At the eleventh hour, Europe converted an energy crisis into a clean energy revolution. In the aftermath of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, there has been an urgent scramble to lessen the bloc’s dependency on Russian natural gas and on energy imports in general. As a result, the EU energy sector has made an incredible turnaround in a remarkably short time span.
The EU’s use of Russian natural gas has plummeted from around 40% to less than 17% between 2021 and 2022. While some of this was offset by a regrettable return to coal-fired power, Europe's pivot is largely thanks to a massive ramping up of investments into clean energies and the statement of unprecedented policy measures designed to kick the green energy transition into overdrive.
This winter was supposed to bring widespread energy shortages, painfully high electric bills creating soaring rates of energy poverty, and dangerously cold temperatures with relatively little guarantee of sufficient heating for homes and businesses. But instead, the European energy sector was saved by an abnormally mild winter and a 24% surge in solar energy production. Last year, for the first time in history, solar and wind made up more of Europe’s overall energy mix than natural gas.
And the European Union intends to keep the trend going. The European Commission’s 2022 State of the Energy Union report stated that a new green is “helping renewables to grow massively” and take up an increasingly large share of the overall energy mix, with the expected growth outcome of 69% renewable energy by 2030, up from 37% in 2021. The ambitious plan, called REPowerEU, is the European Commission’s response to the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, ??which offers unprecedented tax breaks and subsidies to clean energy producers in the United States.
While green legislation is finally falling into place, however, installing vast amounts of new clean energy infrastructure won’t be easy. Already, the expansion of mass-scale solar and wind farms is running into major issues related to land use, arduous bureaucratic measures related to permitting, and aging and insufficient power grids. Land, in particular, has already caused flare-ups of civil unrest and litigation as huge clean energy projects move into rural areas – such as the central United States – where locals don’t necessarily want them and often pose a considerable threat to fragile local ecosystems.
In Europe, where land is already at a deficit, clean energy developers are looking to less populated areas in North Africa for their biggest and most ambitious plans. Not only is there more undeveloped land, but the arid and sunny climate of North Africa also lends itself to solar energy generation, with panels generating up to three times more powerful than those installed in Europe. This energy can then be piped back to the European continent via massive submarine intercontinental cables.
While there are some obvious benefits to this semi-symbiotic relationship – Europe needs energy, and North Africa needs economic stimulus – there are also some very serious drawbacks with familiarly imperial undercurrents. For one thing, as much as Northern Africa needs investment and industry to buoy its economy, it also desperately needs energy. In fact, there are already major renewable energy projects underway in the area, which were designed to power African grids and lessen the region’s own carbon footprint, but this planned output is being increasingly diverted to European markets. “Morocco has connections via a regional power pool that could send green electricity to most nations in West Africa, while Egypt is similarly linked to most of East Africa,” Yale360 recently reported. “But both countries’ electricity exports are currently earmarked for European markets instead.”
What is more, the scale of these projects means that North Africa is primed for a fresh round of land-grabbing. It also means that there will inevitably be major disturbances to the flora, fauna, and human populations where these solar and wind farms are constructed. And these developments will likely take place “with minimal community consultation or ecological assessment,” warns Yale. While Saharan Africa is often portrayed as an empty and desolate place, this is far from the truth. The desert is a fragile ecosystem full of nomadic pastoralists whose lives and grazing patterns will be upended by the arrival of a mass-scale energy industry. What’s more, these projects probably will prioritize development in more heavily populated coastal areas, where transportation will be easier.
It is inevitable that the green energy transition will bear major trade-offs. It is an economic and industrial undertaking of unprecedented proportions and lots of uncertain and unpredictable outcomes. Compromises, as well as sacrifices, will be inevitable for the greater good of combating catastrophic climate change. But it’s nevertheless essential to question the ethics of who is bearing the brunt of these sacrifices and why, as well as how these trade-offs can be mitigated and minimized. Climate change is already an ethically charged issue, as the first world has created nearly all of the greenhouse gas emissions that are now most greatly imperiling the least developed countries, and Africa in particular. Pushing controversial green energy projects out of our backyards and into the territories of countries with weaker regulatory systems is an easy option, but it certainly isn’t the moral option.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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