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Decolonizing Energy: Equity for Africa in The Clean Energy Transition

In our last blog, we looked at modernizing the US electric grid as it becomes increasingly vulnerable and unreliable in the face of extreme weather and our rapidly changing climate. The first, most obvious step towards grid security is to swiftly phase out fossil fuels, replacing them with clean sources. But as we do this, it is critical that we do not repeat the mistakes that got us into this mess in the first place. 

A modern, climate-resilient electric grid consists of clean energy sources like solar, wind, and nuclear, alongside ample battery storage capacity. But, like fossil fuels, these energy sources also rely on natural resource extraction– and without much oversight, this means reckless exploitation of resource-rich areas and impoverished communities who mine and manufacture the energy components. Many of these sites use child labor and/or slave labor, among other worker safety violations and human rights abuses.

So, how do we fix this? Let’s start by looking at what not to do– i.e. the lessons we can learn from the failures of a fossil-fueled economy.

The fossil fuel industry has caused widespread environmental destruction, air and water pollution, and climate change. It has steepened inequality and instability within and between regions of the world, as larger economies see growth from using dirty energy, while poorer countries bear the brunt of its disadvantages. In many cases, oil-rich nations have been kept poor as their resources drive economic growth in wealthier, more powerful nations, who often stand on the shoulders of preceding colonial legacies. 

This pattern of exploitation has been thoroughly documented, including by American sociologist and economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein. In Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory, he describes “core countries” that have military and economic strength, often due to their legacy as a colonial power. Core countries became core countries by exploiting the resources of “peripheral countries”, which are characterized by unstable governance, high rates of poverty, and low socioeconomic mobility. 

One of the main players in this dynamic has been the fossil fuel industry, and one example of the inequality it has exacerbated can be seen in this simple fact: while climate change is mostly driven by affluent countries, it is mostly suffered by poorer countries. But it does not have to be this way. It does not have to be a zero-sum game. There is more than enough prosperity to go around– and these advances do not have to be at the expense of the environment, either. 

As we embark on the clean energy transition, we must be careful not to perpetuate the harms of colonization that have defined the era of fossil fuels. If clean energy is going to benefit everyone– and there is no reason why it shouldn’t– we must approach the transition with the principles of equity and justice at the forefront of our minds. The goal of this blog is to present pathways beyond the current trajectory of exploitation, and imagine a future where everybody lives in a safe climate, breathes clean air, and enjoys a thriving environment. 

One potential pathway towards equity is a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), but its success remains to be seen. JETPs use financing mechanisms to help developing countries move away from producing carbon-intensive energy sources, towards greater clean energy production, in order to raise their standard of living as well as economic standing. While this initiative may prove important for the future of decarbonized energy across the globe, it still exists within the current structures of power imbalance; JETPs do not address the underlying exploitative dynamics of resource extraction from Africa to the rest of the world. 

Colonialism and Imperialism in Africa, Past and Present

Starting with slavery in the 15th century, and colonization after that, African countries have had both their human and natural resources plundered, which have set them behind in almost every measure of national development. Of Africa’s 54 countries, only two were not colonized, leaving virtually the entire continent handicapped against the “core” countries of the world.

Core countries, or those with economic power derived from exploitation, exert an outsized influence on the world’s financial and trading institutions, allowing them to create an uneven playing field. Newer world powers such as the US, China, and Russia have joined legacy European players in the scramble for valuable African resources, taking advantage of its politically insecure, economically weak position.

Many national governments in Africa are complicit in this exploitation, having been destabilized by colonial interests and effectively bought by multinational corporations. As a result, countless communities across the continent have lost their rights to land, water, and sovereignty, while the outsiders are the ones reaping the benefits of their resources.

Rare Earth Metals and Electric Vehicles                   

This injustice simply cannot continue as we embark on the clean energy transition and we see rising demand for African resources. About one-third of all minerals on Earth can be found in Africa, and most clean-energy technologies (such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles) require a greater supply of rare-earth elements than their fossil fuel counterparts. This may change as recycling capabilities improve, and the circular economy becomes more mainstream by necessity, but for now, behind-the-scenes clean energy manufacturing can sometimes be no less exploitative than the fossil fuel industry.

Let’s take cobalt as a prime example. Cobalt is a critical component of electric vehicle batteries, making it one of the most valuable materials in the world. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is, by far, the largest source of cobalt in the world, accounting for roughly three-quarters of global production. Despite this, the DRC is one of the five poorest countries in the world. By contrast, Elon Musk, who has made a fortune at the electric vehicle company Tesla, is the richest man on the planet, with a current net worth of nearly $250 billion. 

Cobalt mining in the DRC is plagued by hazardous working conditions and rampant human rights abuses, including child labor, mostly due to unregulated “artisanal” mines. While companies like Tesla do not source their batteries directly from these sites, most of the electric vehicles on the market today do contain parts that are indirectly linked to child labor in the DRC. This is largely because cobalt from “artisanal” mines is mixed together with cobalt from industrial mines, and then it all gets exported to China, which uses it to make batteries and produce electric vehicles sold across the globe. 

A proposal surfaced within Tesla in 2022 requiring the company to provide detailed reporting to ensure it was not sourcing materials linked to child labor, but Elon Musk led shareholders to overwhelmingly reject it. This goes to show that we cannot leave it up to car manufacturers to self-regulate; instead, we need greater independent oversight and enforcement by government agencies and nonprofit groups. 

The Need to Do Better: A Way Forward

Last month, the first African Climate Summit was held in Nairobi, Kenya. The Nairobi Declaration emphasized the IPCC’s findings that Africa is warming faster than the rest of the world. This means that Africa, while contributing only three percent of carbon emissions globally and consuming the least amount of resources globally, is facing the brunt of climate devastation on its environment, public health, cultures, and natural resources. 

As noted in the Nairobi Declaration, the benefits of climate action should be equitably shared with Africa. This brings up an important question: when trade deals are signed between peripheral and core countries, what mechanism exists for fair negotiations and equitable partnerships? 

Investment in African Refining and Processing Companies

One way to ensure this is to invest in resource refining and processing in Africa, not just extraction. This is vital because it would keep the economic benefits of selling processed materials in Africa and, in so doing, give Africa more economic power in trade negotiations. Nigeria recently turned down Tesla’s approach to mine lithium in the country because it refused to add value to Nigeria by setting up a battery-making site in Nigeria. Importing processed goods from Africa may be more expensive than importing raw materials, but the financial cost avoided by wealthy nations is paid by Africa in the form of poverty, hunger, climate disasters, and political and social insecurity.  

Overhauling the Loan-Shark Debt System

Furthermore, investments into clean energy technologies, refinement, and production facilities must be made in Africa instead of high-interest, predatory loans that leave entire African economies indebted to world financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, whose most important stakeholders are wealthy Western countries. The former representative of the African Union to the United States concludes that the entire survival of such institutions depends on the indebtedness of African countries. By investing in the poverty of African nations, these loans ensure poor working conditions, political and social instability, dependency, and easy exploitation of Africa’s resources. 

Nobody gives exorbitant debts to a debtor with a track record of being unable to pay back loans. Debt forgiveness is essential to revive the crippled economic agency of many African nations, but debt forgiveness on its own does not work. It should be accompanied by making loans inaccessible to countries that have an exorbitant debt-to-GDP ratio and thus are unlikely to be able to pay it back. The problem is that there is competition amongst creditors and countries can find loans outside of world financial bodies, in private companies, and in individual countries. Thus when it comes to debt management, the buck ultimately stops at the government of these countries. 

Trade Integration Within Africa

One significant step towards protecting Africa’s resources from exploitation is trade integration amongst African nations, which will present Africa as a united economic bloc to the rest of the world. Currently, Africa trades with the EU more than it does with itself. This is an inherited feature of colonial trade exploitation that alienated African countries from each other in order to be more easily exploited by external forces. Many individual nations in Africa rely on the trade partnership of external markets like the EU, China, Russia, and the United States. While these partnerships have their advantages, Africa will benefit more from securing a strong market within itself. This will prevent over-dependence on external markets, and will also lead to more equitable returns for individual economies due to increased market options and leverage with external markets. One measure currently aimed at achieving this trade integration is the African Continental Free Trade Area

African Trade Independence 

The Nairobi Declaration also highlights the need for trade-related tariffs and barriers on the global stage, and for them to be enforced multilaterally– as opposed to the current trade deals that prevent African-produced goods from competing in the markets of wealthy countries. For example, the European Union heavily subsidizes its agricultural produce, making it impossible for African countries who have trade deals with the EU to thrive in European markets. 

On the other hand, these same European countries flood the African markets with subsidized goods that undercut the market. To protect its advantage, the EU offers money in the form of foreign aid through the “Aid for Trade” initiative to ensure favorable trade conditions. It would be far more advantageous to Africa to have strong, self-determined markets than to rely on foreign trade that creates a dependency on Western nations.

Fair Trade: Ethically Sourced Resources in Africa

Many coffee shops around the world today proudly brandish fair-trade-certified coffee, in response to the fact that Coffea farmers are often underpaid by coffee companies who enjoy massive profits and social license in Europe and North America. If resource exploitation is going to end in Africa, a fair-trade certification should be the bare minimum requirement for all resources, and clean energy is no exception. 

Legislation that mandates companies to verify that their materials are ethically sourced (i.e. that workers are paid a living wage) will eliminate the incentive for companies to extract resources exploitatively and carelessly. Some countries have legislation to this effect, but it is limited. For example, the EU has ethically-sourced minerals legislation, but it does not apply to energy resources. If this sort of legislation existed in the US, Tesla would not have been legally able to reject the proposal to ensure their minerals were not sourced from child labor. 

Reader, this is where you come in: if you live in the US or EU, advocate for fair-trade and ethical sourcing policies, and try to avoid buying products from companies that fail to meet these standards. As Africans fight for better governance in their countries and equal footing in trade relationships with other countries, you’d be a crucial partner in making these goals a reality by demanding better from your own government.