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16/04/2024
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Challenges in the EU’s pursuit of renewable hydrogen from African resources

In the race against time to achieve net-zero targets, the European Union (EU) is exploring the potential of African sunlight and wind to generate renewable hydrogen. However, there’s a concern that beneath the narrative of unlocking Africa’s renewable energy potential lies the specter of green colonialism. This article delves into the EU’s approach to collaboration, potential pitfalls, and the urgent need for a more equitable and sustainable framework in its pursuit of renewable hydrogen from African resources.

Green Energy, not Green Colonialism

The term “green colonialism” describes the phenomenon where the Global North exploits the ecological resources of the Global South to address environmental issues caused primarily by developed nations. This often involves extracting resources, claiming land, and exploiting labor from less economically advanced countries under the guise of environmental consciousness. Africa’s substantial renewable energy potential has attracted attention from investors in the Global North, with historical projects like the Desertec initiative exemplifying neocolonial approaches. Desertec aimed to power Europe using a portion of the Sahara Desert, but its failure left behind a bitter aftertaste of neocolonial power dynamics. Despite setbacks, its successor, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), has embarked on a new project focused on hydrogen production. Dii is not alone, as other entities eye African lands for clean energy pursuits.

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EU’s Pursuit of Renewable Hydrogen

Hydrogen, metaphorically speaking, comes in various colors: grey, blue, and green. The EU is particularly interested in green hydrogen, produced using renewable energy sources. The EU’s hydrogen strategy and the REPowerEU Plan establish a framework to accelerate the use of renewable hydrogen as a key tool for decarbonizing challenging-to-electrify sectors. The REPowerEU Plan sets a target of 10 million tonnes for both domestic renewable hydrogen production and imports by 2030. With an eye on imports, the EU’s hydrogen strategy envisions Africa as a significant supplier of cost-competitive renewable hydrogen, contingent on a substantial acceleration of renewable power generation in the region.

Namibia emerges as a potential candidate, given its abundant sunlight, strong wind power, and proximity to seawater. During COP 27, the EU and Namibia forged a strategic partnership on sustainable raw materials and renewable hydrogen. The partnership aims to enhance the EU’s energy security, while Namibia anticipates bolstering its renewable energy capacity for energy independence, economic diversification, and new employment opportunities.

On paper, the partnership intends to support Namibia in utilizing its resources for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, fostering an internationally competitive and sustainable industry, and creating competitive markets for renewable hydrogen. It outlines six pillars encompassing the integration of renewable value chains, leveraging environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria, mobilizing funding for infrastructure development, capacity building, research and innovation cooperation, and regulatory alignment (Memorandum of Understanding, p. 5). The partnership secures substantial investments of one billion Euros from the EU, its Member States, and European financial institutions. However, questions linger about the long-term sustainability for Namibia.

Green Light for Green Colonialism?

The relationship between the EU and African countries is complex, and the pursuit of renewable energy introduces further nuances. Green hydrogen production entails various risks, ranging from potential human rights violations to environmental concerns. Examples include land-use conflicts, forced resettlement, and water scarcity. The most significant concern is the export of renewable hydrogen to European countries without adequately meeting local needs first. Notably, only 35% of Namibia’s rural population currently has access to electricity. Despite this, Namibia has signed memoranda of understanding for green hydrogen exports not only with the EU but also with Germany and the Netherlands. Acknowledging this risk, Namibian officials are actively working on legislation to ensure that local resources primarily benefit the economy before being exported.

Legal frameworks for partnerships of this nature must be developed, interpreted, and applied with a keen awareness of potential green colonialism. Seemingly neutral rules should be approached cautiously, especially in collaborations between economic and political powerhouses and developing countries lacking necessary expertise and technology. Beyond scrutinizing existing rules, consideration should be given to identifying missing regulations. While I cannot speak on behalf of the Namibian people (without intending to be patronizing), it appears that the EU-Namibian partnership may lack robust foundations. The cooperation framework appears to pay limited attention to the needs and rights of people, environmental protection, and the centrality of local communities — essentially, ensuring that the partnership genuinely benefits Namibia.

Even the European Parliament’s briefing on the cooperation suggests that the framework does not adequately address the risk that Namibia’s renewable hydrogen exports may not be competitive in global markets or the potential consequences for the country’s financial stability. Ecological impacts, such as increased water consumption in an already arid region, and the lack of access to justice in Namibia receive insufficient attention. The risk of resource extraction benefiting the EU at Namibia’s expense remains a concern, with little effort from the EU to dispel these worries.

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