Unmasking Green Colonialism in EU-Namibia Hydrogen Deal

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As time ticks away to meet net-zero targets, the EU is among those looking towards African sunshine and wind in the hopes to produce renewable hydrogen. Hidden behind the slogans of unleashing Africa’s renewable energy potential might be the threat of green colonialism. How is the EU approaching the cooperation and what could be done differently?

Green energy, not green colonialism

The term green colonialism refers to the Global North living at the ecological expense of the Global South. In an attempt to address the environmental issues the developed countries have caused in the first place, they turn to the regions outside the economically advanced nations. Under the guise of being environmentally conscious, tackling climate issues and front-running green policies, they extract resources, grab land, and exploit labour from the Global South nations. As is typical of colonial dynamics, the developed countries exert power and influence over their less economically developed counterparts.

Africa’s high renewables potential has repeatedly got attention of investors from the Global North. The infamous Desertec project is a good example of keeping the neocolonial approach alive. Desertec started as an initiative to power Europe from a tiny surface of the Sahara Desert, with its solar plants and wind-farms having the potential to provide around 20 % of Europe’s electricity by 2050. The initiative did eventually fail. Left behind was a bitter aftertaste of its neocolonial power relations: a project tailored to European needs that did not consider the voices of local people. However, this initiative did not end for good. Its follow-up, Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), has launched another project. This time, the spotlight is on hydrogen. And Dii is not the only one eyeing African land and its resources in pursuit of clean energy.

EU’s quest for renewable hydrogen

Figuratively speaking, hydrogen comes in several colours – grey, blue, and green. The EU is focused on green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy sources. The EU’s hydrogen strategy and the REPowerEU Plan establish a framework to bolster its uptake, calling for accelerating renewable hydrogen as the key instrument to decarbonise hard-to-electrify sectors. The REPowerEU Plan sets a target of 10 million tonnes for both domestic renewable hydrogen production and imports by 2030. Concerning imports, the EU hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe states that Africa’s abundant renewables potential makes it a great potential supplier of cost-competitive renewable hydrogen, given the condition that deployment of renewable power generation in the region significantly accelerates.

Namibia appears to be the right candidate. The abundance of sunlight, high wind power and proximity to seawater makes the South African country the ideal partner for production and export of renewable energy to the EU. During the COP 27, EU and Namibia have concluded a strategic partnership on sustainable raw materials and renewable hydrogen. According to the European Parliament’s briefing on the cooperation (Is the European Union’s green hydrogen strategy in Africa coherent with sustainable development?, p. 8), while the EU aims to increase its energy security, Namibia expects a build-up of renewable energy capacity to ensure its energy independence, diversification of its economy and new employment opportunities.

On paper, the partnership intends to support Namibia to use its resources in favour of a sustainable and inclusive economic growth, developing an internationally competitive and sustainable industry and competitive markets for renewable hydrogen. It builds on six pillars that encompass integration of renewable value chains, leveraging ESG criteria, mobilisation of funding for the development of infrastructure, capacity building, co-operation on research and innovation, and regulatory alignment (Memorandum of Understanding, p. 5). Backing this partnership is a substantial one billion Euros in investments from the EU, its Member States and European financial institutions. But the cooperation might be less sustainable for Namibia than it pledges to be.

Giving the green light to green colonialism?

The relationship between EU and African countries is not an uncomplicated one, and the search for renewable energy is no exception. Generally speaking, production of green hydrogen poses a large scale of risks. Amos Wemanya, a senior advisor at Power Shift Africa, warns against both potential human rights violations and environmental concerns. Land-use conflicts, forced resettlement, and water scarcity are just a few examples. The biggest concern, however, is the export of renewable hydrogen to European countries without meeting the local needs first. Notably, only 35 % of Namibia’s population in rural areas has currently access to electricity. Yet, Namibia has signed memoranda of understanding for the export of green hydrogen not only with the EU but also with Germany and the Netherlands. However, Namibian officials seem to be aware of this risk. Work on legislation is underway to ensure that the resources primarily benefit the local economy before being exported.

Legal frameworks for partnerships like this one need to be created, interpreted, and applied with the awareness of green colonialism. Seemingly neutral rules must be approached cautiously, especially in a cooperation between an economic and political goliath and a developing country which also lacks necessary expertise and technology. Besides critically reviewing the current rules, we should also consider what rules are missing. Although I cannot speak on the behalf of Namibian people (and do not want to come off as patronising), it does not seem like the EU-Namibian partnership builds on particularly strong foundations. The cooperation framework does not put the needs and rights of people and protection of their environment at the centre of attention. The pillars of the partnership say little about making sure that the energy needs of Namibia will be met and energy access for the locals will increase, or that local communities will be duly informed and their land respected – in other words, that the cooperation benefits Namibia too.

Even the European Parliament’s briefing on the cooperation suggests that the framework for the EU-Namibian partnership does not reflect on any risk that Namibia’s renewable hydrogen exports might not be competitive within global markets, or the possible consequences for the country’s financial stability. Little attention is paid to ecological impacts of renewable hydrogen production, such as increased water consumption in an already above-average arid region, or overall lack of access to justice in Namibia. The risk of resources extraction for the EU at the expense of Namibia is another potential issue, and the EU has so far done little to dispel these worries.

Hydrogen (in)justice

A just partnership cannot ignore its political and socioeconomic context. While climate change is a common enemy, its impact is not identical for the countries of the North and South. Just transition mechanisms and the various types of justice (e.g. recognitional, distributive, procedural, or restorative) can provide inspiration in approaching an issue as complex as this one. Combining six justice dimensions altogether, Franziska Müller and others have developed the concept of hydrogen justice and applied it on the planned expansion of hydrogen production in Morocco and Namibia. They call for covering all justice dimensions systematically and incorporating relevant justice principles at all scales, ranging from the global rules to the local conditions relevant for hydrogen projects implementation.

Translating justice dimensions into practice poses another challenge. Starting off, it could mean asking rather unpleasant, but necessary questions about the general parameters of the partnership. Is any party going to profit from such project substantially more? How is the financing designed and what party bears what costs? Is the project going to include setting up infrastructure for local use? Are local communities going to have access to sufficient information and be involved in the decision making processes? Will the project create new work opportunities for the people of Namibia? Are the local ecosystems and natural resources going to be sufficiently protected? Who will deal with possible aftermath, such as pollution of the environment? Will there be accessible and affordable justice mechanisms to rectify any related wrongdoings? But even if procedural rights are respected and the proceedings are conducted properly, the current  legal frameworks do not consider the project’s socioeconomic impacts or hidden injustices.

As the more powerful and developed party to the cooperation, the EU should be the one bearing the responsibility to provide those answers, together with a legal framework that reflects such accountability. So far, the foundations of a just cooperation are missing from the picture. But you cannot build the house starting with the roof. And whilst it is technically true that sunshine and wind are endless and cannot be stolen, an equitable use of these resources that prioritises interests of local people and environment is unfortunately hardly a standard. If the developed countries cannot do that, would not it be better to leave the sunshine and wind for the locals?

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Stephen Humphreys says

February 28, 2024

Wonderful analysis: thank you for drawing attention to this important matter, and to EJIL:Talk! for publishing it. A small window onto an immense global concern.