Just transition – now or never

As Egypt prepares to host the latest UN climate conference, COP27, Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell call time on ‘business as usual’, which in North Africa means non-solutions that line private pockets at public expense and protect political elites.

Credit: Othman Selmi

‘It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.’ That’s the warning from Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the latest comprehensive review (2022) of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The review report warns that the world is set to reach the 1.5ºC limit within the next two decades and states that only the most drastic cuts in carbon emissions, starting right away, can prevent environmental and climate disaster. Since these reviews are conducted every six to seven years, this can be seen as the last warning from the IPCC before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown with terrifying consequences. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared when the report was released: ‘In concrete terms, this means major cities under water, unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.’

As Egypt prepares to host this year’s United Nations climate Conference of the Parties (COP), between 6-18 November, this reality of climate breakdown is already visible in North Africa and the Arab region, undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt are experiencing recurrent severe heatwaves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on small-scale farmers and agriculture in general.

In the summer of 2021, Algeria was struck by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Tunisia experienced a suffocating heatwave, with temperatures soaring close to 50ºC; southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third year in a row; and in southeast Egypt, 1,100 people lost their homes to flooding and hundreds were injured by scorpions driven out of the ground by the severe weather conditions. In the years ahead, the IPCC predicts that the Mediterranean region will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.

The impacts of these changes are disproportionately felt by the marginalized in society, especially small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists, agricultural labourers and fisherfolk. Already, people are being forced off their lands by stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, expanding deserts and rising sea levels.

After three decades of what the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called ‘blah blah blah’, it has become evident that the climate talks are bankrupt and are failing

Climate scientists are predicting that the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could change in such a manner that the very survival of its inhabitants will be in jeopardy.

The choice of capital

The violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice that is made by corporations and mostly Western governments, together with national ruling classes in individual countries. Energy and climate plans are shaped by authoritarian regimes and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Despite all their promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are enemies of climate justice and of humanity’s survival.

Every year, the world’s political leaders, advisers, media and corporate lobbyists gather for another COP climate summit. But despite the threat facing the planet, governments continue to allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. After three decades of what the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called ‘blah blah blah’, it has become evident that the climate talks are bankrupt and are failing. They have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions, like carbon trading and so-called ‘net-zero’ and ‘nature-based solutions’, instead of forcing industrialized nations and multinationals to reduce carbon emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground.

COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021, attracted massive media attention but achieved no major breakthroughs. The 2022 and 2023 climate talks that will be held in the Arab region (COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates) are likewise not expected to achieve much, especially in the context of the intensification of geopolitical rivalries unleashed by the war in Ukraine, a context that is not amenable to co-operation between major powers and which provides yet another pretext for continuing the global addiction to fossil fuels. This could be the final nail in the coffin of global climate talks.

Humanity’s survival depends on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and adapting to the already changing climate while moving towards renewable energies, sustainable levels of energy use and other social transformations. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt – finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and changing the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities – and on trying to shift to green sources of energy by building the required infrastructure and investing in green jobs and technology. But whose interest will this adaptation and energy transition serve? And who will be expected to bear the heaviest costs of the climate crisis, and of responses to it?

The same authoritarian and greedy power structures that have contributed to climate change are now shaping the response to it. Their main goal is to protect private interests and to make even greater profits. While international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF are now articulating the need for a climate transition, their vision is of a capitalist and often corporate-led transition, not one led by and for working people. The voices of civil society organizations and social movements are largely unheard when it comes to the implications of this transition and the need for just and democratic alternatives. By contrast, the international financial institutions, alongside the German development agency GIZ and the different European Union (EU) agencies, speak loudly, organizing events and publishing reports in all the countries of the Arab region. They highlight the dangers of a warmer world and argue for urgent action, including using more renewable energy and adaptation plans. However, their analysis of climate change and the needed transition is limited, and in fact dangerous, as it threatens to reproduce the patterns of dispossession and resource plunder that characterize the prevailing fossil fuel regime.

Credit: Othman Selmi

Who benefits from the ‘green economy’?

The vision of the future that is pushed by the World Bank, GIZ, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the French Development Agency and much of the EU is one where economies are subjugated to private profit, including through further privatization of water, land, resources, energy – and even the atmosphere. The latest stage in this development includes the public-private partnerships (PPPs) being implemented in every sector in the region, including in renewable energies.

The drive towards the privatization of energy and corporate control of the energy transition is global and is not unique to North Africa and the Arab region, but the dynamic is quite advanced here and has so far been met with only limited resistance. Morocco is already advancing along this path, and so is Tunisia. A major push is under way to expand the privatization of the Tunisian renewable energy sector and to give huge incentives to foreign investors to produce green energy in the country, including for export. Tunisian law (modified in 2019) even allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects in a country that suffers from acute food dependency (as revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic and again, at the time of writing, as war rages in Ukraine).

As developments like this take place across the region, they highlight the importance of asking: ‘Energy for what and for whom?’ ‘Who is the energy transition intended to serve?’ The supposedly ‘green economy’ and the broader mainstream vision of so-called ‘sustainable development’ are being presented by international financial institutions, corporations and governments as a new paradigm. But in reality this is merely an extension of the existing logics of capital accumulation, commodification and financialization, including of the natural world.

The climate talks have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions, like carbon trading and so-called ‘net-zero’ and ‘nature-based solutions’

The historical, political and geophysical realities of the North Africa region mean that both the effects of and the solutions to the climate crisis there will be distinct from those in other contexts. North Africa was forcibly integrated into the global capitalist economy in a subordinate position: colonial powers influenced or forced North African countries to structure their economies around the extraction and export of resources – usually provided cheaply and in raw form – coupled with the import of high-value industrial goods. The result was large-scale transfer of wealth to the imperial centres, at the expense of local development.

The persistence till today of such unequal and asymmetric relations reaffirms the role of North African countries as exporters of natural resources, such as oil and gas, and primary commodities that are heavily dependent on water and land, such as monoculture cash crops. This entrenches an outward-looking extractivist economy, exacerbating food dependency and the ecological crisis while maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neocolonial hierarchies.

 

It is increasingly clear that a just transition for North Africa will require a recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialized West in causing global warming. It will also need to acknowledge the role of power in shaping both how climate change is caused, and who carries the burden of its impacts and of ‘solutions’ to the crisis. Climate justice and a just transition will mean breaking with ‘business as usual’ that protects global political elites, multinational corporations and non-democratic regimes, and a radical social and ecological transformation and adaptation process.

The imperatives of justice and pragmatism are increasingly converging on the need for climate reparations or debts to be definitely (re)paid to countries in the Global South by the rich North. This must take the form not of loans and additional debts but of transfers of wealth and technology, cancelling current odious debts, halting illicit capital flows, dismantling neocolonial trade and investment agreements like the Energy Charter Treaty and stopping the ongoing plunder of resources. The financing of the transition needs to take into account the current, ongoing and future loss and damage, which is occurring disproportionately in the South. But, as inequalities exist not only between North and South, but also within all countries of the world, how can a programme of climate reparations be combined with the creation of a just, democratic and equitable energy system within the countries of North Africa and the Arab region more widely?

This is an edited extract from the introduction to the dossier on Just Transition(s) in North Africa, compiled by the Transnational Institute (TNI).

The full version of this introduction is published on the Transnational Insitutes website.

Hamza Hamouchene is the North Africa Programme Coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI).

Katie Sandwell is the Agrarian and Environmental Justice Programme Coordinator at TNI.