in the context of North Africa and the Arab region?

The origin of the concept of just transition is usually traced back to the US in the 1970s, when pathbreaking alliances between labour unions and environmental justice and indigenous movements emerged to fight for environmental justice in the context of polluting industries. In the face of environmental regulations which were being implemented for the first time or tightened during this decade, companies claimed that policies to protect the environment would require them to lay off workers. Unions and communities rallied against this attempt to divide and conquer, arguing that workers and communities – especially black, brown and indigenous communities, who were the most impacted by polluting industries – had a shared interest in a liveable environment, and in decent, safe and fairly paid work.

Over the decades that followed, the concept of just transition was taken up, explored and elaborated by a range of different movements, initially in the US and Canada, but subsequently also around the world and especially in South America and South Africa. Labour and environmental justice movements, working with indigenous nations, women’s movements, youth, students and other groups, have built coalitions and shared visions of transformative solutions to the climate crisis that tackle its underlying causes, and that put human rights, ecological regeneration, and people’s sovereignty at the centre.

As the framework has gained in popularity, corporations and governments have increasingly tried to advance their own visions of just transition which lack class analysis and deny the need for radical transformation. With the inclusion of the term ‘just transition’ in the preamble of the Paris agreement – a hard-won victory for global labour and climate justice movements – this co-optation has intensified. Today, just transition is not a single concept but a field of contestation, a space where struggles about what responses to the climate crisis are possible and necessary are playing out. The term does not automatically imply progressive or emancipatory politics, and many actors use it to describe and defend proposals which are basically business as usual, or intensified green extractivism. Nonetheless, far more than rhetoric about ‘sustainable development’ or the ‘green economy’, it still provides a space that movements can use to insist on the primacy of justice in all climate solutions. Despite attempts at co-optation, the centrality of ‘justice’ in the term itself is an important strength of the concept of just transition.

Just transition proposals being advanced by progressive social movements are driven by a conviction that the people who bear the heaviest costs of the current system should not be the ones who pay the costs of a transition to a sustainable or regenerative society but should rather be the leading actors in shaping such a transition. Different processes have explored different dimensions of this, seeking to better understand the costs of the current system, the possibilities for transformation, and the likely costs of proposed alternatives. From feminist and indigenous perspectives to regional and national programmes, movements are advancing their own definitions of both ‘justice’ and ‘transition’ in their diverse contexts.19

The conception of this Collection drew on the insights of a meeting of environmental justice and labour movements from three continents, which took place in Amsterdam in 2019. The meeting participants identified six preliminary principles of just transition: (1) just transition looks different in different places; (2) just transition is a class issue; (3) just transition is a gender issue; (4) just transition is an anti-racist framework; (5) just transition is about more than just climate; and (6) just transition is about democracy.20

While not claiming to be an exhaustive definition or final set of permanent principles, this analysis lays out the contours of a position that recognizes that discussions of just transition must respond to the reality of unequal development caused by imperialism and colonialism; that just transition must include radical shifts that increase the power of working people in all their diversity (see below) and reduce the power of capital and governing elites; that environmental issues cannot be addressed without addressing the racist, sexist and other oppressive structures of the capitalist economy; that the environmental crisis is much broader than just the climate crisis, encompassing loss of habitats and biodiversity, and a fundamental breakdown in human relationships with the ‘natural world’; and that a just transition cannot be achieved without transformations of political, as well as economic, power towards greater democratization. 

A second important strength of just transition is its history as a tool or framework for unifying diverse movements across differences and potential divisions. As mentioned above, the term emerged originally as a response to the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of businesses resisting environmental regulation. These tactics are alive and well as corporations push for policies that protect profits regardless of the costs for communities, workers and the planet; and that pit different regions and different kinds of working people against each other. International climate justice movements, national and regional coalitions, and local alliances around the world recognize that virtually all of us benefit from a liveable and flourishing environment, and suffer when wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite who count on being able to protect themselves from the worst effects of the climate crisis. Yet building shared campaigns and common visions, cultivating trust and solidarity, and developing and fighting for shared proposals is slow and politically challenging work – but necessary, as any shortcuts that try to side-step this process are likely to compromise the justice that must be at the heart of any just transition. The concept of just transition, and the growing body of experiences of working and campaigning with it around the globe, can help to provide some guides and waystones on this difficult path.

The concept of just transition has been shaped partially by labour movements, so the question of decent work remains central to many articulated proposals. The International Trade Union Confederation has dubbed the MENA region the worst in the world for workers’ rights, with systematic violations across the region.21 Across the Arab world, youth unemployment is almost twice the global average22 and about two-thirds of workers in North Africa are employed in the informal sector.23 In this context, what does it mean to talk about decent work, and how should we understand working people? Inspired by the Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney’s political mobilizations of ‘working people’, Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji has argued that ‘under neoliberalism, primitive accumulation assumes new forms and becomes generalized in almost all sectors of the economy, including the so-called informal sector. The producer self-exploits him or herself just to survive while subsidising capital.24 Following this, he argues that we need a new understanding of working people that recognizes the common exploitation faced by organized industrial workers; informal, precarious, temporary, or migrant workers; unpaid or underpaid workers (usually women) doing domestic, care, and social reproductive work; and nominally self-employed or independent small-scale peasant farmers, pastoralists and fisherpeople working directly for their own survival.

Today, the vast majority of humanity, regardless of the kind of work they do, are giving up some part of their essential daily consumption, their human rights, or their ability to live a dignified life in order to keep propping up the super-profits of transnational corporations. Whether this is the case because their food, health, energy and care systems have been privatized, putting the full burden of care on the family unit; because they have lost or are at risk of losing access to their traditional lands, territories or fishing grounds; or because they are unable to find work and must struggle to make ends meet in an informal economy where they have no political means to demand a living wage, the effects are the same. It is no coincidence that this precarious and exploited majority is also the group most at risk from climate change, and least able to protect themselves from its effects.

Taken together with the concept of just transition, we can use this definition of ‘working people’ when developing our vision of who should be in control of the energy transition, and the response to the climate crisis more generally. It provides a basis for asking what justice in climate action would look like, and what concrete steps we need to take to achieve it in different contexts. This Collection attempts to draw together the diverse perspectives of many different kinds of working people across the North Africa region, and to illuminate some of the possibilities for building alliances and coalitions. 

Summary of the Collection of articles

Mohamed Gad documents Egypt’s response to massive power outages in 2014 in terms of the liberalization of electricity production and the move away from subsidizing electricity prices for a wide range of income groups. He debunks the World Bank’s claim that the liberalization of electricity prices ended subsidies to the rich and redirected resources towards the poor. Instead, he shows how it paved the way for the entry of international finance, at the expense of the poorest – radically transforming a basic service into a commodity.

Jawad Moustakbal, in his article on the energy sector in Morocco, asks very important questions: Who decides on, who benefits from, and who pays the price for Morocco’s so-called energy transition? He argues that PPPs guarantee high profits to private corporations, while the poor have to pay ever-higher prices for energy. He asserts that there will be no just transition as long as Morocco’s energy sector remains under the control of foreign transnational companies and a local ruling elite that is allowed to plunder the state and generate as much profit as it wishes.

In their contribution on Tunisia, Chafik Ben Rouine and Flavie Roche show how the country’s energy transition plan relies heavily on privatization and foreign funding, while neglecting democratic decision-making, situating the country firmly within the global neoliberal scheme for the development of renewable energy. They argue that instead of chasing private profits, a just transition in Tunisia would give households and communities the means to produce their own electricity, which would reduce dependency and promote the development of local industry and the creation of decent jobs.

In her article on Algeria, Imane Boukhatem contends that the country faces a triple challenge in its energy sector: economic dependence on hydrocarbon revenues, growing domestic electricity demand, and long-term fossil fuel export agreements. She highlights the opportunities, challenges and potential injustices facing the green energy transition in Algeria and argues that Algeria must rapidly transform its energy sector, with a core focus on social justice. She lists several socioeconomic, institutional and policy obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve a just transition.

Mohamed Salah and Razaz Basheir, in their contribution on the electricity crisis in Sudan, chart the evolution of the energy sector in the country since colonial times and attribute its uneven development to policies from that era and to their continuation in the post-colonial period. They put forward a critique of hydro-electric projects in Sudan in terms of their socioeconomic and environmental costs, deepening of existing inequalities and negative impacts on livelihoods. They also challenge the World Bank’s agenda in liberalizing and privatizing the energy sector in the country and show how these plans would only pauperize more people and limit access to energy.  

Karen Rignall shows how solar energy is embedded in a long history of extraction in Morocco and reveals some of the striking continuities between fossil fuel commodity chains and those of renewable energies in the country. These continuities raise questions about how to work towards a just transition not only in Morocco but in other countries around the world that are seeing a surge in renewable energy projects, often in areas with long histories of mining. She rightly asks how to advocate for new forms of energy that do not reproduce the same economic and political inequalities inherent in carbon-fuelled capitalism. 

In his article, Hamza Hamouchene shows how renewable energy engineering projects tend to present climate change as a problem that is common to the whole planet, without ever questioning the capitalist and productivist energy model or the historical responsibilities of the industrialized West. As he argues, this translates, in the Maghreb, more into ‘green colonialism’ than into the search for an energy transition that benefits working people. He takes as an example the new green hydrogen hype and argues that such projects can constitute neocolonial schemes of plunder and dispossession.

Joanna Allan, Hamza Lakhal and Mahmoud Lemaadel, in highlighting how extractivism operates today in the part of Western Sahara currently occupied by Morocco, focus principally on renewable energy developments, because Morocco is widely celebrated on the international stage for its commitments to the so-called ‘green energy transition’. They offer a different story that emphasizes the voices of the Saharawi population and they argue that current renewable energy projects in Western Sahara simply sustain and ‘greenwash’ colonialism, undermining a just transition that could truly benefit local communities.

Last but not least, Sakr El Nour, in his essay on the needed just agricultural transition in North Africa, argues that countries in the region are subjected to unequal exchange with the Global North, particularly the EU, through trade agreements that enable the North to benefit from North African agricultural products at preferential rates. He contends that North Africa needs to recast its agricultural, environmental, food and energy policies. Convincingly, he advocates for alternatives that are locally centred and that are able to flourish autonomously, independent of European interests. 

In guise of a conclusion

Through these essays, the authors aim to initiate a deeper discussion of what just transition means in the context of North Africa and the Arab region. The dynamics are complex and obviously different across the countries of the region, yet many shared challenges and questions also emerge from these explorations: Whose needs and rights should be prioritized in an energy transition? What model of energy production, and of extraction, can deliver energy to all working people? How are Northern countries and international financial institutions pushing the region into shouldering the burden of the energy transition, and what would a more just solution look like? What role should states play in driving a just transition, and what are the possibilities for a democratic reclaiming of state power for this goal? What alliances of working people, environmental justice movements and other political actors within the region are possible and necessary, and what role can international solidarity and resistance play in supporting these?

It is increasingly clear that a just transition for North Africa will require a recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialized West in causing global warming. It will also need to acknowledge the role of power in shaping both how climate change is caused, and who carries the burden of its impacts and of ‘solutions’ to the crisis. Climate justice and a just transition will mean breaking with ‘business as usual’ that protects global political elites, multinational corporations and non-democratic regimes, and a radical social and ecological transformation and adaptation process. The imperatives of justice and pragmatism are increasingly converging on the need for climate reparations or debts to be definitely (re)paid to countries in the Global South by the rich North. This must take the form not of loans and additional debts but of transfers of wealth and technology, cancelling current odious debts, halting illicit capital flows, dismantling neocolonial trade and investment agreements like the Energy Charter Treaty25 and stopping the ongoing plunder of resources. The financing of the transition needs to take into account the current, ongoing and future loss and damage, which is occurring disproportionately in the South. But, as inequalities exist not only between North and South, but also within all countries of the world, how can a programme of climate reparations be combined with the creation of a just, democratic and equitable energy system within the countries of North Africa and the Arab region more widely?

These questions are increasingly urgent. International negotiations on climate action are stagnating at the same moment as climate change is accelerating, with its effects increasingly deadly and undeniable. This Collection is intended as a tool for activists, both in North Africa and around the world, to help them continue posing critical questions and building coalitions, alliances and popular power in support of their own solutions for a just transition.


Hamza Hamouchene is a London-based Algerian researcher-activist, commentator and a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC), and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA). He previously worked for War on Want, Global Justice Now and Platform London on issues of extractivism, resources, land and food sovereignty as well as climate, environmental, and trade justice. He is the author/editor of two books: “The Struggle for Energy Democracy in the Maghreb” (2017) and “The Coming Revolution to North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice” (2015). He also contributed book chapters to “Voices of Liberation: Frantz Fanon” (2014) and “The Palgrave Encyclopaedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism” (2016). His other writings have appeared in the Guardian, Middle East Eye, Counterpunch, New Internationalist, Jadaliyya, openDemocracy, ROAR magazine, Pambazuka, Nawaat, El Watan and the Huffington Post.

Katie Sandwell is Programme Coordinator at TNI. She holds a BA in Philosophy and a Master of Environmental Studies degree from York University, Canada focusing on food sovereignty and local food movements. She has lived in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands and has been involved with a range of food, community, environmental, and social justice organizations. Her research involves Just Transition, human rights, corporate concentrationfood sovereignty, and oceans.


Copy-edited by Ashley Ingles

The publication of this article was supported by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).

FES is not responsible for the content, for which the individual authors are solely responsible.

While not very accurate, we use the terms ‘North Africa’, the ‘Arab region’, ‘Middle East and North Africa (MENA)’ interchangeably. This collection focuses on North African countries with the view of extending it to other countries in the Arab region.

IPCC (2021) Sixth Assessment Report – Working group 1: The physical science basis. Available at:

3 Hamouchene, H. and Minio-Paluello, M. (2015) The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The struggle for climate justice [in Arabic and French]. Platform London, Environmental Justice North Africa, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and Ritimo. Arabic version available at: and French version at:

Amouzai, A. and Kay, S. (2021) ‘Towards a just recovery from the Covid-19 crisis: the urgent struggle for food sovereignty in North Africa’. Transnational Institute and North African Food Sovereignty Network. Available at:

5 El-Zein, A. et al. (2014) ‘Health and ecological sustainability in the Arab world: a matter of survival’, The Lancet 383(9915): 458–476.

Lelieveld, J. et al. (2016) ‘Strongly increasing heat extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st century’, Climatic Change 23. 

Friends of the Earth International (2021) ‘Chasing carbon unicorns: the deception of carbon markets and “net zero”’. Available at:; Corporate Accountability (2020) ‘Not zero: how “net zero” targets disguise climate inaction’. Available at: 

The Working Group on Food Sovereignty – Tunisia (2019) ‘Our food, our farming, our sovereignty: analysis of Tunisian policies in light of food sovereignty’. [In Arabic]. Available at:

Amin, S. (1990) Delinking: Towards a polycentric world. Zed Books; Amin, S. (2013) The Implosion of Capitalism. Pluto Press. See also Rodney, W. (2012) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Pambazuka Press; and Galeano, E. (1973) Open Veins of Latin America. New York: Monthly Review Press. 

10 Hamouchene, H. (2019) ‘Extractivism and resistance in North Africa’. Transnational Institute. Available at:;

Riahi, L. and Hamouchene, H. (2020) ‘Deep and comprehensive dependency: how a trade agreement with the EU could devastate the Tunisian economy’. Transnational Institute. Available at:

11 Buxton, N. (2021) ‘A primer on climate security: the dangers of militarising the climate crisis’. Transnational Institute. Available at:

12 Said, E. (1977) Orientalism. London: Penguin.

13 Davis, D.K. (2011) ‘Imperialism, orientalism, and the environment in the Middle East: history, policy, power and practice’, in D.K. Davis and E. Burke III (eds) Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

14 Ibid.

15 Springate-Baginski, O. (2019) ‘“There is no vacant land”: a primer on defending Myanmar’s customary tenure systems’. Transnational Institute. Available at:

16 Klein, N. (2016) ‘Let them drown: the violence of othering in a warming world’, Edward Said Lecture. Available online at:

17 ‘Green New Deal (GND) proposals call for public policy to address climate change along with achieving other social aims like job creation and reducing economic inequality. The name refers back to the New Deal, a set of social and economic reforms and public works projects undertaken by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression.’ From Wikipedia. Available at:

18 Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project (no date) From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A strategic framework for a just transition’. Available at:

19 Friends of the Earth International (2021) ‘If it’s not feminist, it’s not just’. Available at: ; Indigenous Environmental Network (2017) ‘Indigenous principles of just transition’. Available at:; Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (2014) PLADA – Development Platform of the Americas. Available at:; Alternative Information and Development Centre (2016) ‘One million climate jobs’. Available at: 

20 Transnational Institute (2020) ‘Just transition: how environmental justice organisations and trade unions are coming together for social and environmental transformation’. Transnational Institute.

21 International Trade Union Confederation (2020) 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index: The world’s worst countries for workers. Available at:

22 Achcar, G. (2013) The People Want: A radical exploration of the Arab uprising. London: Saqi Books. 

23 Cardarelli, R. et al. (2022) ‘Informality, development, and the business cycle in North Africa’. International Monetary Fund. Available at:

24 Shiva, I.G. (2017) ‘The concept of “working people”’, Agrarian South Journal of Political Economy 6(1): 1–13.

25 Eberhardt, P., Olivet, C. and Steinfort, L. (2018) ‘One Treaty to rule them all: The ever-expanding Energy Charter Treaty and the power it gives corporations to halt the energy transition’. Transnational Institute. Available at: