Written by Stefanie Schäfer
Russia’s war in Ukraine has not only led to a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine but also to severe consequences on a global scale. These include an increasingly worsening food crisis, notably on the African continent, due to Ukraine’s important role as the breadbasket of the world and a new energy crisis caused by many countries’ dependence on Russian fossil fuels as a source of energy.
In the EU, the war and especially the new sanctions against Russia also concerning the import of Russian commodities, e.g. oil, paved the way for a new and intense debate about energy independence from Russia and an accelerated transition toward green energy. On 18 May 2022, the European Commission presented the so-called REPowerEU Plan to tackle energy market disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Hence, it includes two major aims: the independence of the EU from Russian fossil fuels, and the green transition to fight climate change (European Commission, 2022a). The REPowerEU Plan followed a Commission proposal in March planning to make the EU independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030 (European Commission, 2022b).
The budget spent on the new plan for a green transition and independence from Russian fossil fuels amounts to €300bn by 2030. Furthermore, another €12bn is planned to be spent on developing a fossil infrastructure (LNG, strategic gas infrastructure, oil). In total, the expected savings from the non-import of fossil fuels are around €100bn per year (Conti and Kneebone, 2022).
Next to EU internal measures, the REPowerEU Plan equally integrates the new EU External Energy Strategy. With the Strategy, the EU accelerates its energy diplomacy committed to a global green and just energy transition through energy diversification, energy partnerships, and cooperation (European Commission, 2022c). However, is this EU External Energy Strategy in the light of a new energy crisis sufficient to accelerate a new global green transition?
The current energy situation in the global South: the example of Africa
The African continent is home to key fossil fuel resources necessary for a green transition, including hydrocarbon resources such as so-called ‘green-minerals’. The term green-minerals refers to all minerals needed for the production of sustainable technology such as solar cells or batteries: lithium, cobalt, copper, among others (Church and Crawford, 2020). Additionally to its resource richeness, African countries meet main environmental requirements for the efficient use of renewable energies, notably solar panels. Still, the continent is marked by one of the highest rates of energy poverty, while simultaneously facing continuous and strong population growth. According to the Africa Energy Outlook 2022, roughly 600 million people lack access to electricity, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The number corresponds to 43% of the whole population (International Energy Agency, 2022). Hence, the energy used on the continent still mainly derives from fossil sources, such as coal and gas, while the energy efficiency of households with energy access is rather low. The used resources and energy needs vary among the regions and countries.
Accelerating the green transition in Africa would thus support the pursuit of SDG 7, to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” and goal 7 for universal energy access of the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063: the Africa we want (see African Union, n.d.). The chances of such a transition for the population would be manifold: improved access to clean energy would contribute to sustainable economic growth with positive social and health benefits, and create new jobs in the green sector.
However, the energy transition faces several burdens, particularly in rural areas. African economic researchers Njuguna Ndung’u and Abebe Shimeles have described one of those challenges in a commentary on Africa’s role in the Green Transition Amidst Global Uncertainty (Ndung’u and Shimeles, 2022). According to the researchers, energy prices in Africa are relatively seen 30% higher than the global average and the connection to the electricity grid remains unaffordable for most households. Thus, the only solution would be cheaper and more diverse sources of energy accessible for all. Due to Africa’s climatic conditions, renewable energies are the most fitting source of energy to fulfil the requirement.
What would be needed to accelerate the renewable energy transition in African countries?
Next to national and African coordination efforts, Ndung’u and Shimeles (2022) as well as the Africa Energy Outlook 2022 specify that global cooperation and partnerships are crucial to reach the energy transition. Indeed, international climate finance is central due to the high scale of financial needs for the transition with the only limited capacities of African states to mobilise the capital in their country. Apart from the access to financial resources, there is a strong need for capacity building, e.g. training of skilled labour, new technology, and the build-up of transport as well as energy infrastructure, e.g. grids (see Ndung’u and Shimeles, 2022; International Energy Agency, 2022: 186-199).
Existing EU-AU partnerships addressing those needs
Up to date, several EU-AU partnership programs search to address the aim of a green transition on both continents (see European Commission, n.d.). While the EU member states, among other Western countries, are most responsible for the carbon emissions causing climate change, AU states have not significantly contributed to the causes of climate change but are mostly affected by its outcome. In the EU, cooperation with Africa is crucial to achieve both internal transition goals linked to green imports and energy demand and materials needed for green technology, as well as the external goal to promote a global sustainable change.
Hence, an enforced partnership between the EU and AU could equally decrease their dependence on China when it comes to the supply with materials for green technologies. Indeed, according to Church and Crawford (2020), China has “some of the largest global reserves of lead, selenium, tellurium, tin and zinc, […] as well as graphite, lithium and titanium”, which are vital for solar and energy battery systems. The high share of mineral resources in China eventually increases the risk of global energy price volatilities in case of supply chain interruptions or political tensions (Vekasi, 2021). It might lead to a reiteration of the current price increase related to the global dependence on Russia’s energy resources, which already has had impacts on energy prices in Africa.
Furthermore, an intensified partnership on green transition supports the aforementioned possibilities for sustainable development in the energy sector and increased energy access for the AU. Possible outcomes include higher employment, better health, more resilience to climate change, and a slow eradication of poverty. Moreover, it prevents AU fossil fuel exporting countries to be affected by new EU decarbonisation measures, cf. carbon border adjustment mechanism, which further develops in the wake of EU ambitions to become climate neutral (see Leonard et al., 2021)
Indeed, the diverse existing cooperation initiatives such as the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP), the Partnership on Climate Change and Sustainable Energy (CCSE), or Group on Earth Observations (GEO) initiatives for climate impact monitoring with Africa address the necessities of African states to achieve a green transition. Nonetheless, the current programmes have often been criticized as financially insufficient for a real energy transition and lacking a real horizontal cooperation effort (see Hackenesch et al., 2021; International Energy Agency, 2022)
The new EU External Energy Strategy – an accelerator for the transition efforts?
The new EU external energy strategy presented in May 2022 includes several new measures and initiatives to enhance the EU’s energy diplomacy and international cooperation on energy matters. One part of the strategy is an EU Energy Platform, including Egypt and Algeria as well as the sub-Saharan countries Nigeria, Senegal, and Angola. It aims to restart energy dialogue with Algeria, to conclude new political agreements on LNG supplies with Egypt, and to explore energy export potentials in sub-Saharan countries to secure the EU’s energy supply. A special focus of the energy partnerships lies with hydrogen. Meanwhile, several measures are developed to accelerate the global green and just energy transition on the African continent. These include investments through Global Gateway, a Joint Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa, and the implementation of the EU-Africa Green Energy Initiative for broader energy access (see European Commission, 2022d).
Hence, the EU-Africa Green Energy Initiative as part of Global Gateway specifically focuses on the build-up of an electricity grid, interconnecting several states in south and central Africa and thus supporting the development of an African Single Electricity Market. Moreover, it integrates tailored support to countries in their ambitions for energy transition and particularly promotes renewable hydrogen generation through direct investments, and research (see European Commission, 2022e).
Through its approach, the Green Energy Initiative responds partly to the needs of African countries in their green energy transition, notably when it comes to the creation of a new energy grid infrastructure and integration into a single market. However, it is not clear how the new EU strategy will respond to the aforementioned difficulties in African countries to access electricity in rural areas. Most of the population, especially in sub-Saharan countries, cannot afford to connect their homes to the electricity grid, let alone pay the electricity prices. Thus, increased EU financial resources accessible to the states for a decentralised development of renewable energy systems that lower electricity costs and increase easy accessibility might enhance the transition process and energy access throughout all parts of the country. The financial support of rural renewable energy projects could enlarge single EU financed projects in this area, cf. the 2020 Renewable Energy Support Programme in sub-Saharan Africa (see European Commission, 2020). Indeed, such measures might be accompanied by capacity building to train the local population in the installation and maintenance of their renewable energy sources, hence creating employment and in the future a level-playing field between AU states and the EU. Up to date, the EU has supported capacity building projects in addressed to local authorities in AU countries for the management of renewable resources (European Union, 2018), while the local technical capacity building has mainly been offered by non-governmental organisations active in AU states (cf. BrückenBauenMitderSonne, n.d.).
The new global energy crisis intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to increased EU ambitions to create new independence from fossil fuels and diversify its energy supply. Due to the global scale of the energy transition and the need for enhanced international partnerships, the European Commission introduced the new EU External Energy Strategy as a part of the REPowerEU plan. The strategy amplifies the aims of a global green transition through EU energy diplomacy. This article showed, while using the case study of Africa, that the new strategy and initiatives indeed do respond to some of the continents’ needs to continue on their way toward a green transition. Still, it is highly questionable whether the current programs and partnerships will be enough to promote overall energy accessibility, notably in rural areas, which require the development of decentralised clean and affordable energies. Surely, it is a difficult task to offer exact measures and financial resources aligned with every country’s necessities. For the first time, increased bilateral partnerships, such as the Joint Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa, might be a good path to follow, as those partnerships respect national specificities, and offer the possibility of diverse financial and risk-sharing instruments. To this end, the new EU Energy Strategy creates a base that should be further developed to truly achieve a global green transition and sustainable development in AU states.