January 24, 2023, by Dr. Hannes Swoboda (President of the Club of Rome – Austrian Chapter)

The state and development of the energy partnership between the European Union and Africa show the full contradictions and the complexities of the two continents’ energy policies and their cooperation. The increasingly green energy policy of the years before the Russian war of aggression – Green Deal – was aimed at dissuading African countries from investing in gas and oil. Undeterred, at the same time, energy companies – including European ones – eagerly sought oil and gas and lured national governments in Africa with growing revenues to support such projects. Many governments have been willing to support ecologically complex projects, which is understandable to a certain extent given the financial situation and over-indebtedness of many African countries.

Scramble for Gas

The Russian war of aggression has temporarily overturned the shift to renewable energy. The war and the slowdown or halt of gas supplies from Russia have turned government representatives from EU countries into gas buyers. Wherever gas was available – via pipelines or ships – it was transported to Europe as liquefied gas. This process quickly led to constructing a corresponding infrastructure, or so-called terminals.

At the same time, however, cooperation with African countries regarding traditional hydrocarbons was revived. There was a renewed scramble in Africa, with the “Scramble for Africa” (culminating at the Berlin Congress in 1884) being about the division of Africa among the European colonial powers and the current “Scramble for Gas” (following the previous designation) focusing on the extraction of gas and oil. It is also about developing pipeline networks so that gas can be transported to Europe. Such a magistral should first go from Nigeria to Morocco and Europe – the pipeline would/will be 5,600 km long and cross 13 African countries. Separately, some African countries, for example, Senegal and Mauritania, want to supply liquefied natural gas to Europe. And this requires facilities in the African ports and those in Europe.

The dubious future of gas and oil 

Of course, the extraction and transport of oil and gas cannot be denied or even forbidden by African countries. First, however, there is the question of how the oil and gas companies deal with the direct impact on people and the environment. And here, those affected and critical media can rarely report positive behavior on the part of the companies and national governments. On the contrary, areas of land and, thus, the livelihoods of many people have been destroyed. And if reports are to be believed, this is still happening today. An example of this – and also of how difficult it is for the local population to obtain financial compensation – is the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which is to run from Lake Albert in Uganda to Tanga in Tanzania. There are also strong protests regarding an offshore terminal for gas transports off Saint-Louis in Senegal. In any case, many fishermen fear for their livelihood due to a substantial impairment of the fishing grounds.

However, the question also arises as to what extent these investments will be profitable if the energy transition is taken seriously. Will these investments even delay the energy transition and push it back? Indeed, we will still need gas for the economy and the foreseeable future, but the energy transition toward sustainability must take priority. This applies to European countries just as much as it does to African countries. One African country that has had such an energy transition plan drawn up is Nigeria. It has an ambitious Energy Transition Plan that deviates from a continuation of the previous development path. One can only hope that it will be implemented.

The Maghreb: Center of the EU-Africa Energy Partnership

The priority of sustainability in the energy sector is anchored in the “Africa EU Energy Partnership,” which has been in place since 2007. The goal is “an affordable, sustainable and modern energy supply in Africa.” This partnership is a framework that focuses on a sustainable energy supply in Africa and aims at a corresponding energy supply in Europe.

For geographical reasons alone, the EU’s cooperation with the countries in North Africa is of particular interest. The difficulties in this cooperation are not due to European disunity but rather to the conflicts between some countries of the Mahgreb, especially between Morocco and Algeria. In any case, in northern Africa, the European Neighborhood Policy with the Green Deal and the specific goals of the energy transition clash. Specifically, there has been an EU – Moroccan Green Deal Partnership since October 2022. Overall, the EU’s partnerships with North African countries involve solar and wind energy to produce green hydrogen and to use rare earth and critical metals for batteries, especially for sustainable mobility.

In early 2021, Amine Bennis of the European Council for Foreign Relations called for intensive EU cooperation on green hydrogen, specifically with Morocco and Tunisia. This should be an essential element of collaboration under the EU Green Deal. Of course, individual EU member states must declare their willingness to tackle such projects.

On the other hand, the countries south of the Mediterranean must, for their part, develop strategies for the energy transition, specifically for hydrogen production. The aim is not to focus on exporting energy to Europe but on the overall benefits for their populations. The production and sale of hydrogen should be part of a concept that directly benefits the people. It is about jobs, energy supply, supply of drinking water, etc. It is in everyone’s interest that the energy cooperation with the EU generates local satisfaction and approval, not disadvantage and resistance.

There are still some technical issues to be resolved to arrive at economically reasonable and competitive solutions. But as a recent Japanese report noted, Europe is well positioned regarding relevant patents for a hydrogen economy. And just as in other areas of sustainable energy, cost reductions can be expected in the production and transportation of hydrogen.

Africa and Europe need not only beautiful declarations but models of a partnership for sustainable production and transmission of energy, such as hydrogen. Projects like the one between Germany and Namibia in the south of Africa, or the one between Austria and Tunisia in the north of the continent, could be such model projects. Most important is that both sides’ interests, especially the local populations, are central. After all, it is not just about an energy transition but also a change in the relationship between Europe and Africa. It is about a piece of justice after decades, even centuries, of unequal and unjust relations.

The topics mentioned above and more will be discussed at our event on 30.1.2023 in Vienna, together with the World Energy Council. Click here to go to the event website.