In December 2019, the European Union agreed on the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050. The fight against climate change along with the aim to limit global warming to well below 2°C in this century are at the heart of the EU’s energy policies. Achieving these goals requires a strong commitment from EU governments to reduce the carbon emissions caused by the current model of energy production. These objectives are essential if extreme climate effects would be avoided such as floods, forest fires, landslides and hurricanes, as well as the feared rise in sea levels that would lead to catastrophic changes especially for developing countries and their populations.
However, energy transition policies require decisions that must put an end to the concrete practices of current fossil energy model. Therefore, the EU is starting a period of energy transition in which concepts such as sustainable development, greenhouse effect, biodiversity, rare earths and renewable energies affect people directly, countries’ lifestyles, production systems, economic models, trade, etc. But do we know exactly what we are facing when we talk about energy transition and what consequences it has for developing countries and especially Africa?
The energy transition announced by the European Union makes direct reference to decarburization in forms of energy production. That is, it is the passage between the forms of energy production as we have known them until now (through fossil energy sources such as oil or coal) that generate an emission of CO2 into the atmosphere (producing the so-called greenhouse effect) and those clean energies that are produced without releasing carbon into the atmosphere and are therefore considered green or clean energies. Among the best known clean energies are wind energy, photovoltaic energy, solar energy, biomass or that produced by electric batteries.
However, to generate this type of green energy that does not emit CO2 into the atmosphere, many materials are needed that are not always easy to obtain, either because they are scarce in nature or because they are controlled by few countries. In this group of minerals, considered essential for the energy transition are the so-called rare earths that constitute a group of 17 elements of the periodic table. These along with other elements such as indium, thallium, gallium, lithium, tellurium or cobalt are essential for the development of new technologies. Furthermore, in cases such as Lithium or Cobalt, their extraction is at least ethically questionable due to the destruction it causes to the ecosystems and communities where these minerals are found; as well as, human rights violations or corrupt practices.
In the pursuit of this energy transition, the EU needs Africa once again and is reviving its assault on the continent’s mineral wealth for its own benefit. Through mining operations or the installation of solar and wind power plants, the EU seeks to secure access to clean energy sources to ensure consumption in Europe.
Africa’s wealth is mainly found in its subsoil, as it has one third of the world’s mineral reserves that are needed for the energy transition, such as 90 per cent of platinum reserves; 80 per cent of coltan; 60 per cent of cobalt; 70 per cent of tantalum; 46 per cent of diamond reserves; and 40 per cent of gold reserves. But the African continent is also brimming with clean energy sources such as river basins in Central Africa, uranium deposits (in Mali, Gabon, Niger or Namibia); sunlight in the Sahel countries; and geothermal potential in East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda Burundi, Zambia, DRC).
Public-private investment policies on the continent have led to economic growth in Africa in recent decades, but at the same time have made Africa a hostage to its investors. And this is once again the risk that the countries of the African continent face with the arrival of new investments to exploit renewable energies. The European Union takes political measures without considering the implications for developing countries that directly affect their development policies. The EU is once again thinking about access to these energy sources to ensure its clean future, while forgetting the reality of the supplier countries.
Again, the future of the rich countries is built on the abuse of those countries that depend on foreign investment. The dependence on income from renewable energy and energy transition minerals, the lack of industrial investment, the lack of economic diversification together with the abuse of multinationals and corruption make us foresee the same pattern of relationship between the North and the South in the energy transition period. A responsible and sustainable energy transition therefore requires developed countries, including the EU, to make an energy transition that does not create new inequalities.
The energy transition has to be first and foremost Just. The EU cannot carry out a new colonialism that would monopolize the energy wealth of the African continent. The EU must develop policies that guarantee the development of the countries and regions in which it operates by ensuring an adequate distribution of renewable energies. Firstly, the EU cannot supply itself with renewable energy and condemn developing countries to remain dependent on fossil energy. The energy development model must break with the economic dependence that African countries currently have on natural resources and must develop economic diversification strategies that create quality and stable jobs.
Secondly, the energy transition must provide security of energy supply for all countries, but especially for those countries who are the legitimate owners of the energy sources. Africa’s unstoppable economic growth requires increased energy supplies, which will grow in the coming years. This makes rich countries (the EU) nervous as their access to such energy is threatened.
Thirdly, the energy transition must be progressive and in line with the reality of each country, sensitive to the situation in Africa, encouraging the use of renewable energies and supporting any initiative that promotes their adaptation. It would be unfair to ask and demand that developing countries adapt all their infrastructure to new supply models that they could not afford.
Africa’s role in the global energy transition is crucial. That is why we argue that the energy transition must be for all countries, rich and poor, respectful of environmental quality standards, ensuring respect for human rights and doing everything possible to ensure that multinationals carry out their activities with transparency, fighting all types of corruption that benefit only the political and economic elites. The economic transition has to be for everyone or it will not be for anyone.
José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda
AEFJN Policy Officer
 Climate change: what the EU is doing https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/climate-change/
 Energy policy: general principles, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/68/la-politica-energetica-principios-generales Historic agreement on climate change in Paris https://unfccc.int/node/13934
 International Institute for Sustainable Development, https://www.iisd.org/sites/default/files/publications/africa-recursos-naturales-vangaurdia-es.pdf
 Climate change: what the EU is doing, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/climate-change/