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The Energy Transition Paradox in Africa.

The binding agreement of the Paris Conference (COP 21) on climate change established the objective of reducing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This reduction of CO2 is considered essential to significantly reduce the risks produced by climate change, as well as the rising sea level.

The Agreement established a global action plan to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C by the end of the century. Reducing the consumption of hydrocarbon-based energy sources and promoting the development of renewable energies were considered essential to achieving this objective.

Currently, most energy is generated from fossil fuels which are mainly hydrocarbons (oil and gas) and coal. However, renewable energies are created from the gifts of nature, but need to be transformed to be used as electricity generators. The sun, the wind, the water and the vegetable or animal biomass are inexhaustible sources of energies.

By themselves, they do not generate CO2 emissions to the atmosphere and they are considered clean energies.[ But to reach an energy model based on clean energies, renewable energies need to be created, transformed, stored and channelled through wind mills, solar panels, batteries, turbines, etc. It is in the manufacture of all this technology that we find the need to find new materials which are more efficient
and less polluting.

The shift from an economy based on hydrocarbon energy to an economy based on renewable energy requires an energy transition period. It is not just enough to replace some energy sources by others, but the new energy form also requires new technologies compatible with the renewable energy sources, changing consumption patterns, improving recycling, reducing the consumption of single-use plastics, creating new but less polluting packaging and promoting circular economy models that encourage the sustainability of the planet’s
natural resources.

The paradox of the energy transition towards a sustainable economy, respectful of the environment and without CO2 emissions into the atmosphere requires the creation new technologies such as electric batteries, solar panels or wind mills which are themselves harmful to the environment. These technologies require large amounts of raw materials and strategic minerals that need to be obtained from nature.

In other words, the energy transition to achieve a sustainable economy requires new technologies that though compatible with renewable energy sources will continue to exacerbate the negative dynamics of social and environmental impact triggered by the extractive industry. That is, paradoxically; the end to the mineral curse in developing countries which we have continued to accept as a norm and the sufferings that these countries have endured for decades is
not yet in sight.

In sub-Saharan countries, despite enormous efforts in recent decades to bring electricity everywhere, still more than 600 million people live without access to electricity and more than 700 Million still rely on coal as their primary source of energy. The energy transition towards a new economy is particularly important for advancing the sustainability of the planet, but it is also an opportunity to fight poverty in general and energy poverty in particular on the African continent.

The lack of access to energy is linked to poverty and the development capacity of peoples, since not only domestic use depends on access to energy, but also the sanitary use of electricity in hospitals, access to water for automating irrigation systems in agriculture, or its use for industrial and commercial development.

So far, 23 strategic minerals have been identified as essential to the creation of the technology needed for the energy transition. And once again, these minerals and natural energy reserves are found in abundance in developing countries.

The European Union is making a commendable effort to achieve the decarbonisation objectives for a sustainable economy, but in that effort it must rely on responsible co-development.
It cannot once again abandon the African continent to its fate, achieving carbon neutrality, but doing so at the expense of the exploitation of natural resources in Africa.

The recent Green Deal published by the European Union recognizes that the mining sector is one of the main factors in the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere and therefore is among the main causes of climate change along with transport. Therefore, the EU is responsible for its energy transition towards more sustainable economies; but it is equally responsible for the damage caused by its economic transition policies that push companies into the extraction of strategic minerals in Africa.

However, the trade agreements between the EU and different African regions do not include any chapter on energy transition, environmental protection, sustainable development or the protection of human rights. There is no binding due diligence for European companies operating in Africa and there is not even transparency for such companies in the extraction of minerals from conflict zones.

The spirit of the letter of the agreements between the EU and Africa shows good will on the part of the EU, but is clearly insufficient. The energy transition may be motivated by good intentions, but it may once again become a trap for developing countries that will strengthen their economic dependence on natural resources: a sine die extension of energy neo-colonisation.

As the recent European and African Bishops’ document points out, the renewed EU-Africa partnership should thus include provisions not only on enhancing energy efficiency and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions, but also on sustainable and just management of energy resources both in Europe and Africa, ensuring full energy access for all.

José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda,
Trade Policy Officer,
Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network (AEFJN)

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