The energy transition in North Africa
14 October 2022
The current Covid-19 pandemic, which is part of the global multi-dimensional crisis we are living through, demonstrates that what we are experiencing now is a taste of the worst things to come if we don’t take the necessary measures to implement just solutions to the unfolding climate crisis.
The impacts of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are already a reality and they are undermining the socio-economic and ecological basis of life in the region. These impacts are disproportionately felt by the marginalized in society, especially small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists and fisherfolk. People are being forced off their lands due to stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, and due to the growth of deserts and rises in sea levels. Moreover, crops are failing and water supplies are dwindling, which is having a large impact on food production.1
Addressing this global climate crisis requires a rapid and drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we know that the current economic system is undermining the life support systems of the planet and will eventually collapse. Therefore, a transition towards renewable energies has become inevitable. However, it is very possible that this transition, if and when it comes, will maintain the same practices of dispossession and exploitation that currently prevail, reproducing injustices and deepening socioeconomic exclusion. Thus, before talking about ‘green’ projects themselves, it is appropriate to question the frameworks and design choices applied in an energy transition, to shine some light on transitions that would be unjust, and on some problematic aspects of renewable energy that have been sidelined by the mainstream narrative.
‘Green colonialism’ and ‘green grabbing’
The Sahara is usually described as a vast empty land that is sparsely populated, and as representing an Eldorado of renewable energy, thus constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europe with energy so it can continue its extravagant consumerist lifestyle and excessive energy consumption. However, this deceptive 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.
Several examples from the North African region show how energy colonialism and extractivist practices are reproduced even in transitions to renewable energy, in the form of what is described as ‘green colonialism’ or ‘green grabbing’. If what really matters to us is not just any kind of transition but rather a ‘just transition’ that will benefit the impoverished and marginalized in society, instead of deepening their socio-economic exclusion, these examples raise some serious concerns.
Before delving into some of these examples, I would like to provide some short definitions of the terms ‘green colonialism’ and ‘green grabbing’. ‘Green colonialism’ can be defined as the extension of the colonial relations of plunder and dispossession (as well as the dehumanization of the other) to the green era of renewable energies, with the accompanying displacement of socio-environmental costs onto peripheral countries and communities. Basically, the same system is in place, but with a different source of energy, moving from fossil fuels to green energy, while the same global energy-intensive production and consumption patterns are maintained and the same political, economic and social structures that generate inequality, impoverishment and dispossession remain untouched.
Scholars and activists have coined another useful concept: ‘green grabbing’. This refers to cases where the dynamics of land grabs take place within a supposedly green agenda.2 In other words, land and resources are appropriated for purportedly environmental ends. This ranges from certain conservation projects that dispossess indigenous communities of their land and territories, to the confiscation of communal land in order to produce biofuels, and to the installation of big solar plants/wind farms on agro-pastoralists’ land without their proper consent.
The current uneven transition to renewable energies, which is happening mainly in the global North, is predicated on the ongoing extraction of base minerals and rare earth metals (such as cobalt, lithium, copper, nickel, graphite, etc) that are used for manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, blades and electrical batteries. Where will these resources come from? The answer is from countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bolivia, Chile and Morocco, where environmental destruction and workers’ exploitation will continue and even intensify.
Colonialism – if it ever formally ended – is continuing in other forms and at various levels, including in the economic sphere. This is what some scholars and activists call neocolonialism or re-colonization. The economies of the peripheries/the global South have been placed in a subordinate position within a profoundly unjust global division of labour: on one hand, as providers of cheap natural resources and a reservoir of cheap labour, and, on the other hand, as a market for industrialized/high-technology economies.3 This situation has been imposed and shaped by colonialism and attempts to break away from it have been defeated so far by the new tools of imperial subjugation: crippling debts, the religion of ‘free trade’, and Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, etc.
So, if we are serious about moving beyond fossil fuels, it is crucial to closely examine the linkages between fossil fuels and the wider economy, and to address the power relations within, and hierarchies of, the international energy system.4 This means recognizing that countries of the global South are still systematically exploited by a colonial, imperialist economy built around the pillage of their resources and a massive transfer of wealth from South to North.
Energy transition, dispossession and grabbing in Morocco
Let’s take Morocco as an example, as it has advanced much further in its energy transition than its neighbours. Morocco has set the goal of increasing its share of renewable energy to more than 50 per cent by 2030. The Ouarzazate solar power plant, came online in 2016, is one element in the country’s plan to achieve this goal. The Ouarzazate plant has failed to benefit the impoverished communities that surround it: the Amazigh agro-pastoralists whose lands were used without their consent to install the 3,000-hectare facility.5 Moreover, the debt of $9 billion relating to loans from the World Bank, European Investment Bank and others for the plant’s construction is backed by Moroccan government guarantees, which means potentially more public debt in a country that is already over-burdened with debt. The project, which is a public–private partnership (a euphemism for the privatization of the profits and the socialization of losses through de-risking strategies) has been recording, since its launch in 2016, an annual deficit of around €80 million, which is covered by the public purse. Finally, the Ouarzazate plant uses concentrated thermal power (CSP), which necessitates extensive use of water in order to cool down the system and clean the solar panels. In a semi-arid region like Ouarzazate, diverting water use from drinking and agriculture is outrageous.
Another example of an unjust energy transition is the Noor Midelt project, which constitutes Phase II of Morocco’s solar power plan. Accordingly, Noor Midelt will provide more energy capacity than the Ouarzazate plant and will be one of the biggest solar projects in the world to combine both CSP and photovoltaic (PV) technologies. The Noor Midelt facilities will be operated by the French entity EDF Renewable, the Emirati entity Masdar and the Moroccan conglomerate Green of Africa, in partnership with the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy (MASEN), for a period of 25 years. The project has contracted around $4 billion in debt so far, including more than $2 billion from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the French Development Agency and KfW.6
Construction on Noor Midelt started in 2019, and commissioning was initially expected in 2022. However, delays have accumulated for various reasons, including the slow pace of progress on the solar plan and the political problems that the head of MASEN encountered during 2021, as well as the geopolitical tensions between Morocco and Germany. The Noor Midelt solar complex will be developed on a 4,141-hectare site on the Haute Moulouya Plateau in central Morocco, approximately 20 km north-east of Midelt town. Of this site, a total of 2,714 hectares are managed as communal/collective land by the three ethnic agrarian communities of Ait Oufella, Ait Rahou Ouali and Ait Massoud Ouali, while approximately 1,427 hectares are declared forest land and are currently managed by these communities. This land has been confiscated from its owners through national laws and regulations that allow for expropriation in order to serve the public interest. The expropriation was granted in favour of MASEN by an administrative court decision in January 2017, with the court decision publicly disclosed in March 2017.
In an ongoing colonial environmental narrative that labels the lands to be expropriated as marginal and underutilized, and therefore available for investing in green energy, the World Bank, in a study conducted in 2018,7 stressed that ‘the sandy and arid terrain allow only for small scrubs to grow, and the land is not suitable for agricultural development due to lack of water’. This argument/narrative was also used when promoting the Ouarzazate plant in the early 2010s. At that time one person stated:
‘The project people talk about this as a desert that is not used, but to the people here, it is not desert, it is a pasture. It is their territory and their future is in the land. When you take my land you take my oxygen.’8
The World Bank report does not stop there but goes on to assert that ‘the land acquisition for the project will have no impacts on the livelihood of local communities’. However, the transhumant pastoralist tribe of Sidi Ayad, which has been using that land to graze its animals for centuries, begs to differ. In 2019, Hassan El Ghazi, a young shepherd, declared to an activist from the association ATTAC Morocco:
‘Our profession is pastoralism, and now this project has occupied our land where we graze our sheep. They do not employ us in the project, but they employ foreigners. The land in which we live has been occupied. They are destroying the houses that we build. We are oppressed, and the Sidi Ayad region is being oppressed. Its children are oppressed, and their rights and the rights of our ancestors have been lost. We are “illiterates” who do not know how to read and write…The children you see did not go to school and there are many others. Roads and paths are cut off… In the end, we are invisible and we do not exist for them. We demand that officials pay attention to our situation and our regions. We do not exist with such policies, and it is better to die, it is better to die!’9
In this context of dispossession, misery, under-development and social injustice, the people of Sidi Ayad have been voicing their discontent since 2017 through a series of protests. In February 2019, they carried out an open sit-in, which led to the arrest of Said Oba Mimoun, a member of the Union of Small Farmers and Forest Workers. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
Mostepha Abou Kbir, another trade unionist who has been supporting the struggle of the Sidi Ayad tribe, has described how the land was enclosed without the approval of the local communities, who have endured decades of socio-economic exclusion. The land has now been fenced and no-one is allowed to approach it. Abou Kbir contrasts the mega-development projects of the Moroccan state with the fact that basic infrastructure is inexistent in Sidi Ayad. Moreover, he points to another dimension of the enclosure and resource grab, which is the exhaustion of water resources in the Drâa-Tafilalet region for the sake of these gargantuan projects (the Midelt solar plant will be fed from the nearby Hassan II dam) that communities complain they do not benefit from.10 In a challenging context in which owners of small herds are being driven out of the sector, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, along with the commoditization of the livestock market and chronic droughts, the Midelt solar project is set to exacerbate the threat to the livelihoods of these pastoralist communities and to worsen their predicament.
It is not only the communities of Sidi Ayad that have voiced concerns about the Midelt project. Women from the Soulaliyate movement have also demanded their right to access land in the Drâa-Tafilalet region and have demanded they receive appropriate compensation for the loss of their ancestral land, on which the solar plant has been built. The term ‘Soulaliyate women’ refers to tribal women in Morocco who live on collective land. The Soulaliyate women’s movement, which began in the early 2000s, arose in the context of intense commodification and privatization of collective lands.11 At this time, tribal women began demanding equal rights and an equal share when plans were made to privatize or divide up their lands. Despite intimidation, arrests and even sieges by public authorities, the movement has spread nationwide and women from different regions now rally behind the Soulaliyate movement’s banner of equality and justice.
Despite all of these concerns and injustices, the Midelt project is going ahead, protected by the monarchy as well as its tools of repression and propaganda. It seems that there is no end in sight for the logic of externalizing socio-ecological costs and displacing them through space and time, which is characteristic of capitalism’s extractivist drive.
Green colonialism and occupation in Western Sahara
While some of the projects in Morocco, like the Ouarzazate and Midelt solar plants, certainly qualify as ‘green grabbing’ – the appropriation of land and resources for purportedly environmental ends – similar renewable projects (solar and wind) that are being implemented, or will be implemented, in the occupied territories of Western Sahara can simply be labelled ‘green colonialism’, as they are carried out in spite of the Saharawis, and on their occupied land.
At present, there are three operational wind farms in occupied Western Sahara; a fourth is under construction in Boujdour, while several others are in the planning stage. Combined, these wind farms will have a capacity of over 1,000 megawatts (MW). These wind farms are part of the portfolio of Nareva, the wind energy company that is owned by the holding company of the Moroccan royal family. 95 per cent of the energy that the Moroccan state-owned phosphate company OCP needs to exploit Western Sahara’s non-renewable phosphate reserves in Bou Craa is produced by windmills. This renewable energy is generated by 22 Siemens wind turbines at the 50 MW Foum el Oued farm, which has been operational since 2013.12
In November 2016, at the time of the United Nations COP22 climate talks, Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power signed an agreement with MASEN to develop and operate a complex of three solar PV power stations totalling 170 MW. However, two of these power stations (operational today), totalling 100 MW, are not located in Morocco but rather inside the occupied territory of Western Sahara (El Aaiún and Boujdour). Plans have also been issued for a third solar plant at El Argoub, near Dakhla.
It is clear that these renewable projects are being used to entrench the occupation by deepening Morocco’s ties to the occupied territories, with the obvious complicity of foreign capital and companies.
Which energy transition in Algeria? Drill baby drill!
The Algerian ruling classes have been talking about the ‘after oil’ era for decades and successive governments have paid lip-service to the transition to renewable energies for years, without taking any concrete action. In fact, there have been significant delays in the implementation of current renewable energy plans, which in my view reflects a lack of any serious or coherent vision of the transition. Announcements and declarations from officials follow each other, while promises remain merely ink on paper. For example, the recent tender for the deployment of 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity has been delayed for more than two years. Algeria’s plans to deploy 15 GW of solar energy generation capacity by 2030 are simply not realistic when we realize that the country had around 423 MW of total installed solar capacity at the end of last year (2021), according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).13 All sources combined, the installed capacity of renewable energy does not currently exceed 500 MW. This is a far cry from the 22 GW planned for 2030 that was announced in 2011. The Ministry of Energy Transition and Renewable Energies, which came into being in June 2020, has reduced these targets to 4 GW by 2024 and to 15 GW by 2035. However, even this is overly optimistic.
In a nutshell, Algeria needs to move fast towards renewable energies as the day will come when the country’s European clients will stop importing its fossil fuels for energy purposes. The European Union (EU) is expanding and accelerating its energy transition, a pattern that has been rendered urgent by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the short term, the EU will obviously continue importing gas and will intensify its efforts to diversify its sources, but in the long term, it will do its best to move away from fossil fuels. This will be an existential threat for countries like Algeria, if they continue to remain dependent on oil and gas. Therefore, the urgent move towards the production of renewable energies (primarily for the local market) is not only the right thing to do ecologically, it is also a strategic and a survival imperative.
However, the general tendency in the last few years in the country has been to move towards more liberalization of the economy and to extend more concessions to the private sector and foreign investors. The cases of the budget laws of 2020–2021 and the new Hydrocarbon Law are edifying in this respect. The new Hydrocarbon Law is very friendly to multinationals and offers more incentives and concessions for them to invest in Algeria. It also opens the way to destructive projects, such as the exploitation of shale gas in the Sahara and offshore resources in the Mediterranean.
Regarding the budget laws of 2020–2021, they reopened the door to international borrowing, and imposed harsh austerity measures by lifting various subsidies and cutting public spending. In the name of encouraging foreign direct investment, they exempted multinationals from tariffs and taxes and increased their share in the national economy by removing the 51/49 per cent investment rule that limits the part of foreign investment in any project to 49 per cent, undermining national sovereignty still further. Now it is the turn of the renewable energy sector. This is definitely not a decision that is likely to ensure sovereignty in this strategic sector that will grow in importance in the coming years!
While certain Western governments portray themselves as pro-environment by banning fracking within their borders and by setting carbon emissions-reduction targets, they simultaneously offer diplomatic support to their multinationals to exploit shale resources in their former colonies, as France did with Total in Algeria in 2013.14 If that’s not energy colonialism and environmental racism, I don’t know what it is!
In the context of the war in Ukraine and the EU’s attempts to cut reliance on Russian gas, we see once again that EU energy security comes above everything else. We are seeing more gas lock-in, more extractivism, more path dependency and a halt to the green transition where those extractive projects are taking place. That’s exactly what has happened in the case of Italy and Algeria agreeing to boost gas supplies to Italy. In fact, Algeria’s national company Sonatrach and Italian ENI will pump an additional 9 billion cubic metres from 2023/2024.15 The EU will also receive LNG shipments from Egypt, Israel, Qatar and the United States.
Some fossil fuel-based economies in the North Africa region, like Algeria, Libya and Egypt, will be hugely impacted when Europe significantly reduces its fossil fuel imports from this region in the coming decades. Therefore a serious discussion and public debate need to take place regarding the necessary and urgent transition to renewables, while phasing out fossil fuels. New projects for the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels should be considered out of the question and this cannot be disconnected from questions of democratization and popular sovereignty over land, water and other natural resources. In kleptocratic military dictatorships like Algeria and Egypt (where the next climate talks, COP27, will be held), how can people decide and shape their future without demilitarizing and democratizing their countries and societies? Moreover, there is a need to consciously build alliances between labour movements and other social and environmental justice movements and organizations. We need to find a way of involving workers in the oil industry in discussions around the transition and green jobs as the transition won’t take place without them. It is therefore of paramount importance to start engaging with the trade unions around these issues.
In Algeria and in other countries in North Africa and the global South, the energy transition needs to be a sovereign project, primarily looking inwards and directed towards satisfying local needs first, before embarking on any export initiatives. We cannot continue in the old ways of producing for Europe and obeying its diktats, including its desire to wean itself off its dependency on Russian gas by diversifying its energy sources. The priority now is to decarbonize North African economies by reaching 70 to 80 per cent renewables in the energy mix before even starting to think about exporting to the EU.
On top of this, it needs to be borne in mind that countries like Algeria that have been locked into a predatory form of an extractivist model of development have neither the financial means nor the sufficient know-how to carry out a rapid energy transition. In this respect, some financial compensation must be on the table to keep the oil in the ground, and monopolies on green technology and knowledge must be ended, and these resources made available to countries and communities in the global South.
Privatization of energy in Tunisia
The drive towards the privatization of energy and corporate control of the energy transition is global. Morocco is already on this path, and so is Tunisia. Right now, there is a big push to privatize the Tunisian renewable energy sector and to give huge incentives to foreign investors to produce green energy in the country, including for export. The 2015-12 law (modified in 2019) even allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects in a country that suffers from acute food dependency (revealed once again during the pandemic and right now in the middle of the war in Ukraine). In this context, one must ask, energy transition for whom?
In 2017, the company TuNur applied to build a 4.5 GW solar plant in the Tunisian desert in order to deliver enough electricity via submarine cables to power 2 million European homes. This still-unrealized project is a partnership between UK-based Noor Energy and a group of Maltese and Tunisian investors in the oil and gas sector.16 Until recently, TuNur was openly describing itself as a solar energy export project linking the Sahara and Europe. Given that Tunisia depends on Algeria for some of its energy needs, it is outrageous that such projects are turning to exports rather than producing energy for domestic use.
The same goes for another project proposed in 2021 by an ex-Tesco CEO, in partnership with the Saudi ACWA Power, which aims to connect southern Morocco to the UK through underwater cables that will channel electricity. Once again, the same relations of extraction and the same practices of land-grabbing are maintained while people in the region are not even self-sufficient in energy. These big renewable projects, while proclaiming their good intentions, end up sugar-coating brutal exploitation and robbery. It seems that a familiar colonial scheme is being rolled out in front of our eyes: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources (including solar energy) from the global South to the rich North, while fortress Europe builds walls and fences to prevent human beings from reaching its shores!
Hydrogen: the new energy frontier in Africa
As the world seeks to switch to renewable energy amid a growing climate crisis, hydrogen has been presented as a ‘clean’ alternative fuel. Most current hydrogen production is the result of extraction from fossil fuels, leading to large carbon emissions (grey hydrogen). This process can be made cleaner (blue hydrogen): for example, through carbon capture technology. However, the cleanest form of hydrogen extraction uses electrolysers to split water molecules, a process that can be powered by electricity from renewable energy sources (clean or green hydrogen).
In recent years, in response to heavy lobbying from various interest groups, the EU has embraced the idea of a hydrogen transition as a centrepiece of its climate response, introducing in 2020 its hydrogen strategy within the framework of the European Green Deal. The plan proposes shifting to ‘green’ hydrogen by 2050, through local production and establishing a steady supply from Africa.17 This strategy was inspired by ideas put forward by the trade body and lobby group Hydrogen Europe, which has set out the 2×40 GW Green Hydrogen Initiative. Under this initiative, by 2030 the EU will have in place 40 GW of domestic renewable hydrogen electrolyser capacity and will import a further 40 GW from electrolysers in neighbouring areas, including the deserts of North Africa, using existing natural gas pipelines that already connect Algeria to Europe.18
It is worth saying here that the drive for green hydrogen and the push for a hydrogen economy has already gained support from major European oil and gas companies, which see it as a back door to the continuation of their operations, with hydrogen being extracted from fossil gas (the production of grey and blue hydrogen). It is thus becoming clear that the fossil fuel industry wants to preserve existing natural gas and pipeline infrastructure.19
In Africa and elsewhere fossil fuel companies continue to use the same exploitative economic structures set up during the colonial era to extract local resources and to transfer wealth out of the continent. They are also keen on preserving the political status quo in African countries so they can continue to benefit from lucrative relations with corrupt elites and authoritarian leaders. This allows them to engage in labour exploitation, environmental degradation, and violence against local communities with impunity.
In the context of the war in Ukraine, replacing fossil gas with hydrogen from renewables has become a key plank of REPowerEU, the European Commission’s plan to end dependence on Russian gas.20 Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament in May 2022: ‘I strongly believe in green hydrogen as the driving force of our energy system of the future.’ He added: ‘and I also strongly believe that Europe is never going to be capable to produce its own hydrogen in sufficient quantities.’21
As well as shifting gas suppliers from Putin’s Russia to other authoritarian regimes, like those ruling Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Qatar, or to the settler-colonial apartheid state of Israel, and building more ports and pipelines to import and transport gas, the European Commission has quadrupled its hydrogen target from 5 million tonnes by 2030 to 20 million tonnes, with half of that to be imported primarily from North Africa, though other countries are also on the target list, including Namibia, South Africa, DRC, Chile and Saudi Arabia, etc. However, some studies have shown how unrealistic these targets are from a cost and energy perspective, and how they are already leading to more fossil fuel exploitation.
Within Europe, Germany is at the forefront of green hydrogen efforts in Africa. It is working with the DRC, Morocco and South Africa to develop ‘decarbonized fuel’ generated from renewable energy for export to Europe, and is exploring other potential areas/countries that are particularly suited to green hydrogen production. In 2020, the Moroccan government entered into a partnership with Germany to develop the first green hydrogen plant on the continent.22 As always, Morocco, boasting one of the most neoliberal(ized) economies in the region, garners praise for its business-friendly environment, openness to foreign capital and its ‘leadership’ in the renewable energy sector. According to certain estimates, the country can take up to 4 per cent of the global Power-to-X market (production of green molecules) by 2030, given its ‘exceptional renewable resources and its successful track record in deploying large scale renewable plants’.23
All of this is happening at the expense of the energy transitions in these African countries. If these developments are not stopped, the green transition will be derailed in the name of the EU’s energy security and its efforts to meet its climate targets. Moreover, EU plans for renewable hydrogen in its RePowerEU strategy are not simply about emissions, but are part of a broader move to re-establish itself and its corporations as global players within a green high-tech economy, competing with other powers such as China.
Desertec 3.0 – or jumping on the green hydrogen bandwagon
In 2009, the Desertec project, an ambitious initiative that aims to power Europe from Saharan solar plants and wind farms stretching across the MENA region, was launched by a coalition of European industrial firms and financial institutions based on the idea that a tiny surface area of the desert can provide around 20 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 via special high-voltage direct current transmission cables.
After a number of years of hype, the Desertec venture ultimately stalled amid criticisms of its astronomical costs and its neocolonial connotations.24 However, attempts to revive it as Desertec 2.0, with a focus on the local market for renewable energy, then followed, and the project was eventually reborn as Desertec 3.0, which aims to satisfy Europe’s demand for hydrogen, which is seen as a ‘clean’ energy alternative to fossil fuels. In early 2020, Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance, which brings together private and public sector actors, as well as science and academia, to kick-start green hydrogen economies and produce hydrogen for export.25 Two of DII’s partners are the French energy giant Total and the Dutch oil major Shell.
The Desertec 3.0 proposal,26 which advocates for a European energy system based on 50 per cent renewable electricity and 50 per cent green hydrogen by 2050, starts with the assumption that ‘due to its limited size and population density, Europe will not be able to produce all its renewable energy in Europe itself’. The new Desertec proposal attempts to distance itself from the focus on exports in the initiative’s early days, by adding the dimension of local development of a clean energy system. However, the export agenda cannot be underestimated or ignored as the Desertec 3.0 manifesto points out that ‘…over and beyond catering for domestic demand, most North African countries have huge potential in terms of land and resources to produce green hydrogen for export’.
If that was not convincing enough for the political and business elites on both sides of the Mediterranean, the Desertec crew have other tricks up their sleeves. The document goes on: ‘Furthermore, a joint European – North African renewable energy and hydrogen approach would create economic development, future-oriented jobs and social stability in North-African countries, potentially reducing the number of economic migrants from the region to Europe.’ It is not clear if this is a desperate hard-sell strategy but it seems clear that this Desertec vision lends itself to the agenda of consolidating fortress Europe and expanding an inhuman regime of border imperialism, while trying to tap into the low-cost energy potential of North Africa, which also relies on under-valued and disciplined labour.
Desertec is thus presented as one solution to Europe’s energy transition: an opportunity for economic development in North Africa and a brake on South–North migration. Being an apolitical techno-fix, it promises to overcome these problems without making any fundamental changes: basically maintaining the status quo and the contradictions of the global system that has led to these problems in the first place. Techno-fixes of this kind embrace the obsession with endless economic growth, repackaged in the oxymoron ‘green growth’, and give the illusion of an endless availability of energy and resources, thus indirectly perpetuating consumerist lifestyles and energy-intensive productivism. This will do nothing to bring our socio-economic system within the planet’s limits in time to avert a climate and ecological breakdown.
Big engineering-focused ‘solutions’ like Desertec tend to present climate change as a shared problem that has no political or socio-economic context. This perspective hides the historical responsibility of the industrialized West, the problems of the capitalist energy model, and the different vulnerabilities experienced by countries of the North compared to those of the South. Moreover, using language such as ‘mutual cooperation’ and ‘for the benefit of both’, presents the Euro-Med region as a unified community (we are all friends now, fighting against a common foe!), masking the real enemy of African people, which is neocolonial structures of power that exploit them and plunder their resources.
Furthermore, pushing for the use of the current gas pipeline infrastructure effectively advocates for a mere switching of the energy source, while maintaining the existing authoritarian political dynamics and leaving intact the current hierarchies within the international order. The fact that Desertec is encouraging the use of pipelines from Algeria and Libya (including through Tunisia and Morocco) raises the question of the future of the populations in these two fossil fuel-rich countries. What will happen when Europe stops importing gas from them (in a context in which 13 per cent of the gas consumed in Europe is from North Africa)? What about the ongoing chaos and destabilization caused by the NATO intervention in Libya? Will Algerians’ aspirations for democracy and sovereignty – well expressed in the 2019–2021 uprising against the country’s military dictatorship – be considered in this equation? Or is it simply another remake of the status quo where hydrogen simply replaces gas? Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun after all.
To add insult to injury, the Desertec manifesto points out that ‘in an initial phase (between 2030-2035), a substantial hydrogen volume can be produced by converting natural gas to hydrogen, whereby the CO2 is stored in empty gas/oil fields (blue hydrogen).’ First of all, carbon capture and storage technologies are still expensive and unreliable. Second, there is a big risk that the captured CO2 will be used for enhanced oil recovery, as is currently the case around the world. Notwithstanding this, storing CO2 in empty gas fields in North Africa, alongside the use of the rare water resources there to produce hydrogen, and the potential pollution from desalination, would be yet another example of dumping waste in the global South and displacing environmental costs from North to South (the creation of sacrifice zones): a strategy of imperialist capital in which environmental racism is wedded to energy colonialism.
Last but not least, huge upfront investment will be needed in order to establish the infrastructure required to produce and transport green hydrogen. Given previous experiences of implementing such high-cost and capital-intensive projects (such as the Ouarzazate solar plant), the investment could well end up amassing yet more debt for the receiving country, deepening the dependence on multilateral lending and foreign assistance.
If these plans do go ahead, they will represent the latest neocolonial resource grab, at a time when renewable resources should be used for local energy needs and to meet local climate targets, rather than helping the EU safeguard its energy security and deliver its climate strategy.
What seems to unite all the aforementioned ‘green’ projects and the hype around them is a deeply erroneous assumption that any move towards renewable energy is to be welcomed, and that any shift from fossil fuels, regardless of how it is carried out, is worthwhile. One needs to say it clearly: the climate crisis we are currently facing is not attributable to fossil fuels per se, but rather to their unsustainable and destructive use in order to fuel the capitalist machine. In other words, capitalism is the culprit, and if we are serious in our endeavours to tackle the climate crisis (which is only one facet of the multi-dimensional crisis of capitalism), we cannot elude the issue of radically changing our ways of producing and distributing things, our consumption patterns, and fundamental issues of equity and justice. It follows from this that a mere shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, while at the same time remaining within the capitalist framework of commodifying and privatizing nature for the profit of the few, will not solve the problem we face. In fact, if we continue down this path we will only end up exacerbating the problem, or creating another set of problems, relating to issues of ownership of land and natural resources.
A green and just transition must fundamentally transform the global economic system, which is not fit for purpose at either the social, ecological or even biological level (as revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic). It must put an end to the colonial relations that still enslave and dispossess people. We must always ask: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose interests are being served? Because if we don’t ask these questions we will go straight to a green colonialism, with an acceleration of extraction and exploitation, in the service of a so-called common ‘green agenda’.
The fight for climate justice and a just transition needs to take into account the differences in responsibilities and vulnerabilities between North and South. Ecological and climate debt must be paid to countries in the global South, which happen to be the hardest hit by global warming and which have been locked by global capitalism into a system of predatory extractivism. In a global context of forced liberalization and the push for unjust trade deals, as well as an imperial scramble for influence and energy resources, the green transition and talk about sustainability must not become a shiny façade for neocolonial schemes of plunder and domination.
Furthermore, while there is always talk about the lack of technology expertise where renewable projects are installed in the global South, it is usually not asked why this is the case in the first place. Isn’t this lack attributable to the monopolizing of technology and the intellectual property regime (the cruelty of which was revealed in the current pandemic)? Isn’t it because of all of the SAPs that have been imposed, which have hollowed out public services and scientific research? Technology transfer must be a cornerstone of any just energy transition; otherwise, nations of the global South will always remain dependent.
In this context, just transition is a framework for a fair shift to an economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable and just for all its members. A just transition means a transition from an economic system that is built around the excessive extraction of resources and the exploitation of people, to one that is structured, instead, around the restoration and regeneration of territories and people’s rights and dignity. A robust and radical vision of just transition sees environmental destruction, capitalist extraction, imperialist violence, inequality, exploitation, and marginalization along the axes of race, class and gender, and as simultaneous effects of one global system which must be transformed. Seen in this light, ‘solutions’ which try to address a single dimension, such as the environmental catastrophe, in isolation from the social, cultural and economic structures which give rise to it, will inevitably remain ‘false solutions’.27
A just transition will obviously look different in different places. It is indeed better to speak of transitions in the plural, in recognition of this reality. We must be sensitive to the fact that massive global and historical inequalities, and their continuation in the present, are part of what must be transformed in order to bring about a just and sustainable society. This means that a just transition may mean very different things in different places. What might work in Europe will not necessarily be applicable in Africa. What might work in Egypt might not work in South Africa. And what might work in urban areas in Morocco may not be good for rural areas there. And, perhaps, a transition in a fossil fuel-rich country like Algeria will look different to one in other countries that are less endowed with such resources. Thus we need to be imaginative and to have a decentralized approach, and we need to seek guidance from local populations themselves.
The concept of just transition draws on concepts like energy democracy and energy sovereignty to elaborate a vision of a world where people have access to and control over the resources they need to lead dignified lives, and have a political role in making decisions about how those resources are used, and by whom. This transition must be under the control of communities and their democratically elected representatives. It cannot be left to the private sector and to companies. Active participation in the decision-making and shaping of transitions is crucial.
Finally, just transition is not just about energy. In this regard, the way we do agriculture must also be transformed. Industrial agriculture/farming, or agribusiness, is another locus where imperialist domination and climate change intersect. Not only is it one of the drivers of climate change, it also keeps so many countries in the South prisoners of an unsustainable and destructive agrarian model, a model that is based on the exporting of a few cash crops and the exhaustion of land and the rare water resources in arid and semi-arid regions, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco (and Algeria to a growing extent).
In many ways, the climate crisis and the needed green transition offer us a chance to reshape politics. Coping with the dramatic transformation will require a break with existing militarist, colonial and neoliberal projects. Therefore, the struggle for a just transition and climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities who are most affected, and it must be geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy, and a clean and safe environment: a future that is in harmony with the revolutionary demands of the African and Arab uprisings: popular sovereignty, bread, freedom and social justice.