Addressing the global climate crisis requires a rapid and drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we know that the current economic system undermines the planet’s life-support systems and will eventually cause them to collapse. This fact makes a transition to renewable energy inevitable.
However, there is a high risk that if or when this transition comes, it will perpetuate the very same practices of dispossession and exploitation that currently prevail, reproducing injustices and intensifying processes of socio-economic exclusion.
Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian researcher and activist.
This article first appeared in maldekstra #19. Translated by Hunter Bolin and Rowan Coupland for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
One need only look to North Africa to see how energy colonialism and extractivist practices are maintained during the transition to renewable energy in the form of what has been called “green colonialism” or “green grabbing”. When it comes to developing a “just transition” that benefits the poor and marginalized in society, rather than deepening their socio-economic exclusion, these examples give serious cause for concern.
“Green colonialism” defines a process in which colonial relationships of plunder and dispossession (as well as the dehumanization of the Other) are extended into the green era of renewable energy, and the attendant socio-ecological costs are foisted onto peripheral countries and communities. It is essentially the same system: while the energy source itself has changed, the same global energy-intensive patterns of production and consumption are upheld. As a result, the political, economic, and social structures that generate inequality, impoverishment, and dispossession are left untouched.
Scientists and activists have coined another useful term: “green grabbing”, which refers to situations in which an allegedly green agenda is used to justify land-grabbing, in which land and resources are appropriated for supposedly ecological purposes. This happens with everything from specific nature conservation projects that deprive Indigenous communities of their land and territories, to the seizure of communal land for the production of biofuels, to large solar facilities/wind farms being constructed on the land of livestock breeders without their consent.
Extraction in Algeria
If we are serious about transitioning away from fossil fuels, it is vital that we closely examine the connections between fossil fuels and the economy in general and to address the power relations and hierarchies within the international energy system. One of the first steps in this process would be acknowledging that the countries of the Global South are still systematically exploited by a colonial, imperialist economy which is based on the plundering of their resources and a massive transfer of wealth from the South to the North.
For example, Algerian authorities have been proclaiming the post-oil era for decades, and consecutive governments have paid lip service to the transition to renewable energies for years without ever taking concrete action. In fact, the implementation of current plans for renewable energy has been delayed significantly, reflecting the lack of a serious and coherent vision for the transition.
We must always ask ourselves: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose interests are being served?
For example, the recent tender for the construction of one gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity has been delayed by more than two years. Algeria’s plans to install capacity for generating 15 GW of solar energy by 2030 are unrealistic, considering that the country only had a total of 423 MW installed at the end of 2021, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Even if one factored in all available energy sources, the current available capacity for renewable energy does not exceed 500 MW.
This is a far cry from the intended 22 GW by 2030, a target which had been announced in 2011. Algeria’s Ministry of Energy Transition and Renewable Energy, launched in June 2020, has lowered these targets to 4 GW by 2024 and 15 GW by 2035. But even this is overly optimistic.
In short, Algeria must take swift action to transition to renewable energy sources, because one day the country’s European customers will no longer import fossil fuels for the purposes of energy consumption. The European Union is expanding and accelerating its energy transition, which has been made even more urgent in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the short term, the EU will surely continue to import gas, while intensifying its efforts to diversify its energy sources. In the long term, however, it will do everything in its power to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.
If countries like Algeria remain dependent on oil and gas, the energy transition will have dire consequences for them. Given this situation, making the urgent transition to producing renewable energies (especially for the domestic market) is not only the correct move in terms of ecology, it is also of strategic benefit, and indeed vital for survival.
However, in recent years, general trends in Algeria have tended towards a greater liberalization of the economy, granting ever more concessions to the private sector and foreign investors. The new hydrocarbon law appeals to multinational companies and offers them more incentives and concessions in exchange for their investments in Algeria. This law also paves the way for destructive projects such as the exploitation of shale gas in the Sahara and of offshore resources in the Mediterranean.
The budget laws of 2020/21 opened the door to international borrowing while at the same time imposing harsh austerity measures such as cuts to various subsidies and public spending. In the name of promoting foreign direct investment, multinational companies were exempted from tariffs and taxes, and managed to increase their share in the national economy by lifting the 51/49 percent rule — which had previously limited the share of foreign investment in any given project to 49 percent — and thus further undermining national sovereignty. Now it is the turn of the renewable energy sector. This decision is by all means counterproductive to ensuring sovereignty in a strategic sector which will become increasingly important in the coming years!
Western Wants and Southern Needs
Some Western governments are keen to present themselves as being environmentally friendly by banning fracking within their borders and setting goals for reducing carbon emissions. Yet at the same time, these same governments offer diplomatic support to their multinational corporations which seek to exploit shale deposits in their former colonies, as France did in Algeria in 2013 with the oil company Total. These are examples of energy colonialism and environmental racism.
In the context of the war in Ukraine and the EU’s attempts to reduce dependence on Russian gas, it is once again evident that the EU’s energy security is paramount. We see more instances of long-term reliance on gas, more extractivism, more path dependence, and a stalling of the green transition in the places where these extractivist projects are being carried out.
This is exactly what happened in Italy and Algeria when the latter agreed to increase gas deliveries to Italy. The Algerian company Sonatrach will work alongside the Italian company ENI to pump an additional nine billion cubic metres of gas into the EU starting in 2023/2024. The EU will also receive liquefied natural gas (LNG) deliveries from Egypt, Israel, Qatar, and the United States.
We must be conscientious of the fact that creating a just and sustainable society means changing the massive global and historical inequalities and their perpetuation in the present moment.
In Algeria and other countries in North Africa and the Global South, the energy transition must be a sovereign project primarily aimed at making domestic improvements. It must guarantee that local needs are met before it launches any export initiatives. We cannot continue along the old path of producing for Europe and following its dictates, including its eagerness to break its dependence on Russian gas by diversifying its energy sources. The current priority should be to decarbonize the North African economies by ensuring that these countries have a share of 70 to 80 percent renewable energy in their energy mix. This must be undertaken well in advance of any plans to export to the EU.
Another factor to bear in mind is that countries like Algeria, which are trapped in a predatory model of extractivist development, have neither the financial means nor sufficient know-how to achieve a rapid energy transition. In this regard, certain financial incentives must be on the table to keep the oil in the ground. Additionally, the monopolies on green technology and knowledge must be ended, and these resources must be made available to countries and communities in the Global South.
A green and just transition must fundamentally transform the global economic system, which is unsuited to this task on a social, ecological, and even biological level (as the COVID-19 pandemic shows). It must put an end to colonial relations that still enslave and expropriate people. We must always ask ourselves: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose interests are being served? If we neglect to ask these questions, we will default to a green colonialism that accelerates the current processes of extraction and exploitation in the service of a so-called shared “green agenda”.
A Just Transition for All
The fight for climate justice and a just transition must account for the difference in responsibilities and vulnerabilities that exist between the North and the South. The countries of the Global South, which are most affected by global warming and have been trapped by global capitalism in a system of predatory extractivism, must receive ecological and climate reparations. In the current global context of forced liberalization, in which there is great pressure to make unfair trade agreements, not to mention tussles between the various global empires over influence and energy resources, it is imperative that the green transition and the talk of sustainability do not become a glittering facade for neocolonial plans which only exacerbate plunder and domination.
Furthermore, while the lack of technological expertise is often discussed when renewable energy projects are instigated in the Global South, the question as to why this is the case is by and large avoided. Would this lack not be attributable to the monopolization of technology and the system of intellectual property (whose cruelty has been sufficiently demonstrated in the current pandemic)? The transfer and sharing of technology must form a cornerstone of any just transition for energy, if the dependency of the countries of the Global South on those of the Global North is to be broken.
In this context, the framework of a just transition aims to ensure a fair transition to an economy that is environmentally sustainable, just, and fair for all its members. A just transition means a transition from an economic system based on the excessive extraction of resources and the exploitation of people to a system that is instead focused on restoring and regenerating regions and on guaranteeing the rights and dignity of the people.
A robust and radical vision of a just transition would approach the issues of environmental destruction, capitalist exploitation, imperialist violence, inequality, exploitation, and marginalization along the axes of race, class, and gender, seeing these as the simultaneous effects of a global system that must be transformed. In this sense, “solutions” that attempt to address only one dimension of the issue, such as the environmental catastrophe, without taking on the social, cultural, and economic structures that cause it, will inevitably remain “flawed solutions”.
A just transition will of course look different in different places. It is indeed better to speak of just transitions in the plural to account for this. We must be conscientious of the fact that creating a just and sustainable society means changing the massive global and historical inequalities and their perpetuation in the present moment. That is to say: a just transition can mean very different things in different places.
What works in Europe may not necessarily be applicable in Africa. What works in Egypt may not necessarily work in South Africa. And what works in urban areas of Morocco may not be good for rural areas there. It is also possible that a transition in a country like Algeria, with its abundant fossil fuels, will look different when compared to less fuel-rich nations.
The concept of a just transition draws on concepts such as energy democracy and energy sovereignty in order to develop a vision of a world in which people have access to, and control over, the resources they need to live a dignified life, and in which they can play a part in making political decisions regarding how — and by whom — these resources are used.