How renewables corporations are exploiting the Global South

Ouarzazate is a beautiful town in south-central Morocco, where ruddy orange earthen Kasbahs stand tall, as they have for centuries, on a high plateau between the snow-topped Atlas mountains that form its backdrop and the Sahara. Nicknamed the ‘door of the desert’, it is also home to the major film sets of Atlas Studios, where films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were shot, as well as, more recently, part of the television series Game of Thrones.

It now has another claim to fame however, as just six miles away from the town is one of the biggest solar projects in the world, the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station. This enormous array of solar mirrors is part of a grand plan to end Morocco’s dependency on energy imports and put the country on a ‘green path’ aimed at meeting 52 per cent of the country’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030.

The Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (aka Noor I) was connected to the national grid in 2016. Two further phases, Noor II and Noor III were added in 2018 and 2019 respectively. By 2021, the complex was supplying renewable electricity to nearly two million Moroccans, according to the country’s energy minister.

But the Saudi-built and run plant has failed to benefit the impoverished communities that surround it; the Amazigh pastoralists were paid a pittance for the lands used for the 3,000-hectare facility and were not informed of the impact the project would have on scarce water resources. The Ouarzazate plant uses concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP) technology – which uses arrays of mirrors to heat a liquid to high temperatures and drive a turbine – which is water-intensive, diverting the vital resource away from drinking and agriculture in an area that is already semi-arid.

It’s expensive too. The project is a public-private partnership (PPP) – a euphemism for the privatization of the profits and the socialization of losses through de-risking strategies – and since 2016 has been recording an annual deficit of around $87 million, which comes out of the public purse.

Meanwhile the debt incurred for the $9 billion project – in the form of loans from the World Bank, European Investment Bank (EIB), the African Development Bank and others for the plant’s construction – is backed by Moroccan government guarantees. This means potentially more public debt in a country already overburdened by it.

In Midelt, 450 kilometres northeast of Ouarzazate, a similar story of local dispossession is unfolding as another giant solar plant is being built. Despite delays in construction, the plant promises to be the world’s largest hybrid solar plant, combining both concentrated solar-thermal and photovoltaic (PV) technologies. The project is being developed by the French state-owned firm EDF Renewables, UAE state-owned renewables firm Masdar, the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy and private firm Green of Africa.

As Hassan El Ghazi, a young local shepherd, said in a 2019 documentary: ‘Our profession is pastoralism, and now this project has occupied our land where we graze our sheep. They do not employ us in the project, but they employ foreigners. The land in which we live has been occupied. They are destroying the houses that we build… In the end, we are invisible, and we do not exist for them.’

Such projects have been dubbed ‘green grabbing’, where land or resources are appropriated by the rich and powerful for purportedly environmental ends, without regard for the impact on local peoples. This ranges from conservation and carbon credit projects that dispossess Indigenous communities of their land and territories – often exacerbating the emissions they claim to solve – to the confiscation of communal land to produce biofuel and the installation of large solar or wind farms on pastoralists’ land without their consent.

Greenwashing colonialism

The Arabian deserts and the Sahara have been cast in a pernicious orientalist narrative as vast, empty, sparsely populated lands; an El Dorado of potential cheap clean energy for Europe. This trope helps justify green colonialism or neo-colonialism: the extension of the colonial relations of plunder and dispossession into the green era of renewable energies, pushing costs onto peripheral countries and communities, prioritizing the energy and environmental needs for resources such as water in one region of the world over those of another.

Basically, it keeps the same system in place, but with a different source of energy. These dynamics are seen in the scramble for critical transition minerals (See pages 30-38 of this issue). Such green colonial dynamics are also evident in the renewable projects being built in occupied
territories such as Palestine, the Golan Heights and Western Sahara.

The Arabian deserts and the Sahara have been cast in a pernicious orientalist narrative as vast, empty, sparsely populated lands; an El Dorado of potential cheap clean energy for Europe

In Western Sahara, illegally occupied by Morocco, three wind farms are in operation, a fourth is under construction in Boujdour, and several others are planned. These wind farms are owned by Nareva, a wind energy company belonging to the Moroccan royal family’s holding company.

Saudi companies too are implicated in the entrenchment of the occupation of Western Sahara through the development of renewable energy. In November 2016, at the time of the COP22 climate talks in Marrakesh, the partially state-owned Saudi company ACWA Power – which also has renewable interests in Kazakhstan, South Africa and the UAE – signed an agreement with the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy to develop and operate three solar PV power stations: two of them, at El Aaiún and Boujdour, inside the occupied Western Sahara. These are now operational and there are plans for a third solar plant at El Argoub, near Dakhla.

We also see the quasi-imperial role of the Gulf states elsewhere in Africa, where huge land grabs are taking place, both for agriculture and for carbon offset projects. In recent months the UAE-based Blue Carbon has signed deals with five African governments to manage at least 25 million hectares of their forests for carbon credits. (See the Facts page of this issue, page 25) The company is likely to take most of the profit, while on its past record these market-tradeable, nature-based, (false) solutions will effectively provide a licence to fossil fuel companies and petro-states to continue polluting while dispossessing local and Indigenous communities of their land and creating ‘green sacrifice zones’ for sustainability.

‘African countries, who have not contributed to climate change and who are in fact the victims of climate-induced shocks, are now being forced to give up territorial sovereignty over large swaths of land to foreign corporations to issue pollution permits,’ Fadhel Kaboub,
president of The Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, wrote in a recent piece. ‘If this is not a new form of colonialism, then I don’t know what it is.’

Farming in the Jordan Valley. Ongoing shortages make Jordan one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. JOERG BOETHLING/ALAMY
Farming in the Jordan Valley. Ongoing shortages make Jordan one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. JOERG BOETHLING/ALAMY

Palestine

In occupied Palestine the story is similar to that of the Western Sahara, but more brutal. One strategy Israel uses to cover up its war crimes against the Palestinian people is posing as a green and advanced country, in contrast to a Middle East, which is cast as fearsome and arid. This position has been reinforced by the signing of the Abraham Accords to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in 2020, and through agreements to jointly implement environmental projects concerning renewable energy, agri-business and water. These are a form of ‘eco-normalization’ – the use of environmentalism to greenwash and normalize Israeli oppression and the environmental injustices resulting from it.

A key plank of this eco-normalization is the deal between Jordan and Israel, dubbed Project Prosperity, for which the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding during the COP27 climate talks in Egypt in 2022. The proposals would see Jordan buy 200 million cubic litres of water each year from an Israeli desalination facility on the Mediterranean coast (Prosperity Blue), using power produced by a 600 megawatt solar PV plant that will be constructed in Jordan by the UAE’s state-owned renewable company Masdar (Prosperity Green).

Meanwhile in August 2022, Jordan joined Morocco, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Oman in signing a Memorandum of Understanding with two Israeli energy companies, Enlight Green Energy and NewMed Energy, to implement renewable energy projects in these countries.

In the wake of recent bloodshed in Gaza, the future of these projects looks uncertain. If Project Prosperity falls through this will leave Jordan in its current precarious position as the second-most water scarce country in the world – a situation largely created by Israel, which diverts water from the River Jordan and limits Jordanian access.

These proposed normalization projects bolster the image of Israel as a hub for creative renewable energy technologies, while Israel denies the colonized Palestinians, and Jawlanis of the Golan Heights, sovereignty over their energy resources and perpetuates their captivity to its energy market. For years Israel has denied the people of the Gaza Strip – under genocidal assault at the time of writing – full access to electricity.

‘Social movements, environmental groups, trade unions, student associations and civil society organisations in the Arab region and beyond must intensify their protests against their governments until they end their normalization ties with Israel,’ wrote Palestinian environmental activist Manal Shqair in a piece for the Transnational Institute, adding that grassroots movements internationally should strengthen support for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The policy shapers

Addressing the global climate crisis requires a drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and a rapid transition towards renewable energies all over the world. However, there are huge risks and dangers that this transition will just maintain current practices of dispossession and exploitation, reproducing injustices and deepening exclusion. As we have seen, it may simply replicate the functions of the fossil fuel economy, and in some ways its profit-driven dynamics are stymieing the transition itself.

At the international level, the UAE’s choice of Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, to preside over the recent COP28 United Nations climate talks symbolizes the deep commitment to continued oil extraction that has characterized climate negotiations to date, despite the promises and the rhetoric. Its role chairing this year’s talks is also revealing of regional inequalities, where the rich oil states of the Gulf, and their companies, are dominant and seeking a major role in the new transition economy across the Middle East and Africa.

Again and again, the same power structures that have contributed most to the climate crisis are now shaping the response to it. Their main goal is to protect private interests and to make even greater profits. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, and Northern governments and their agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), are all articulating the need for a climate transition including in the Arab region. But their vision is of a capitalist – and often corporate-led – transition, not one led by and for working people.

Economies and resources are subjugated to private profit, through further privatization. This includes PPPs now being implemented in every sector in the Arab region, including in renewable energies.

In Tunisia, for example, a major push is under way to expand the privatization of the country’s 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 – now allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects. This is shocking in a country that suffers from acute and repeated food shortages.

Kenyan and EU leaders launch the green hydrogen strategy for Kenya during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi in September. Pictured are Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission (centre left), and William Ruto, Kenya’s president (centre right). SOPA IMAGES LIMITED/ALAMY
Kenyan and EU leaders launch the green hydrogen strategy for Kenya during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi in September. Pictured are Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission (centre left), and William Ruto, Kenya’s president (centre right). SOPA IMAGES LIMITED/ALAMY

All for export?

This points to another major issue with the form in which the energy transition is taking place across the region: an emphasis on producing power to meet the energy needs of the Global North, while conversely, rich countries can export the harms of energy generation to poorer regions. For example, while certain Western governments portray themselves as pro-environment by banning fracking within their borders and by setting carbon emissions-reduction targets, they simultaneously offer diplomatic support to their multinationals to exploit shale resources in their former colonies, as France did with Total in Algeria in 2013: a clear example of environmental racism.

Export-oriented projects are geared towards safeguarding EU energy security, as shown by Italian ENI’s new deal with Algeria’s Sonatrach for an additional 9 billion cubic metres of gas from 2023/24 to replace imports from Russia. Securing EU energy supplies also extends to the renewable sector, with planned interconnectors and green hydrogen projects in North Africa.

In 2017, the Tunisian-British company TuNur applied to build a 4.5 gigawatt solar plant in the Tunisian desert in order, it claimed, to deliver enough electricity via submarine cables to power two million European homes. This still unrealized project is a partnership between UK-based Noor Energy and a group of Maltese and Tunisian investors in the oil and gas sector.

The plans have been given a boost by a new project seeking to establish a 600-megawatt undersea cable linking Tunisian and Italian/EU power grids, ELMED. This project is funded by the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, German state-owned bank KfW, and the World Bank. Given that Tunisia already depends on Algerian imports of gas it is outrageous that such projects are geared squarely towards exporting power to Europe, rather than producing energy for domestic use.

The same goes for another project, proposed in 2021 by the UK company Xlinks in partnership with Saudi ACWA Power, to connect southern Morocco to the United Kingdom through underwater cables that will channel electricity over 3,800 kilometres to seven million UK homes.

These massive renewable projects, while proclaiming their good intentions, present a familiar colonial pattern: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources from the Global South to the rich North, while fortress Europe builds walls and fences to prevent human beings from reaching its shores.

Hydrogen hype

The drive for new export-oriented energy projects is seen clearly with hydrogen, which has been presented as a ‘clean’ alternative fuel.

Currently, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, leading to large carbon emissions. This is called grey hydrogen. The process can allegedly be made cleaner through carbon capture technology, producing ‘blue hydrogen’. But the cleanest form is ‘green hydrogen’ – produced by using renewable electricity to split water molecules.

In response to heavy lobbying from interest groups, the EU has embraced a transition to hydrogen as a centrepiece of its climate response, introducing in 2020 its hydrogen strategy within the framework of the European Green Deal. The plan proposes shifting to ‘green’ hydrogen by 2050, through local production and with a steady supply from Africa.

The drive for a hydrogen economy has gained support from major European oil and gas companies, which see it as a back door to the continuation of their operations, with hydrogen being extracted from fossil gas and existing natural gas and pipeline infrastructure repurposed. But there are significant feasibility questions, and studies give strong reasons to doubt that this can reduce carbon emissions.

While Western governments portray themselves as pro-environment by banning fracking within their borders and setting carbon emissions-reduction targets, they offer diplomatic support to their multinationals to exploit shale resources in their former colonies

No matter though – replacing fossil gas with hydrogen from renewables has become a key plank of REPowerEU, the European Commission’s plan to end dependence on Russian gas. As the then Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans, told the European Parliament in May 2022: ‘I strongly believe in green hydrogen as the driving force of our energy system of the future... and I also strongly believe that Europe is never going to be capable to produce its own hydrogen in sufficient quantities.’

The European Commission has quadrupled its 2030 hydrogen target from five million to 20 million tonnes, with half to be imported primarily from North Africa, though Namibia (See Facts, page 25), South Africa, DR Congo, Chile and Saudi Arabia are also on the list. Recent studies have shown that these targets are unrealistic from a cost and energy perspective and may lead to more fossil fuel exploitation.

In 2020, the Moroccan government entered into a partnership with Germany to develop the first green hydrogen plant on the continent, with estimates suggesting that the country can take up to four per cent of the global green hydrogen market by 2030.

Meanwhile Total has launched a hybrid production project in Morocco that combines solar energy, wind energy, hydrogen and green ammonia production and facilities for export, with investments estimated at more than $10 billion. The project – aiming to be in production in 2027 – will use 170,000 hectares of land. Australian company CWP Global is also looking to sign an agreement with the Moroccan government to build a $20 billion mega green hydrogen and green ammonia project in the Guelmim-Oued Noun region, which could extend into the occupied Western Sahara.

But the problem is that a focus on producing green energy for export means deprioritizing African and Arab countries’: developmental goals and their own transitions in the name of the EU’s energy security and its efforts to meet its climate targets.

Vital questions

What seems to unite all these ‘green’ projects and the hype around them is an assumption that any move towards renewable energy is to be uncritically welcomed, and that any shift from fossil fuels, regardless of how it is carried out, is worthwhile.

The fight for climate justice and a just energy transition needs to take into account the differences in responsibilities and vulnerabilities between North and South. Ecological and climate debts must be repaid to countries in the Global South, who are the hardest hit by global warming and which have been locked by global capitalism into a system of predatory extractivism.

In a global context of forced liberalization and the push for unjust trade deals, as well as an imperial scramble for influence and energy resources, the green transition and talk about sustainability must not become a shiny façade for neo-colonial schemes of plunder and domination.

In many ways, the climate crisis and the needed green transition offer us a chance to reshape politics, and fundamentally transform the global economic system, which even without climate change would not be fit for purpose. Coping with the dramatic transformation will require a break with existing militarist, colonial and neoliberal projects. Therefore, the struggle for a just transition and climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities who are most affected and be geared towards providing for the needs of all.

This article includes extracts from Hamza Hamouchene’s chapter in Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab region, edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell.
This article includes extracts from Hamza Hamouchene’s chapter in Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab region, edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell.

It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy, and a clean and safe environment: a future with an eco-socialist horizon that is in harmony with the revolutionary demands of so many African and Arab uprisings: popular sovereignty, bread, freedom and social justice. It must put an end to the colonial relations that still enslave and dispossess people. We must always ask: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose interests are being served? Because if we don’t ask these questions we will go straight to a green colonialism, with an acceleration of extraction and exploitation, in the service of a so-called common ‘green agenda’.

This article was contributed by the Transnational Institute, as part of a collaboration with New Internationalist on the Big Story of the January-February 2024 issue, which focuses on Climate Capitalism.

In print, it appeared with the headline ‘The El Dorado of Energy’.

Action and info

War on Want

UK-based group with a campaign for a Global Green New Deal.

Grassroots Global Justice

US-based alliance.

Transnational Institute

Research and advocacy for a just, democratic and sustainable planet.

Global Justice Now

Social justice organisation working to challenge the powerful and create a more just and equal world.

London Mining Network

Alliance focused on mining companies listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Yes to Life, No to Mining

Global solidarity network standing up for life-sustaining, post-extractive alternatives.

Friends of the Earth International

International network of environmental organizations in 73 countries.

Biofuelwatch

UK/US-based group.

Read: Dismantling Green Colonialism

Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region. Essay collection by the Transnational Institute.

Read: A Material Transition

Report by War on Want and the London Mining Network, about the material requirements of the transition.

Read: Manifesto for an ecosocial energy transition

Offering a vision from the Global South.