Green Hydrogen: New Contention in North Africa | Climate Crisis

For a long time, the Sahara Desert in North Africa has the potential to generate large amounts of renewable energy due to its dry climate and vast land. For many years, Europeans in particular have believed that it is a potential source of solar energy that can meet a considerable part of European energy needs.

In 2009, a coalition of European industrial companies and financial institutions launched the Desertec project. This is an ambitious plan to power Europe through Sahara solar power plants. The idea is that the tiny surfaces of the desert can be provided by special high voltages. 15% of electricity DC transmission cables in Europe.

Due to criticisms of its astronomical costs and neo-colonial connotations, Desertec’s joint venture eventually stagnated. After trying to restore it to Desertec 2.0 and focus on the local renewable energy market, the project was finally reborn as Desertec 3.0, which aims to meet European demand for hydrogen, which is a “clean” energy alternative to fossil fuels.

In early 2020, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance to help establish energy projects in the Middle East and North Africa to produce hydrogen for export.

Although in Europe such a project might sound like a good idea—helping the African continent meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets—the North Africa’s perspective is quite different. More and more people worry that these plans will not only help the region to achieve a green transformation, but will lead to the looting of local resources, depriving communities, destroying the environment, and consolidating corrupt elites.

Hydrogen Energy: Africa’s New Energy Frontier

As the world seeks to switch to renewable energy amid the growing climate crisis, hydrogen has been seen as a “clean” alternative fuel. Most of the current hydrogen production is the result of extraction from fossil fuels, resulting in large amounts of carbon emissions (gray hydrogen). The cleanest hydrogen-“green” hydrogen-comes from the electrolysis of water, a process that can be powered by electricity from renewable energy sources.

In recent years, with the vigorous lobbying of various interest groups, the European Union has made the idea of ​​hydrogen transition as the core of its climate response and introduced its hydrogen strategy within the framework of the European Green Agreement (EGD) in 2020. The plan proposes to switch to “green” hydrogen by 2050 through local production and establishing a stable supply from Africa.

It was inspired by the ideas put forward by the trade agency and lobbying group Hydrogen Europe, which put forward the “2 x 40 GW Green Hydrogen Initiative.” Under this concept, by 2030, the EU will have 40 GW of domestic renewable hydrogen electrolyzer capacity, and import another 40 GW of electricity from electrolyzers in neighboring regions, including the deserts of North Africa, and use existing electricity connected to Algeria. There are natural gas pipelines to Europe.

Germany, which launched Desertec, has been at the forefront of the EU’s hydrogen energy strategy. Its government has contacted the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Morocco to develop “decarbonized fuels” generated from renewable energy for export to Europe, and is exploring other potential regions/countries that are particularly suitable for green hydrogen production. In 2020, the Moroccan government and Germany established a partnership to develop the first green hydrogen plant on the African continent.

Initiatives like Desertec quickly joined the hydrogen trend, which could bring billions of euros in EU funding. Its manifesto reflects the general narrative used to promote hydrogen and renewable energy projects. It tries to present them as beneficial to the local community. It claims that it can bring “economic development, future-oriented employment and social stability in North African countries.”

But it also clearly shows the extraction nature of the plan: “For Europe’s fully renewable energy system, we need North Africa to produce cost-competitive solar and wind energy, convert it into hydrogen, and then export it to Europe through pipelines.” It made sure to demonstrate its commitment to “European Fortress”, claiming that these projects could “[reduce] The number of economic migrants from this region to Europe”.

In other words, the vision behind Desertec and many European “green” projects in North Africa is to maintain the current exploitative, neocolonial relationship between Europe and the region.

The “green transformation” of neocolonialism

During the colonial era, European powers established huge economic systems, squeezing wealth, raw materials and (slave) labor from the African continent. Although the 20th century brought independence to the African colonies, this system was never dismantled; it was only changed with the help of local post-colonial autocratic leaders and elites.

The concern now is that the European Union’s green transition will continue to fuel this exploitative economic system to benefit large European companies and harm the local communities of African countries with which they work. The promotion of the new hydrogen supply chain proposed in projects like Desertec will not help alleviate these concerns.

This is because one of the largest lobby groups behind the EU’s switch to hydrogen energy represents fossil fuel companies, whose origins are closely related to the colonial exploitation of European powers. For example, the two partners of DII are French energy giant Total and Dutch oil giant Shell.

In Africa and elsewhere, fossil fuel companies continue to use exploitative economic structures established during colonialism to extract local resources and transfer wealth out of the African continent.

They are also keen to maintain the political status quo in African countries in order to continue to benefit from favorable relations with corrupt elites and authoritarian leaders.​​​ This basically allows them to engage in labor exploitation, environmental degradation, and violence against local communities with impunity.

In this sense, it is not surprising that the fossil fuel industry and its lobbying groups are promoting hydrogen as the future “clean” fuel to maintain relevance and business. The industry wants to protect the existing natural gas infrastructure and pipelines, as well as the exploitative economic relationships behind them.

Given the industry’s long record of environmental damage and abuse, it is not surprising that hydrogen drives hide significant pollution risks. For example, Desertec’s declaration states that “in the initial stage (between 2030 and 2035), large amounts of hydrogen can be produced by converting natural gas into hydrogen, thereby storing carbon dioxide in empty gas/oil fields.” In addition to using scarce water resources to produce hydrogen, this is another example of dumping waste in the global south and shifting environmental costs from the north to the south.

The economic benefits of local residents have also been questioned. In order to establish the infrastructure required to produce and transport green hydrogen to Europe, a large amount of upfront investment is required. In view of the past experience of carrying out such high-cost, capital-intensive projects, investment will eventually bring more debt to the recipient country and increase its dependence on multilateral loans and Western financial aid.

The North African Energy Project, established with European support over the past decade, has shown how energy colonialism can be reproduced even during the transition to renewable energy in the form of green colonialism or green plunder.

In Tunisia, a solar energy project called TuNur, supported by Desertec, is under scrutiny for its export-oriented plan. In view of the severe energy shortage in the country, power generation relies on imported Algerian natural gas, and it is meaningless to export electricity when local residents have repeated power outages.

In Morocco, the opaque land acquisition process and water resources development plan of the Ouarzazate solar power plant, also supported by DII members, has raised questions about the potential harm that local communities may suffer. The high cost of the project — paid for by loans from international financial institutions — has also raised concerns about the debt burden of the country’s budget.

In the growing climate crisis, North African countries cannot continue to engage in such exploitative projects. They cannot continue to export cheap natural resources to Europe and become a transfer point for the social and environmental costs of the green transition.

They need a just transition, including a transition to an ecologically sustainable, fair and just economy. In this context, the existing new colonial relations and practices must be challenged and stopped.

As for European countries and companies, they need to get rid of the logic of imperialism and racialization of external costs. Otherwise, they will continue to promote green colonialism and further pursue the extraction and exploitation of nature and labor for the so-called green agenda, which will undermine collective efforts to effectively and fairly address climate change globally.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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