Ralph Callebert asks whether a green transition can reshape the global economy in ways that benefit Africa and the Global South. Examining projects already underway across Africa, Callebert argues that climate adaptation mirrors the enclaving logic of fossil-capitalism. Can a so-called green transition really be mobilised for Africa’s benefit?

This article was first published on ROAPE on 17 Oct 2023.  

Eko Atlantic, Lago, Nigeria. Koutchika Lihouenou Gaspard, 1 October 2017. Wikimedia Commons.

It is no exaggeration to say that cheap fossil fuels have shaped the world as we know it. Our globalised economy would not exist without incredibly complex global networks of production and consumption that are only made possible by the incredible efficiency of global shipping. The political world order of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries revolves in no small part around securing strategic access to oil and gas reserves, as Europe’s recent struggles to replace Russian gas have highlighted. As Andreas Malm has shown, fossil fuels weren’t just cheaper and more abundant than other sources of energy – in fact, they weren’t necessarily at first – but they crucially also allowed for greater control of capital over labour and production.

Fossil capitalism didn’t only shape a global political economy. James Ferguson argues in “Seeing Like an Oil Company” that oil extraction in Africa has given rise to extractive enclaving. This particular “combination of privately secured mineral-extraction enclaves and weakly governed humanitarian hinterlands” has created a geography that reflects some of the worst tendencies of fossil capitalism. Secure extractive enclaves, in their most extreme forms, stand in almost complete economic and social isolation from the societies and economies that surround them. Africans, their labour, and local economies and societies thus matter little in the calculations of petro-capital – they are ‘l’Afrique inutile’.

Fossil capitalism thus exemplifies much of the injustices of uneven development and dependency, as well as what Ashley Dawson and others have called ‘climate apartheid’. Considering this major role that fossil fuels have played in shaping our current world order, it seems pertinent to ask whether a (hopefully inevitable) green transition may reshape the global economy, maybe even in ways that benefit Africa and the Global South. After all, if Africa has gotten the short end of the stick in the current order, could a new order be less unjust?

Let me immediately get one important point out of the way: Africa and other parts of the Global South are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Therefore, every serious effort put into mitigation is undoubtedly a positive for the continent. Every 0.1˚C of warming avoided is crucially important, especially in the Global South. At the same time, fledgling green tech and green energy sectors may very well replicate some of the enclaving and exclusionary logics of the fossil fuel economy, as well as the tendency to look at Africa as little more than a source of cheap land and abundant sunshine as the new resources for a new energy regime.

We should thus avoid romanticization: just because a company is involved in renewables doesn’t mean that their modus operandi is inherently more ethical or just. Douglas Rushkoff argues that the rise of the internet and online culture once promised a more inclusive and egalitarian future, a space for counterculture to flourish, but then it became a business opportunity and Wall Street took over. Now, tech entrepreneurs perfect surveillance, the casualization of work, while skirting anti-monopoly legislation. There is no reason the same wouldn’t happen with green tech and renewables.

Adaptation and enclaving

Before I dive into some of the dynamics of green tech and renewables on the continent, I want to briefly reflect on adaptation. The cost of adaptation to climate change by building seawalls, updating infrastructure for handling more extreme weather, or developing more drought resistant crops can be beyond the reach of many African countries. This is why a Loss and Damage Fund has been such an important and long-standing demand of the Global South. A particular irony arises, however, when an adaptation project becomes an excuse to create private playgrounds for the rich whose consumption patterns contribute significantly to the climate emergency.

This is the case for Eko Atlantic in Lagos, an artificial peninsula on reclaimed land as part of a seawall to protect the city. Its developers have the ambition to turn the reclaimed and gated development attached to Victoria Island into a global destination and the new financial capital of Africa – the Dubai of Africa. It is sold as a city within the city: a clean, modern, and privatised smart city with round-the-clock private security and its own power and water infrastructure. It is billed as a sanitised version of the Global South megacity, a refuge from the poverty, crime, crumbling infrastructure, and overcrowding of Lagos.

Some question whether the seawall will do much to protect the city, but assuming that it will, it would only do so by creating an oasis for the rich – buffered from the many socioeconomic and infrastructural problems that plague the megacity and that will undoubtedly be exacerbated by climate change. What we see here, then, is a certain vision of adaptation, one where the rich — including the corporate elites of the fossil industry — eke out livable enclaves and the rest is left to fend for themselves. Climate change then also becomes a lucrative opportunity for developers. Climate adaptation can easily mirror the enclaving logic of fossil-capital. Adaptation, as necessary and useful as it undoubtedly is, does not preclude climate apartheid. Even technically effective and properly engineered projects may further inequality and exclusion if they are built as playgrounds for the rich.

Techno-optimism and the enduring myth of empty land

Where adaptation can fall into the trap of an exclusionary logic, many mitigation projects are marked by techno-optimism. Techno-optimists provide a one-word solution, innovation, to a complex and multifaceted problem. As such, they often ignore or underestimate the complexities of political and socioeconomic contexts – that is, they fail to understand the lived realities in which such technologies need to be implemented. I discuss some of these problems elsewhere.

Of course, innovation is not a bad thing, but as the history and failure of Desertec has shown: what seems great on paper may be more complicated in practice. Desertec was a plan conjured up after the European energy crisis of 2006-2009 to build a network of Concentrated Solar Plants and windfarms throughout North Africa and the Middle East. A consortium of industrial and financial heavyweights hoped to export this electricity and provide 20% of Europe’s energy by 2050. The falling prices of renewables, the high cost of transmission, internal disagreements, and political factors ultimately led to the consortium’s demise. More fundamentally, as German politician Hermann Scheer has pointed out, the project represented “technology without sociology,” where backers understood the technological complexities but not the political, economic, and social difficulties such a project would face.

The land eyed for these expansive projects was mostly desert and semi-desert, and as such it was assumed to be empty and up for grabs. That people lived there and that livelihoods depended on such land was scarcely considered. Yet, it is not just those who want to use new technology for mitigation who consider land that is not under cultivation, urbanised, or used for infrastructure, as underutilised. In 2019, an article in Science argued that our planet has the potential for 1.2 trillion more trees than it currently has, which could sequester a huge amount of carbon. The article got plenty of media traction, but critics pointed out that approaches to afforestation and reforestation from above are ineffective when not rooted in an understanding of local socio-ecological contexts. Tree planting without local knowledge can threaten water supplies and biodiversity, increase fire risk, undermine food and land security, and exacerbate social inequality.

Just as Desertec’s planners looked at deserts on a map and assumed that nobody lived there or used that land, the Science article looked at satellite images and assumed that most land where trees can grow could be turned into woodlands. Indeed, tree planting initiatives for carbon sequestration all too often target areas that never were forests and aren’t necessarily suitable for afforestation. Similarly, the vast amount of land required for biofuel crops or for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) can threaten local biodiversity, livelihoods, and food security. Both the biofuel economy and BECCS have raised concerns about land-grabs, frequently justified with the assumption that the land is idle, marginal, or un(-der-)used.

Exporting the sun

That arid and desert land isn’t necessarily barren and unused is part of what made the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Plant in Ouarzazate, Morocco, controversial. To build the plant, 3,000 hectares of communally-owned land was sold to the state well below the market price and with very limited consultation. This dispossession not only relied on colonial-era laws, Karen Rignall notes, but also on colonial discourses that undervalue pastoral land uses as non-productive. She quotes a local activist who notes that “the project people talk about this as a desert that is not used but to people here it is not desert; it is pasture. It is their territory. The future is in land. When you take my land, you take my oxygen.”

The cheap sale lacking transparency also meant that the local community would have no claim on the rents that the plant will generate for decades to come. Despite claimed economic and employment benefits, there are understandable concerns about the amount of water from the local Mansour ad-Dhabi reservoir used for cooling the plant.

The Ouarzazate plant was initially included in Desertec’s export vision, but now mostly supplies the domestic grid. The dream of exporting renewable electricity to Europe, however, has not died. TuNur, for example, wants to build a similar Concentrated Solar Plant in Tunisia, except much larger. Many of the concerns are similar — land, water use, employment — but this project is explicitly for export, despite the country’s regular blackouts and dependence on Algeria for its own energy needs. Even bigger are Xlinks’s plans for more than 10GW of solar and wind farms in Morocco for export to the UK. The photovoltaic solar alone would cover about 200km2. Both of these projects require the construction of high-capacity undersea interconnectors, something Egypt is also planning as part of its push to become a regional energy hub.

Of course, a solar plant is undoubtedly less destructive than oil or gas extraction, but old dynamics remain. Africa remains mostly a source of cheap resources – sun and wind — and rents and ownership over the projects typically do not accrue to local populations.

Africa and the green transition

There are many other projects I could bring up here. Companies engaged in carbon capture also eye the continent, for example. British startup Brilliant Planet is building a demonstration plant in Akhfennir, Morocco, that pumps ocean water into coastal ponds to grow algae that sequester carbon. The company already has access to 6,100ha of land for future expansion and plans to license its model globally. Turning 500,000km2 of coastal deserts worldwide — about the size of Spain — into algae ponds would allow them to remove 2bn tons of carbon every year. They describe these coastal deserts predictably as “barren”, “unused”, and having no “agricultural or economic use” based on GIS modelling.

Climeworks, the world leader in Direct Air Capture (DAC), also eyes expansion in Africa in a joint venture with Kenya – based Great Carbon Valley. They hope to use the country’s potential for plentiful low-carbon energy to eventually capture and store 1m tons of carbon per year. Few details are available at this time, but it should be noted that so far few if any carbon capture plants have come anywhere near their promised capacity. In fact, Climeworks’s own biggest plant, and the biggest in the world, currently captures a mere 4,000 tons per year, or about three seconds worth of global emissions. Moreover, DAC is very energy-intensive and critics argue that the green energy needed for this process could be better used to support the local grid.

Whatever the arguments for these projects, it seems clear that many green tech, renewable energy, and climate adaptation projects adopt at least some of the negative tendencies of the petro-economy: tech and energy investors often see Africa as little more than an empty space to try out their technological fantasies without needing to be bothered with local society and economies, or a source of cheap resources for export to the Global North — except that the resources are now sun and wind. Enclaving and lack of local ownership too risk becoming part of the dynamics of the green economy. Not all of these problems are inherent to green energy and tech, and better practices could in many cases be developed. However, just because a company invests in decarbonisation doesn’t mean that it is less exploitative or won’t replicate some of the unsavoury patterns of fossil-fuelled globalisation. Like the internet didn’t turn out to be inherently more egalitarian, the green transition too will not be inherently more just, even if it is undoubtedly better than continuing to dig ourselves deeper into the hole of fossil-dependence.

Of course, green energy can be a great boon for Africa and elsewhere. Better practices for a green energy regime do already exist. In fact, off-grid renewables and microgrids have tremendous capacity to electrify much of rural Africa with a dramatically smaller ecological footprint than fossil fuels. Mega-projects like the long-proposed Grand Inga will do little for the 80% of the DRC’s population that is not connected to the expensive infrastructure that is a national grid. Nevertheless, small-scale projects provide smaller profits and fewer opportunities for rents, explaining at least in part a continuing preference for mega-projects by many governments and large investors.


Ralph Callebert teaches at the University of Toronto and is a historian of South Africa whose current research focuses on the intersections of labour, citizenship, and climate change. His book, On Durban’s Docks, is published by the University of Rochester Press (2017) and a review essay reflecting on his teaching about climate change was recently published in Capitalism Nature Socialism.

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