Despite a major potential to develop solar power and an ambitious program of renewable energy production (RE) by 2030, Algeria has been struggling for a decade to launch its green energy transition. Neither the depression of crude oil prices from 2014 to 2020 nor the strong dependence of the national economy on hydrocarbon exports have encouraged the Algerian authorities to increase their efforts to implement an RE agenda that would ensure Algeria's energy security and eventually export clean energy.
What is preventing the launch of this energy transition? How can Algeria establish an energy transition model that would accompany an economic recovery, preserve national interests, and position the country on the geopolitical chessboard of RE, including solar? In this interview, Dr. Hamza Hamouchene, researcher and activist from the Transnational Institute (TNI), gives us his analysis on what should be a fair energy transition in Algeria. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Selma Kasmi (SK): Before talking specifically about the renewable energy (RE) plan in Algeria, it would be good to address the issue of the climate crisis and its impact in Algeria and, more generally, the North African region.
Hamza Hamouchene (HH): The impacts of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are already a reality disproportionately felt by the marginalized in society, especially small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists, and fisherfolk. Some people are being forced off their lands, with stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, and as deserts grow and sea levels rise. Crops are failing and water supplies are dwindling, deeply impacting food production.
Climate scientists are predicting that climate changes in large parts of the MENA could threaten the very existence of its inhabitants. The prolonged heat waves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable. The devastating wildfires in Algeria over the summer of 2021 that led to ninety fatalities, tens of thousands of hectares burnt, and loss of livelihoods is a telling example of the violence of climate change that communities in the region are currently enduring. Addressing this global climate crisis requires a rapid and drastic reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions and a transition towards renewable energies.
SK: How do you view the official RE program in Algeria?
HH: Before talking about the project itself, it would be appropriate to question the frameworks of an energy transition. What does a just response to climate change look like in the region? What should happen to the fossil fuel resources that are currently being extracted in a significant part by Western corporations? What does adapting to a changing climate mean, and who will shape and benefit from it?
The Algerian ruling classes have been talking about life after oil for decades without any concrete action. In fact, there are significant delays in implementation of the current plans, which reflect a lack of any serious or coherent vision about the transition. For example, the recent tender for the deployment of 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar capacity has been delayed for more than two years. Algeria’s plans to deploy 15 GW of solar energy generation capacity by 2030 are unrealistic; as the country had around 423 MW of total installed solar capacity by the end of 2021 according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). All sources combined, the installed capacity of renewable energy does not currently exceed 500 megawatts (MW). This is a far cry from the 22 GW planned for 2030 that were announced in 2011. The Ministry of Energy Transition and Renewable Energies, which came into being in June 2020, has reduced these targets to 4 GW by 2024 and 15 GW by 2035. And even so, this remains overly optimistic.
In a nutshell, Algeria needs to move fast towards renewable energies as the country’s European clients will eventually stop importing its fossil fuels for energy purposes. The European Union (EU) is expanding and accelerating its energy transition, a pattern that has been rendered urgent by the Russian-Ukrainian war. In the short term, the EU will continue importing gas and intensify its efforts to diversify its sources, but in the long term, it will do its best to move away from fossil fuels, which, if countries like Algeria remain dependent on oil and gas, will be an existential threat. Therefore, the urgent move towards the production of renewable energies (primarily for the local market) is not only beneficial ecologically but is also a strategic and a survival imperative.
However, such transitions can maintain the same practices of dispossession and exploitation, reproducing injustices and deepening socioeconomic exclusion.
SK: The so-called “51/49 rule,” which obliges any foreign investor in Algeria to join forces with a majority Algerian partner, has been withdrawn, with the exception of activities considered strategic. What impact will this have on RE?
HH: Over the last few years, Algeria has been moving towards more liberalization of the economy and extending more concessions to the private sector and foreign investors. The cases of the budget laws of 2020–2021 and the new Hydrocarbon Law are edifying in this respect. The new hydrocarbon law is friendly to multinationals and offers more incentives for them to invest. It also opens the way to destructive projects such as exploitation of shale gas in the Sahara and offshore resources in the Mediterranean.
As for the budget laws of 2020 and 2021, they reopened the door for international borrowing and imposed harsh austerity measures by lifting various subsidies and cutting public spending. In the name of encouraging foreign direct investments, they exempted multinationals from tariffs and taxes and increased their share in the national economy by removing the 51/49 percent investment rule that limits the part of foreign investment in any project to 49 percent, undermining national sovereignty even more. And now, it’s the turn for the renewable energy sector.
The drive towards privatization of energy and corporate control of the energy transition is global and not unique to Algeria. Morocco and Tunisia are already on this path. There is currently a big push to privatize the Tunisian renewable energy sector and incentivize foreign investors to produce green energy in the country, including for export. There is a law (amended in 2019) that even allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects in a country that suffers from acute food dependency (revealed once again during the pandemic and right now in the middle of the war in Ukraine). One would wonder, energy transition for whom?
Climate justice involves recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialised West in causing global warming. It also recognises the role of power in shaping both how climate change is caused and who carries its burden. Climate justice means breaking with “business as usual” that protects global political elites and military regimes, and a radical socio-ecological transformation and adaptation process. What is also important to consider is who should be paying for this energy transition. Climate reparations and debts need to be paid to countries in the Global South by the rich North, not in the forms of loans and additional debts but as transfer of wealth and technology, cancelling current odious debts, halting illicit capital flows and the ongoing plunder of resources. We also need to transform the way we think about energy. It should be seen as a right rather than a commodity.
SK: In your research, you criticize the idea of North Africa as Europe’s energy workshop. Could you explain why? Isn’t the exploitation of renewable energies in the name of a “green” agenda in itself a form of extractivist economy?
HH: The Sahara is usually described as a vast, sparsely populated land, representing an Eldorado and golden opportunity of renewable energy for consumerist Europe. However, this deceptive narrative overlooks questions of ownership and sovereignty and masks ongoing global relations of hegemony and domination that facilitate the plunder of resources, the privatization of commons, and the dispossession of communities.
Several examples from North Africa show how energy colonialism and extractivist practices are reproduced in transitions to renewable energy. Morocco, for instance, set the goal of increasing its share of renewable energy to more than 50 percent by 2030. But the Ouarzazate solar power plant, launched in 2016, has failed to benefit the impoverished surrounding Amazigh communities whose lands were used, without their consent, to install the 3,000-hectare facility. Moreover, the debt of 9 billion USD from the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and others is backed by Moroccan government guarantees, which means potentially more public debts for a country already overburdened with debts. It is worth mentioning that since its launch in 2016, the project has been recording an annual deficit of around 80 million Euros, which are covered by the public purse. Finally, this project is using concentrated thermal power that necessitates extensive use of water in order to cool down the system and clean the panels. In a semi-arid region like Ouarzazate, diverting water use from drinking and agriculture is just outrageous.
Same goes for Tunur Solar project in Tunisia and the project proposed by an Ex-Tesco CEO to connect southern Morocco to the UK through underwater cables that will channel electricity. Once again, a familiar colonial scheme is unveiled: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources (including solar energy) from the Global South to the rich North while fortress Europe builds walls and fences to prevent human beings from reaching its shores!
Therefore, we cannot allow for neocolonial relations to be extended and consolidated in some EU-concocted projects that would like Africa to produce and export green hydrogen to Europe. The EU’s hydrogen strategy in the framework of the European Green Deal is an ambitious roadmap for shifting towards green hydrogen by 2050. It proposes that the EU could meet some of its future supply from Africa, in particular North Africa, which offers both huge renewable energy potential and geographic proximity. The Desertec 3.0 project also goes in this direction and even pushes for the use of the current gas pipeline infrastructure to export the hydrogen from North Africa. Basically, it advocates for a mere switch of the energy source while maintaining the existing authoritarian political dynamics and leaving intact the hierarchies of the imperial international order.
SK: So energy colonialism is reproduced in the same way in the processes of transition to renewable energy. Is this the case?
HH: Colonialism—even if it formally ended—continues in other forms and at various levels including in the economic sphere. That’s what some scholars and activists call neocolonialism or recolonization. The economies of the peripheries are inserted in a subordinate position within an uneven global division of labor: on one hand, as providers of cheap natural resources and a reservoir of cheap labor, and as a market for industrialized/high technology economies on the other.
Colonialism has imposed this situation and attempts to break away from it have been defeated so far by the new tools of imperial subjugation: crippling debts, “free trade,” Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, etc.
If we are serious about moving beyond fossil fuels, it is crucial to closely examine the linkages between fossil fuels and the wider economy and address the hierarchies of the international energy system. This means recognizing that countries of the Global South are still systematically exploited by a colonial, imperialist economy built around the pillage of their resources and massive transfer of wealth from South to North.
For me, green colonialism is the extension of the colonial relations of plunder and dispossession (as well as the dehumanization of the other) to green and renewable energies, with the accompanying displacement of socio-environmental costs to peripheral places and bodies.
The current uneven transition happening mainly in the Global North is predicated on the ongoing extraction of some mineral and rare earth metals (such as cobalt, lithium, copper, nickel, etc.) for manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, blades, and electrical batteries. These resources mainly come from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bolivia, and Chile where environmental destruction and workers’ exploitation are intensifying.
We are facing the same system but with a different source of energy—from fossil fuels to green energy—while the same global energy-intensive production and consumption patterns are maintained and the same political, economic, and social structures that generate inequality and dispossession remain untouched.
SK: You use the concept of “just transition” in your work and writings about this subject. Could you tell us more about what you mean by it?
HH: The original concept of just transition was rooted in building alliances between workers in polluting industries and frontline communities. It gained popularity as a framework that expresses workers’ demands in relation to environmental conflicts, and unites different forms of resistance against the economic model that has been trashing the planet, concentrating wealth, and increasingly exploiting workers and marginalized communities around the world.
We know that the current economic system is undermining the life support systems of the planet and will eventually collapse. So, transition has become inevitable but justice is not, to borrow the expression of Movement Generation.
In this context, just transition is a framework for a fair shift to an equitable and ecologically sustainable economy. A just transition means a transition from an economic system that is built around the extraction of resources and the exploitation of people to one that is structured instead around the restoration and regeneration of territories and people’s rights and dignity.
A robust and radical vision of just transition sees environmental destruction, capitalist extraction, imperialist violence, inequality, exploitation, and marginalization along the axes of race, class, and gender and as simultaneous effects of one global system which must be transformed.
Just transition, however, looks different in different places. I prefer to speak of transition(s) in plural to take into account this reality. We must be sensitive to the fact that global and historical inequalities, and their continuation in the present, are part of what must be transformed to bring about a just and sustainable society. What might work in Europe might not necessarily be applicable in Africa. What might work in Egypt might not work in South Africa. And what might work in urban areas in Morocco may not be suitable for rural areas. Therefore, just transition necessitates a decentralized approach with guidance from local populations themselves.
Within this framework, we also need to address the question of power. This means recognizing that the current global system concentrates power and the benefits of resource use with relatively few actors, while externalizing costs to the majority, with more impact on those who are more marginalized such as workers, women, and racialized people.
Finally, just transition is not just about energy. And in this regard, the way we do agriculture must be transformed. Industrial agriculture/farming or agribusiness is another locus where imperialist domination and climate change intersect. Not only it is one of the drivers of climate change but keeps so many countries in the South prisoners of an unsustainable and destructive agrarian model, a model that is based on the export of a few cash crops and the exhaustion of land and the rare water resources in arid and semi-arid regions such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco (and Algeria to a growing extent).
SK: How should Algeria position itself for a successful energy transition?
HH: Some fossil fuel economies in the region like Algeria and Libya will be hugely impacted when Europe reduces its fossil fuel imports from the region in the coming decades. Therefore a serious discussion and public debate are needed to reflect on the necessary and urgent transition to renewables while phasing out fossil fuels. In my view, this cannot be disconnected from questions of democratization and popular sovereignty over land, water, and other natural resources. In kleptocratic military dictatorships like Algeria and Egypt (where the next climate talks, COP27, will be held), how can people decide and shape their future without demilitarizing and democratizing their societies?
In Algeria and in other countries in North Africa and the Global South, the energy transition needs to be a sovereign project, primarily looking inward and directed towards satisfying local needs first, before embarking on any export initiatives. We cannot continue in the old ways of producing for Europe and obeying its diktat, including its desire to wean off its dependency on Russian gas by diversifying its sources. The priority now is to decarbonize our own economies. For example, the current push for green hydrogen in North Africa is driven from outside by foreign corporations and European governments. We should get our energy mix up to 70 to 80 percent renewable energies before we even start thinking about exporting to the EU.
Moreover, there is a need to consciously build alliances between labor movements and other social and environmental justice movements and organizations. Workers in the oil industry must be involved in discussions around the transition and green jobs. The transition won’t take place without them. On top of that, countries like Algeria that have been locked into an extractivist model of development have neither the financial means nor the sufficient know-how to carry out a rapid energy transition. In this respect, monopolies on green technology and knowledge must be ended and made available to countries and communities in the Global South.
Algerians must also heed the lessons from ongoing transitions and not repeat the same mistakes. In many ways, the climate crisis and the needed green transition offer us a chance to reshape politics. Coping with the dramatic transformation will require a break with the existing militarist, colonial, and neoliberal projects. Therefore, the struggle for a just transition and climate justice must be democratic, involving the communities most affected, and geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy and a clean and safe environment, a future that must sit in harmony with the revolutionary demands of the African and Arab uprisings, those of popular sovereignty, bread, freedom, and social justice.