News | Analysis of Capitalism - Economic / Social Policy - Globalization - Europe - Africa - Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice Will Europe’s Transition Mean Africa’s Deindustrialization?

Decarbonization is vital, but under current plans, the “green transition” is just green colonialism


Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni plants a tree during an inauguration ceremony for the Chinese-built Isimba Hydropower Plant in Kayunga, Uganda, 21 March 2019. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

The narrative around the energy transition from hydrocarbons to greener alternatives has become little more than a collection of buzzwords. Adverbs like “fair” and “just” are saddled with captivating phrases like “zero emissions” and “decarbonization” by 2050 to hype the emerging narrative.

Africa Kiiza is a PhD student at the Universität Hamburg and holds a doctoral scholarship from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Kasirye Samuel is the Programme Coordinator for Uganda at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s East Africa Office.

This kind of rhetoric dominated the seventy-seventh UN General Assembly in September 2022 and was the crux of the twenty-seventh Conference of Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Sharm el-Sheikh in November of last year. COP27 built on the outcomes of the COP26, where 20 countries pledged to stop all funding for overseas fossil fuel projects beginning in 2023 and urged the World Bank to finance clean energy solutions in the developing world “such as green hydrogen and smart micro-grid networks”.

In Africa, the forty-first Ordinary Session of the Executive Council adopted the African Common Position on Energy Access and Just Transition on 15 July 2022, affirming that “Africa will continue to deploy all forms of its abundant energy resources including renewable and non-renewable energy [in the long term for a low carbon and climate-resilient trajectory] to address energy demand”. Furthermore, following Russia’s war on Ukraine, European Union member states have intensified their steps to wean themselves off their dependence on Russian oil and gas by 2027 through exploring (in the long term) green energy sources, among other efforts, and by injecting 1 billion euro into the LIFE Clean Energy Transition sub-programme for this purpose. As part of its broader hydrogen strategy, Germany aims to invest 9 billion euro in boosting the production of the promising fuel.

The “energy transition” buzzword is therefore dominating academic, civil society, and government policy discourse at national, regional, continental, and global levels.

Who Will Supply the Materials?

Greener energy sources entail wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel cells or batteries, among others. From an Afro–Euro relationship perspective, the green energy transition discourse is laden with rather unequal terms of engagement and expectations.

For example, the EU’s energy transition and reorientation towards decarbonization are shaped by the European Green Deal, the new growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050. While this is an important strategy, the least-asked, or most-ignored question has been who will power this ambitious plan — i.e., where will the raw materials come from?

Indeed, demand for metals and minerals has increased rapidly with the energy transition ambition. The most significant example of this is electric storage batteries, where the demand for relevant metals, aluminium, cobalt, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, and nickel is forecast to grow more than 1,000 percent by 2050. The OECD forecasts that, despite improvements in material intensity and resource efficiency and the growth in the economy’s share of services, the global need for natural resources will more than double from 79 billion tonnes in 2011 to 167 billion tonnes in 2060 (an increase of 110 percent).

Furthermore, as outlined in a 2020 EU paper on “Critical Raw Materials Resilience” (which also provides the source for all facts and quotes in the following paragraph), the EU forecasts that demand for rare earth elements used in permanent magnets — such as for electric vehicles, digital technologies, or wind generators — will increase tenfold by 2050.

It is also quite interesting that, in spite of the ambition to decarbonize, the EU’s reliance on imports for most metals and raw materials required for this transition amounts to between 75 and 100 percent of the total. The EU is conscious of this chronic dependence and seeks to secure unhindered and sustained access to these resources, as stated in its critical raw materials mapping: “access to resources is a strategic security question for Europe’s ambition to deliver the Green Deal”. Ensuring the supply of sustainable raw materials, in particular of critical raw materials necessary for clean technologies, is therefore one of the prerequisites to make this transition happen.

The EU forecasts that it will realize its ambition through diversifying supply with sustainable and responsible sourcing from third countries, “strengthening rules-based open trade in raw materials and removing distortions to international trade”. That the EU is targeting outsourcing from third countries is due to the fact that EU members are aware of a large untapped potential for building sustainable and responsible strategic partnerships with resource-rich countries.

Indeed, as far as Africa is concerned, the EU, in its new “Strategy for Africa—Trade and Investments”, envisions a green transition and energy access through partnering with Africa to maximize the benefits of green transition and minimize environmental threats in full compliance with the Paris Agreement. This is in line with the longstanding raw materials initiative, which continues to permeate both the trade and investment relationships between the two continents. To that effect, the European Commission notes that: “resilience for critical raw materials supply will also be achieved by reinforcing the use of EU trade policy tools (including Free Trade Agreements and enhanced enforcement efforts) and [through] work with international organizations to ensure undistorted trade and investment in raw materials in a manner that supports the EU’s commercial interests”.

Just like Europe’s present industrial might was largely created through the pillaging of Africa’s resources, Europe’s green energy transition is heavily dependent on natural resources from other countries, the majority of which are found in Africa.

It is therefore no surprise that several processes such as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations and the Global Compact with Africa (which aims to promote unhindered EU private investments in Africa) are being used to reinforce the resilience of critical supply chains for the clean energy transition and energy security for the EU. Not only does Africa harbour 80–200 billion barrels of hydrocarbon reserves (most of which are exploited by European corporations), the continent also holds a large percentage of the world’s mineral resources deposits: 40 percent of the gold, and up to 90 percent of the chromium and platinum.

With the majority of these resources key in ensuring a greener transition, the EU, like other global powers such as the US and China, are signing trade and investment deals aimed at guaranteeing their access to and the extraction of these raw materials.

Challenges to a Green Transition in Africa

The question of green energy transition puts Africa in an unfortunate position, especially with regard to the implications for efforts to industrialize and achieve much-needed development (in the buzzword sense of “development”).

While developed nations like the EU can transit seamlessly, Africa, which is home to 490 million poor people and 33 of the world’s Least-Developed Countries, will be the most disadvantaged. This concern is shared by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who argues that by pushing African nations to speed up the green energy transition, this “stands to forestall Africa’s attempts to rise out of poverty ... letting us use reliable energy doesn’t mean a climate disaster”.

Indeed, like other industrialized countries (which have largely polluted their way to development), the EU hopes to ensure that Africa transitions to greener energy. However, it is unfathomable to expect Africa, which is home to a majority of the least-industrialized countries and those with a low technology and innovations rate, to transition to green energy sources, a majority of which are the most complex and expensive energy technology that exists, including building “smart micro-grid networks”.

On the contrary: a clear assessment of the process of manufacturing green energy sources reveals that there is no quick fix to decarbonization. The growth in materials usage, coupled with the environmental consequences of material extraction, processing, and waste is likely to increase the pressure on the resource bases of the planet’s economies and jeopardize gains in well-being.

Without addressing the resource implications of low-carbon technologies, there is a risk that shifting the burden of curbing emissions to other parts of the economic chain may simply cause new environmental and social problems, such as air and water pollution, habitat destruction, or resource depletion. “Going green” may sound like the utopian ideal, but when one examines the hidden and embedded costs realistically, one quickly realizes that going green may be more destructive to the natural environment in Africa than meets the eye.

The EU has committed to using diplomatic and financial tools to ensure that green alliances are part of its foreign relations in Africa. In this vein, countries such as Namibia, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Burkina Faso, and South Africa have already been earmarked as special areas for the sought-after minerals.

Pilot projects in countries like Morocco, Namibia, and the DRC have revealed that the same exploitative relations of extraction and land-grabbing that pave the way for the extraction of the raw materials have been going on for the last few centuries, while Africans are not even self-sufficient in energy. This has not only resulted in loss of land ownership, but has increased the precariousness of affected communities by inducing hunger or loss of livelihoods.

Thus, these types of big renewable projects, while proclaiming their good intentions, ultimately sugar-coat brutal exploitation. Indeed, a familiar colonial scheme seems to be playing out before our eyes: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources, including solar energy, from the Global South to the rich North.

The Same Old Oppressive System

From a land rights perspective, the current narratives serve to hide reality. Reminiscent of an ongoing colonial environmental narrative that labels land desired for expropriation as marginal and underutilized, land is now labelled as underutilized and available for green energy projects. Such a narrative is aimed at “pacifying” critics that the land acquisition for the project will have no impacts on the livelihood of local communities.

In Africa, the same oppressive system remains in place, simply with a different source of energy — i.e., from fossil fuels to renewable energies — while all the political, economic, and social structures that generate inequality, impoverishment, and dispossession remain untouched.

Furthermore, current investment policies are ideal to support this production. Some fear that weak investment regulatory frameworks in Africa will perpetuate the current exploitative economic system to the benefit of European big business and the detriment of the socio-economic rights of local communities in African countries.

Indeed, Africa does not have a green energy transition strategy and has largely not implemented the Africa Mining Vision proposals. Domestic investment policies and investment agreements being pursued in free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties contain clauses including “most-favoured nation”, “national treatment”, “weak performance requirements”, and the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), all of which help cultivate the right conditions for the establishment of EU private investments in the extractive sector. Caution should be applied with regard to these agreements.

A green and just transition must fundamentally transform and decolonize our global economic system.

As the EU aims to meet its zero carbon emissions target, market access will become more challenging for African countries should they fail to comply with the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), a proposed carbon tariff on carbon-intensive products imported by the EU. Many African countries are striving to build nascent industries, but carbon-intensive industries are a double-edged sword. Steel, aluminium, and fertilizers are core ingredients to Africa’s development trajectory — and essential to the construction and agricultural sectors. Imposing a blanket tax on carbon-intensive industries will most likely affect weaker economies and reduce their profit margins associated with goods from such industries.

In conclusion, while it may be an unpopular opinion, understanding the EU’s much-coveted energy transition requires us to examine its relationship with African nations. Afro–Euro relationships have been asymmetrical and largely exploitative, with Africa as a pawn in the EU’s larger economic and geopolitical plans.

This relationship constitutes a grim 400 years, including the slave trade, when more than 15 million men, women, and children were forcefully shipped from Africa by Europe, 75 years of colonialism, and an annual 203 billion dollars in illicit financial flows out of Africa since the attainment of nominal independence. Indeed, the Truth Commission Conference held in Accra, Ghana in 1999 asserted that the continent was owed 777 trillion US dollars for the 400 years in which the African people faced enslavement and colonization, plus interest.

Just like Europe’s present industrial might was largely created through the pillaging of Africa’s resources, Europe’s green energy transition is heavily dependent on natural resources from other countries, the majority of which are found in Africa. This may prove to be a recipe for another “gold rush” — but this time, it is a rush for the very raw materials required for this transition.

Fighting for Energy Justice

Realistically, addressing the global climate crisis requires a rapid and drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and exploration of green energy sources can play a critical role. But if a transition towards renewable energies seems to have become inevitable, energy justice apparently has not! Civil society in Africa should sound the alarm, because such transitions are currently maintaining the same practices of dispossession and exploitation as before, reproducing injustices and deepening socioeconomic exclusion.

While “green grabbing” refers to some of the dynamics of land grabs that take place within a supposedly green agenda, “green colonialism” points to colonial relations of plunder and dispossession expanding into the green era. The pendulum of colonialism continues to swing. Just when one thought that tackling the ugly footprint of colonialism and neocolonialism in Africa was having some kind of impact, colonialism rears its ugly head again as the narrative of green energy transition gains momentum.

A green and just transition must fundamentally transform and decolonize our global economic system. Ensuring that Africa benefits from its own natural resources to power its economies, while meeting its carbon emission targets, is paramount. Moreover, this cannot happen at the expense of communities and the environment, whose rights such a transition ostensibly seeks to serve.

We urgently need a Pan-African response to the energy transition, which disguises greed, to ensure that it does not erode the rights of African nations to industrialize, exploit, and add value to their natural resources in order to realize the development goals set in the UN Agenda for Development 2030 and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.