/ 25 January 2024

Green hydrogen trade from Africa to Europe is ‘the same colonial vision again’

Anglo American Plc Launch Worlds First 510 Ton Hydrogen Fueled Truck
Drivers in the cabin of a hydrogen-powered truck during a moving demonstration, part of Anglo American Plc's NuGen carbon-neutral project, at the Anglo American Platinum Ltd. Mogalakwena platinum mine in Mogalakwena, South Africa, on Friday, May 6, 2022. Anglo American unveiled the worlds biggest green-hydrogen powered truck at a platinum mine in northeast South Africa where it aims to replace a fleet of 40 diesel-fueled vehicles that each use about a million liters of the fossil fuel every year. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the global race for green hydrogen, seen as the new fuel of the future, gains momentum, much of it is likely to come from Africa to be exported to Europe. 

How this may affect African countries is cause for concern among African civil society and social movements, who are advocating for a just hydrogen transition. Ulrich Steenkamp, of the environmental justice organisation Earthlife Africa in South Africa, and Imen Louati of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tunisia, discuss the risks of emerging hydrogen economies in Africa and strategies for a just transition.

How did you both become involved with green hydrogen?

Ulrich Steenkamp: We were surprised when our government presented its national hydrogen strategy, with many projects already in the pipeline without the knowledge of civil society. We had to quickly jump on board and, since then, we’ve been working with NGOs and community-based organisations all over the country to understand what’s going on.

Imen Louati: My experience is similar. Two years ago, the European Union suddenly declared that Tunisia and other North African countries should become major exporters of green hydrogen to Europe. This was when I became aware of it. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has doubled its import targets with the REPowerEU plan and accelerated its push for hydrogen imports from North Africa. Our work aims to start a debate on the sustainability of large-scale hydrogen projects in the region.

Why do you believe hydrogen projects are not sustainable?

Imen Louati: They’re not sustainable because they displace communities from their land. Green hydrogen production requires a lot of land, particularly for solar and wind farms. In the official discourse, this land is often depicted as vast, empty and unpopulated space. But this is misleading because people live on or use the land. For example, the planned Noor Midelt solar project in Central Morocco is to be built on 4 000 hectares of land and will probably be used to produce green hydrogen. Half of the land is collectively managed by farming communities, while the other half is classified as forest land managed by local groups. These communities face dispossession and loss of their livelihoods. 

Another issue is water. Green hydrogen production requires a lot of water. But in the arid to semi-arid North African region, water scarcity is a major concern. We already experienced years of drought and no rain, and it will only get worse with the climate crisis. Green hydrogen projects would further strain the region’s water resources. 

Wouldn’t using water from the sea circumvent the issue of water scarcity?

Imen Louati: There are already several seawater desalination plants in countries like Morocco and Tunisia. But these plants also have environmental problems. Local communities who depend on fishing or tourism would be negatively affected, the brine discharged from the plants is highly toxic and would pollute the marine ecosystem, and desalination requires a lot of energy.

Moreover water is not only needed for making green hydrogen but also for cooling the solar plants that provide the power to produce green hydrogen. Around the Ouarzazate solar plant in Morocco, this has already led to water conflicts with local communities.

How does this compare to South Africa?

Ulrich Steenkamp: Land and water are also major issues in South Africa. Land is very unevenly distributed due to the legacy of apartheid, and it is now the traditional communities that still own some land that may lose their land to hydrogen plants. And we face a severe water crisis, with Cape Town in 2017 almost completely running out of water. 

But the biggest concern in South Africa is energy. We are facing a severe energy crisis, which is only getting worse. There are power cuts for several hours each day, many people cannot afford electricity due to skyrocketing tariffs, and 90% of our electricity is still produced from coal. Our first priority should be to move away from coal and ensure affordable and stable electricity supply for all.

Now, imagine if many new solar and wind farms are built, but the electricity is not fed into the grid and instead used for green hydrogen. This will exacerbate the energy crisis and it may lead to social upheaval. All these water, land and energy resources are diverted to the green hydrogen industry, while South Africans will probably bear the costs.

You have spoken to people who will be affected by green hydrogen projects. What are their views and concerns?

Ulrich Steenkamp: They have many questions. The first thing that often comes up is: “Where will they get the water from?” And when you go to coastal areas you have local fishermen always asking: “How is this impacting the ocean and aqualife?” But the major concern always is: “Will we be getting some of that electricity from the solar plants?” They fully agree with the need for decarbonisation, but they take issue with the lack of attention to socio-economic concerns.

Most of the hydrogen from Africa is targeted for export to Europe. Will African countries benefit from the global hydrogen trade?

Imen Louati: We have to talk about neocolonialism in the hydrogen trade between North Africa and Europe. North Africa and the Sahara are often portrayed as vast, empty spaces, an El Dorado of green hydrogen for providing Europe with cheap energy resources. Europe can continue its excessive energy consumption and maintain the illusion of the endless availability of energy and resources, and European companies can profit from selling their hydrogen technologies in the North African market. At the same time, the social and environmental costs of this colonial plunder are transferred to the North African region. 

Governments in North Africa will accrue more debt and take on financial risks to make these projects attractive to investors. With Europe controlling the energy transition in North Africa and supporting repressive and authoritarian regimes, countries like Morocco and Tunisia are barred from choosing what kind of energy transition they want.

This is nothing new. There are many examples of energy colonialism and extractivism in the North African region. For example, in 2009 the Desertec project aimed to supply about 20% of Europe’s electricity through solar and wind power from North Africa. Desertec failed because of its very high costs. But countries like Morocco took on large debts that they now struggle to repay. The push for green hydrogen is the new Desertec, it’s the same colonial vision again.

Ulrich Steenkamp: In South Africa, many companies are establishing pilot projects for green hydrogen export to Europe. But there’s no real benefit for South Africans, no community buy-in, and communities are not asked for their free, prior and informed consent. People are being left behind again, just as in the past 300 to 400 years. 

This push for green hydrogen will end up greening the European economy, making Europe seem like a healthy, non-polluted place, while South Africa will be seen as a smog-filled place with lots of coal-fired power stations and dangerous technologies that Europe doesn’t want. All of this overlooks the historical responsibility and colonial legacy that is behind the problem of climate change.

Should countries in Africa refrain from building green hydrogen projects?

Imen Louati: Technology is not the problem. The problem is how we establish those projects. The real question is about how we change our society to consume and live within the sustainable boundaries of the planet. Hydrogen is not the solution and never will be, and no other technology will be either. We need more holistic solutions and to question capitalism and its high energy consumption.

Ulrich Steenkamp: I agree. It’s not that we should say no to green hydrogen. We need climate-friendly technologies to sustain global civilisation. But the Global North must change the ways in which they overconsume energy and continue the historic exploitation of poorer countries. We can’t have Times Square in New York that has its lights on all the time while the rest of us are in darkness.

We need to say to the capitalists and decision-makers: “Listen, you need to be more responsible or we have to turn to alternatives.” And frankly, sub-Saharan Africa is warming twice the rate of the global average, so I don’t have much time for people not wanting to change. We have to do it and we have to do it now.

In more concrete terms, what would a just hydrogen transition look like?

Ulrich Steenkamp: Green hydrogen actually offers an opportunity to address issues caused by the colonial past. First of all, there needs to be public participation in advance, so that local communities can decide if they want to give their free, prior and informed consent. 

Communities should also benefit from real economic activity, not just the hydrogen company building a clinic for which there is no medication and no money for doctors and nurses. An important step to solving the energy crisis is building socially owned renewable energy plants. Communities could own and produce their own electricity, sell the surplus to the hydrogen plant, and invest the revenue into the community. 

On a national level, green hydrogen projects should form an integral part of the national economy, instead of small little island pockets dotted around the country. Instead of exporting green hydrogen, we could use the resource to decarbonise our own industry and develop new green industries. For example, rather than a German manufacturer like BMW importing green steel from South Africa, we could build plants here that use South African green steel. 

Imen Louati: If we want to avoid repeating the same tragedy with fossil fuel projects that don’t benefit local communities, serve repressive and authoritarian regimes, and enrich only a tiny minority of elites and multinationals, we must oppose green capitalism. 

And as Ulrich mentioned, instead of building large, centralised projects, we should support more small-scale, decentralised projects that are democratically managed and controlled by the local community, in this way promoting greater energy autonomy.

A just energy transition will not come without struggle. What actions are you taking to make it a reality?

Ulrich Steenkamp: We’re conducting workshops with community representatives at hydrogen project sites to help front line communities develop their own positions. We also tap into existing networks of climate and environmental justice organisations in the country and use these platforms to amplify the voices of affected communities.

Also within our own networks, we’re raising awareness and doing educational work on green hydrogen. We recently founded the Hydrogen Watch Network, a group of organisations and individuals monitoring and critically commenting on hydrogen developments in South Africa.

Imen Louati: In the North African region, there’s currently no real movement on green hydrogen. It’s still quite recent, so we haven’t had time to develop strategies. Moreover, political activism in the region is challenging and democratic spaces are shrinking with authoritarianism on the rise. Nevertheless, many local movements are struggling against solar plants that negatively impact their livelihoods.

What are your thoughts on how climate justice movements in Europe can support the struggles for a just hydrogen transition?

Ulrich Steenkamp: I’d like climate justice activists in Europe to emphasise in their messaging that a just transition means to put people before profit. Activists in Europe are well-positioned to remind decision-makers and companies that they can’t simply go to an arid African country and take their energy resources. There are people there and you need to consider them. 

Another issue is that we need to build transnational solidarity movements to share information on the latest green hydrogen developments and to collectively address the global challenge of the climate crisis.

Imen Louati: We should engage in a more holistic debate about green hydrogen and think about sustainable alternatives from both Northern and Southern perspectives. Our movements should come together to discuss and envision alternatives to green capitalism and colonialism, and strategise about how to make them a reality.

Tobias Kalt is a political scientist at the University of Hamburg. Germany. Ulrich Steenkamp is energy and climate justice programme coordinator at Earthlife Africa in South Africa. Imen Louati is programme officer for green hydrogen at the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation North Africa in Tunisia