The potential of the Sahara desert in North Africa to generate massive quantities of renewable power due to its dry local weather and huge expanses of land has lengthy been touted. For years, the Europeans, specifically, have thought-about it a possible supply of photo voltaic power that would fulfill a large chunk of European power calls for.
In 2009, the Desertec undertaking, an formidable initiative to energy Europe from Saharan photo voltaic vegetation was launched by a coalition of European industrial companies and monetary establishments with the concept a tiny floor of the desert can present 15 % of Europe’s electrical energy by way of particular excessive voltage direct present transmission cables.
The Desertec enterprise ultimately stalled amid criticisms of its astronomical prices and its neo-colonial connotations. After an try and revive it as Desertec 2.0 with a concentrate on the native marketplace for renewable power, the undertaking was ultimately reborn into Desertec 3.0, which goals to fulfill Europe’s demand for hydrogen, a “clear” power different to fossil fuels.
In early 2020, Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance to assist arrange power initiatives within the Center East and North Africa area that produce hydrogen for export.
Whereas in Europe such initiatives might sound like a good suggestion – serving to the continent fulfil its targets of greenhouse emission cuts – the view from North Africa is radically totally different. There are rising considerations that as an alternative of serving to the area with its inexperienced transition, these schemes will consequence within the plunder of native assets, dispossession of communities, environmental injury and entrenchment of corrupt elites.
Hydrogen: The brand new power frontier in Africa
Because the world seeks to change to renewable power amid a rising local weather disaster, hydrogen has been introduced as a “clear” different gas. Most present hydrogen manufacturing is the results of extraction from fossil fuels, resulting in massive carbon emissions (gray hydrogen). The cleanest type of hydrogen – “inexperienced” hydrogen – comes from electrolysis of water, a course of that may be powered by electrical energy from renewable power sources.
In recent times, below heavy lobbying from varied curiosity teams, the EU has embraced the thought of a hydrogen transition as a centrepiece of its local weather response, introducing in 2020 its hydrogen technique throughout the framework of the European Inexperienced Deal (EGD). The plan proposes shifting to “inexperienced” hydrogen by 2050, via native manufacturing and establishing a gradual provide from Africa.
It was impressed by concepts put ahead by commerce physique and foyer group Hydrogen Europe, which has set out the “2 x 40 GW inexperienced hydrogen initiative”. Underneath this idea, by 2030 the EU would have in place 40 gigawatts of home renewable hydrogen electrolyser capability and import an extra 40 gigawatts from electrolysers in neighbouring areas, amongst them the deserts of North Africa, utilizing current natural-gas pipelines that already join Algeria to Europe.
Germany, the place Desertec was launched, has been on the forefront of the EU’s hydrogen technique. Its authorities has already approached the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Morocco to develop “decarbonised gas” generated from renewable power, for export to Europe and is exploring different potential areas/nations notably suited to inexperienced hydrogen manufacturing. In 2020, the Moroccan authorities entered right into a partnership with Germany to develop the primary inexperienced hydrogen plant on the continent.
Initiatives like Desertec have been fast to leap on the hydrogen bandwagon, which is prone to carry billions of euros of EU funding. Its manifesto displays the final narrative used to advertise the hydrogen and renewable power initiatives. It tries to current them as useful for native communities. It claims it might carry “financial growth, future-oriented jobs and social stability in North-African nations”.
However it additionally makes clear the extractive nature of this scheme: “for a totally renewable power system in Europe, we’d like North Africa to supply cost-competitive photo voltaic and wind electrical energy, transformed to hydrogen, for export by pipeline to Europe”. And it makes certain to point its dedication to “Fortress Europe”, by claiming that the initiatives might “[reduce] the variety of financial migrants from the area to Europe”.
In different phrases, the imaginative and prescient behind Desertec and lots of of those European “inexperienced” initiatives in North Africa seeks to protect the present exploitative, neo-colonial relations Europe has with the area.
A neo-colonial ‘inexperienced transition’
In the course of the colonial period, European powers arrange an unlimited financial system to extract wealth, uncooked supplies and (slave) labour from the African continent. Though the twentieth century introduced independence to African colonies, this method was by no means dismantled; it was solely reworked, usually with the assistance of native post-colonial authoritarian leaders and elites.
Now the concern is that the EU’s inexperienced transition will proceed to feed this exploitative financial system to the good thing about European large enterprise and to the detriment of native communities in African nations they companion with. The push for brand new hydrogen provide chains proposed in initiatives like Desertec does little to alleviate these considerations.
It’s because one of many greatest lobbies behind the EU’s flip to hydrogen represents fossil gas firms, whose origins are tightly linked to the colonial exploits of European powers. Two of DII’s companions, for instance, are the French power large Whole and the Dutch oil main Shell.
In Africa and elsewhere, fossil gas firms proceed to make use of the identical exploitative financial constructions arrange throughout colonialism to extract native assets and switch wealth out of the continent.
They’re additionally eager on preserving the political establishment in African nations to allow them to proceed to profit from profitable relations with corrupt elites and authoritarian leaders. This principally permits them to interact in labour exploitation, environmental degradation, violence towards native communities, and so on with impunity.
On this sense, it isn’t shocking that the fossil gas business and its lobbies are pushing for embracing hydrogen because the “clear” gas of the longer term to be able to keep related and in enterprise. The business needs to protect the present pure gasoline infrastructure and pipelines, together with the exploitative financial relations behind them.
Given the business’s lengthy observe report of environmental injury and abuse, it’s also not shocking that the hydrogen drive hides main air pollution dangers. Desertec’s manifesto, for instance, factors out that “in an preliminary section (between 2030-2035), a considerable hydrogen quantity will be produced by changing pure gasoline to hydrogen, whereby the CO2 is saved in empty gasoline/oil fields”. This alongside using scarce water assets to supply hydrogen are one more instance of dumping waste within the world South and displacing environmental prices from the North to the South.
The financial advantages for the native inhabitants are additionally below query. An enormous upfront funding can be wanted to be able to set up the infrastructure required to supply and transport inexperienced hydrogen to Europe. Given earlier experiences finishing up such high-cost and capital-intensive initiatives, the funding finally ends up creating extra debt for the receiving nation, deepening the dependence upon multilateral lending and Western monetary help.
North African power initiatives established with European help prior to now decade already present how power colonialism is reproduced even in transitions to renewable power within the type of inexperienced colonialism or inexperienced grabbing.
In Tunisia, a photo voltaic power undertaking referred to as TuNur, endorsed by Desertec, has been scrutinised for its export-oriented plans. Given the nation’s huge power deficiency and dependence on imports of Algerian pure gasoline for energy technology, exporting electrical energy whereas the native inhabitants suffers from repeated blackouts makes little sense.
In Morocco, the untransparent land acquisition course of and water exploitation plans of the Ouarzazate Photo voltaic Plant – additionally supported by DII members – have raised questions on attainable harms native communities might endure. The excessive price of the undertaking – paid for with loans from worldwide monetary establishments – has additionally raised concern about its debt burden on the nationwide finances.
Amid the rising local weather disaster, North African nations can not afford to proceed participating in such exploitative initiatives. They can not proceed being exporters of low-cost pure assets to Europe and the positioning of displaced socio-environmental prices of its inexperienced transition.
They want a simply transition that entails a shift to an financial system that’s ecologically sustainable, equitable and only for all. On this context, current neo-colonial relations and practices should be challenged and halted.
As for European nations and firms, they should break free from the imperial and racialised logic of externalising prices. In any other case, they might proceed to feed inexperienced colonialism and additional pursuit of extractivism and exploitation of nature and labour for a supposedly inexperienced agenda, which might undermine collective efforts for an efficient and simply world response to local weather change.
The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.