Africa-EU: A strategic partnership
Africa and Europe are strategic partners when it comes to clean energies.
Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, CEO of Hydrogen Europe; 14 Feb 2022
Recently, there have been growing concerns about the schemes being discussed on the production and export, on a large scale, of green hydrogen in and from African. Some claim that instead of helping Africa’s green transition, these plans and partnerships will be a mean for “neo-colonialism”.
Such views are also occasionally heard in Europe, notably in such circles which have a very entrenched interest themselves: the myth that Europe could and should produce the entirety of the emission-free electricity it needs on its own territory, with enough spare current to electrolyse all its hydrogen on its own. There is no serious study or projection, however, which would conclude that Europe can do this on its own and at home. Between 25 and 50 percent of the green hydrogen needed in Europe as of 2030 will have to be imported. And obviously, there is a case for importing it from neighbouring countries, notably North and West Africa.
Could this be a new form of colonialism, then? Would European countries once again plunder African resources leaving impoverished communities and corrupt leadership behind while comfortably revelling in the cheap green hydrogen they have extracted? Nothing could be further from the truth. Hydrogen has the potential – and it is so far the only substance with such potential – to finally make Africa and Europe partners while propelling the African continent to the avantgarde of a new industrial age.
An African statesman said recently: how could Europe take things away from us if we produce and use hydrogen here? We have our sun, our wind, and our waters, which have been here forever and none of which can ever be transported elsewhere. Here lies the truth: the abundant African resources needed for the transition to a hydrogen economy are endless and cannot be stolen. They can only be used in partnership, so that Africa can transition to a renewables-based industrial economy while Europe gets some of the hydrogen it needs after having invested and paid.
Let's imagine for a second that green hydrogen is produced in Africa and can start fuelling mineral transformation processes. Let's imagine African mines producing ore which can start being transformed locally, instead of being shipped away with no added value, as has been the case for too long. Let's imagine African societies which, due to the massive investments that would have been undertaken to produce green electricity would be able to power their grid by themselves, without continuing their age-old dependence on imported petrol. Let's imagine the outline of Africa being brightly lit under the night sky because electrification of the whole continent would finally have come about, using the resources of Africa itself. Does that sound like colonialism?
Of course, Europe would invest in Africa because it needs something. However, this time we will make sure that the African states concerned receive their own share of what their sun, wind and water can generate. Partnerships with African states and regional associations, potentially even with the African Union, would be designed in such a way as to establish from the very beginning that there is an African project here which Europe will help become reality. We are talking about exports of hydrogen to Europe, yes, but we are talking above all about bringing about a dynamic of development that Africa hasn't seen before. And what is wrong with a continent surging ahead which exports a molecule to Europe of which itself is producing far more than it needs and consumes itself?
In a former life, as a Member of the European Parliament, I have been following the Europe-Africa Summits for ten years. The rhetoric may have been compelling, the results were disappointing. Now we see indeed that some European states seem to engage with some African states in order to secure their own provisions of green hydrogen. All this doesn't fit into the true narrative. The true narrative is that in the 21st century, the African and the European continents become true partners because they commit entirely to producing enough renewable energy to power their respective development. There must not be competition between producing countries, but cooperation on a scale large enough to power continents, not individual states or industries. The coming hydrogen economy will have space and benefits for all.
Moreover, criticism is often expressed regarding the presence of fossil fuels actors in the hydrogen development schemes. Yes, they may be there. But no, they will not « extract » something in Africa and then take it away from Africa. They will invest in projects that will be beneficial to Africa before they will benefit anyone else but have the potential to benefit everyone. As the oil and gas fields discovered today will see an immense decrease in meaning because of a global energy transition, fossil majors will transition and transform as well. They will simply have to. And that will not be to the detriment of African budgets much of which were soaked up by fuel imports until today.
This is the logic in which the European Union approaches hydrogen imports. They are an integral component of a new partnership with Africa, one in which every African country stands to benefit as much as Europe might. The hydrogen produced in Africa will be for Africa first, and then for exports. I trust Africans will know how to use the potential of this new logic for their own good. Whole countries will become self-sufficient in energy if investments are used wisely. Development cooperation can take on a whole new shape after African countries run on their own fuel: the eternal sun, winds, and waters that Africa has had since times immemorial, and which are not going away. With hydrogen and its capacity colonialism can finally be over for good.