The conflict in Ukraine has brought forward existing issues of energy security and dependency for Africa and Europe. As we gear up for COP27, how can the Africa-Europe partnership answer the twin questions of energy access and transition, and climate emergency?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with immediate calls for sanctions in Europe, and highlighted the degree to which the continent remains dependent on Russia for energy provision. In 2021, Russia was the biggest single source of the EU’s imports of oil (27%), gas (41%) and solid fuel (47%), at a cost of around €99bn, and despite EU sanctions on Russia, gas companies in Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia continue to purchase gas from Russia via Gazprombank. With the price of fossil fuels skyrocketing, European countries face the choice between breaking sanctions and paying in roubles, or having a prime source of fuel cut off.
The case for Europe to become energy-independent has never been stronger, but marrying immediate concerns about rising costs and energy poverty with longer-term (but still imminent) climate neutrality objectives means that opening new fossil fuel power plants within Europe is not a politically or ecologically tenable solution.
Whilst in the medium-term, the crisis will accelerate the EU’s green transition, in the short-term, the thinking in Brussels appears to be that the solution to the energy crisis may be partly to look West, and replace the supply of fossil fuels from Russia with LNG imports from the US. However, American gas alone cannot replace Russia’s fuel supply, either in the short or long-term, and questions remain over whether the US can supply adequate quantities quickly enough and at a competitive cost for Europe. Moreover, replacing reliance on Moscow with reliance on Washington will provide neither the diversification nor the independence Europe has been craving for its energy supply.
Rather than looking West to the US, the answer for Europe may instead lie partly to the South, with an acceleration of investment in renewables and energy efficiency in both Europe and Africa, to close the access gap in the latter, while contributing to the former’s own low-carbon future, thanks to the production of green hydrogen. Given that the African continent is well-endowed with natural resources for clean energy, European countries should be supporting African nations as much as possible on their path towards renewables, understanding the diversity of the continent’s countries and the singularity of its energy profiles.
However, OPEC have stated that they cannot replace oil lost from Russia without significant new investment, and some countries such as Nigeria are struggling to fulfil current production expectations, while others, including Algeria, haven’t received enough investment in recent years to cope with increased demand. The European Investment Bank (EIB) has already divested from fossil fuel projects, and the stance of several European countries at COP26, and the latest G7 meeting of energy and environment ministers, demonstrated that EU’s lack of new investment in Africa’s fossil fuel resources is unlikely to shift, even if there is increased demand for existing oil and gas production.
At the Sustainable Energy for ALL Forum in Kigali, the Africa-Europe Foundation Women Leaders’ Network (WLN) met to discuss the implications of the crisis in Ukraine for the Africa-Europe partnership, focusing on the question of energy supply for both continents. The WLN statement following the Forum called for ‘an approach based on solidarity, so that a proportion of the gas being taken by Europe be invested in situ in African countries, for example in LPG for clean cooking.’ The WLN is also calling for a strong commitment and demonstrated action from Europe to ‘urgently provide the needed support for renewables’ in Africa.
This support must be based on investment in the renewable energy value chain, including capacity to manufacture and assemble solar and wind power production systems within Africa. Just as was the case with the COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic has brought to the fore the need to develop manufacture and assembly of renewable energy systems in Africa. This is especially urgent given that the global supply of key components has been restricted by China’s ongoing battle with COVID-19. The model being followed for vaccine manufacture could be replicated for energy as part of the EU Global Gateway Initiative, focusing on creating hubs for wind and solar, and strengthening supply chains for each.
The European Commission is also looking to expand the EU’s portfolio of low-carbon alternatives, such as green hydrogen, to displace Russian gas supplies. The REPowerEU plan calls for an EU target of importing 10 million tonnes of hydrogen by 2030, which will require rethinking trade partnerships. Soon after the release of REPowerEU, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, Morocco, and Mauritania formally launched the ‘Africa Green Hydrogen Alliance’. Supporting the projects of this alliance is an opportunity for the EU to attract further African nations to green hydrogen production, paying dividends later to both the African energy transition and European energy security.
Where the last years have deepened mistrust between Africa and Europe, true partnership on clean energy sources can serve as a foundation for rebuilding the relationship between the two continents. Working to develop energy access across Africa, and accelerate the green transition in Europe, can be done in a way that exploits neither people nor planet. Moving from the Sustainable Energy for ALL Forum to COP27, Africa and Europe have the opportunity to present a powerful united front even as they acknowledge the differing starting points for both continents, but to accomplish this, political will to deliver the resources needs to match the enthusiasm for a just transition seen at grassroots level.