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Europe’s claimed lead in the renewable energy transition offers Africa little to follow

The Just Energy Transition is a shift to lower carbon technologies and resources while ensuring that society, jobs and livelihoods will not be harmed. (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

In a world starving for want of good news, the article by the Mail & Guardian’s climate and environmental editor, Ozayr Patel, “Europe records drop in fossil fuels. Africa should do so too” (18 February 2024), might appear to be just what the doctor ordered. Alas, the patient — the people of the Earth — remains on life-support. There is too much wish-fulfilment in Patel’s diagnosis of Europe. 

Moreover, even if we were to allow the reality of a lead to follow, and thus the rationality of his invitation to Africa, it would be countered by the rationality of the much more powerful disorder (of which the European Union is part) designed to keep Africa in a state of perpetual dependency.  

If only 2023 was the harbinger of a new Europe. Not only is it not, but Patel’s article forgets the preceding years, which strongly suggests that even if his information were to be correct, it would still make 2023 an anomaly. His delight, for instance, that wind energy surpassed gas energy for the first time is tempered by the fact that some countries — Germany in particular — are desperately scrambling for alternatives to Russian gas. As they are for alternatives to Russian coal. Hence, for instance, the 528% increase in EU coal imports from South Africa in 2022.

No less importantly, the halcyon days of renewable energy in Europe didn’t last long, although they might return soon, albeit in different public forms. In the early years, the growth of renewable energy and the falling costs of wind and solar energy seemed sufficient to make the transition from fossil fuels appear inevitable, as is argued in Transition in Trouble? The Rise and Fall of Community Energy in EuropeFrom this same source, we learn that the transition relied heavily on state subsidies, mainly in the form of feed-in tariffs (FITs). The transition ended when energy companies added the costs of these FITs to user bills — public and business alike — which, in England, for instance, comprised about 20% of energy bills. The European Commission calculated that for 2012 alone, FIT payments added €40 billion to the electricity bills of European users. Electricity bills were further inflated when utilities began recovering “system costs”, such as grid upgrades, among othersThe ensuing abandonment of FITs across Europe and elsewhere, as Transition in Trouble? notes, “compelled Europe to slam the brakes on the transition to renewables”.

Adding to these market woes are the political ones. Britain is experiencing pushback by both its Conservative and Labour parties against climate change. The EU, which is often seen as being in the vanguard of climate action, faces the rising popularity of the far right, with its explicit opposition to climate change measures. And the United States seems to be offering the possible return of Donald Trump, who rejects any climate change restrictions or costs on the US economy and has already rejected the Paris Agreement (weak though it is).

Regardless of whether Trump becomes the next US president, the mere fact that he might is a timely reminder that the transition from fossil fuels is heavily mined terrain. 

Having been left unscathed by 27 previous annual United Nations Climate Change conferences (COPs), there was no need for any of them to lose any sleep in the build-up to last year’s. Being held in Dubai, a major centre of the oil kingdoms of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was the best possible sleeping pill for those who still felt a bit anxious. And with COP 29 being scheduled to be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, another oil-rich centre, none of them should have any need for anxiety. 

The Guardian’s headline and blurb capture the essence of what has happened: “Big five oil companies to reward shareholders with record payouts: BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies to distribute more than $100bn despite public outrage”. Contrary to Patel’s article, which claims that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had nothing to do with Europe’s record drop in fossil fuels, The Guardian reports: “The bumper payouts followed a year of record profits for big oil and gas companies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended global energy markets, triggering a rise in the international price of Brent crude and record gas prices across Europe.”

It is with good reason that Alice Harrison, a campaigner for Global Witness, noted: “The global energy crisis has been a giant cash grab for fossil fuel firms. … Instead of investing their record profits in clean energy, these companies are doubling down on oil, gas and shareholder payouts. Yet again, millions of families won’t be able to afford to heat their homes this winter, and countries around the world will continue to suffer the extreme weather events of climate collapse. This is the fossil fuel economy, and it’s rigged in favour of the rich.”

None of this would be happening if that fossil fuel industry had any fear of their time being up. 

The Guardian article further reminds its readers that in 2023, President Joe Biden approved an oil drilling project, which could lead to roughly 280 million metric tonnes of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. His administration also took measure to expedite the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which could emit the equivalent of more than 89 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the UK government greenlit a huge oil drilling field in the North Sea and French company TotalEnergies continues to construct the 1 448km East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which would transport up to 230 000 barrels of crude oil a day.

And then there’s the government fossil fuel subsidies that amounted to $7 trillion globally or 7.1% of GDP in 2022, reflecting a $2 trillion increase since 2020 as a result of government support from surging energy prices. The subsidy is expected to grow to $8.2 trillion by 2030. EU subsidies were €123 billion in 2022, having been stable at about €56 billion (2022 prices) over the period 2015 to 2021.

As Dieter Helm, a professor of economic policy at the University of Oxford, observed: “These companies are investing a huge amount in new projects, and they’re handing out bigger dividends because they are confident that they’re going to make big returns. And when we look at the state of our current climate progress, who’s to say they’re wrong?”

The “Green Bishop” Geoff Davies, in a recent article, made an impassioned plea: “To all those gathered in Davos — for Earth’s sake, invest in renewables and divest from fossil fuels.” The deaf had a better chance of hearing his anguish than those at Davos. Bob Dylan, in his Masters of War, asks:

“Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?”

Dylan personalises the making of money out of war because he doesn’t see that the making of money is the morality of capitalism. To those who buy into the system, the source of the money doesn’t matter. For most of them, it is sanctified as long as it’s legal. And it’s perfectly legal to invest in highly profitable companies that just happen to make instruments designed to kill.

But in this respect, they are little different from other products known to kill, if only indirectly. Cigarettes, liquor, opioids, cars that kill by being designed to break national speed limits by many multiples and the continuing Boeing disaster come immediately to mind. 

Do capitalists want to kill humanity … and themselves?” The evidence suggests that this question is not asked when the choice is the immediate likelihood of “making a killing”.

The Copenhagen COP 15 of 2009 is recognised as being particularly good. Among the main reasons for this accolade was the commitment by the rich nations to mobilise $100 billion by 2020. They failed to do so in 2020 and 2021, although they reportedly achieved the target in 2023, 13 years after the commitment. The Paris COP 21, of 2015, widely considered to be the most decisive of all UN attempts to tackle climate change, extended the pledge to an annual one of $100 billion until 2025. But this $100 billion — even if met — is tiny compared to the roughly $2.4 trillion a year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says is needed, beginning in 2026. Moreover, loans rather than grants make up two-thirds of the pledges in 2021. Loans add rungs to the chain debts already burdening the many countries held hostage by the lenders, whether private or public. 

The much-vaunted loss and damage pledges made at COP27, in 2022, fare no better. Some $661.9 million has been promised by 24 January 2024 to help vulnerable nations recover from climate-related disasters. France, Italy, Germany and the UAE were the largest contributors, each pledging at least $100 million, with the US promising a paltry $17.5 million. These amounts are dwarfed by the estimates made by various reputable organisations, which put the annual costs of climate-related damage at $100 billion to $580 billion globally, with a recent study putting the figure at more than $400 billion a year. Using the latter figure, this means the loss and damage pledges cover just 0.165475% of the annual losses from climate disasters. Moreover, as The Guardian article points out, the UK’s $75 million pledge is neither new nor additional; it was taken from an existing and recently downgraded climate finance pledge. Loss and damage are government pledges.

Trump does sometimes expose the hypocrisy behind the world leaders whose non-actions on climate change expose their claims about accepting the science of climate change. Trump’s reasons for the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement — hobbling, disadvantaging and impoverishing the US economy — are among the unspoken reasons for the UN’s 52-year failure to take any meaningful action against climate change, for they are burdens on all major economies. Trump’s words additionally give voice to the largely unspoken organic link between the political and economic leaders of the nations of the world.

A few numbers give perspective to the paucity of government pledges when it comes to climate change. Compared to the US pledge of $17.5 million to the UN’s Loss & Damage Fund, the US made available:

  • A staggering $1.537 trillion for its military, in 2022;
  • About $300 billion (adjusted for inflation) in total economic and military assistance to Israel since 1948. Most of the aid — about $3.8 billion a year — is provided as grants.
  • An additional $14 billion available for Israel’s current war against the Palestinians trapped in Gaza, notwithstanding the International Court of Justice’s ruling that Israel’s actions are a prima facie case of genocide. This is more than three-and-a half times what the US sends to Israel in a normal year.

In contrast to Britain’s deceptive Loss & Damage pledge of $75 million:

So, what are the lessons for Africa?

The problem is not that international trade is inherently opposed to the needs and interests of the poor but that the rules that govern it are rigged in favour of the rich,” our former minister of finance Trevor Manuel noted in 2005.

Indeed, the whole architecture of the relationship between the countries of the world is “rigged in favour of the rich”. The classics in this genre are Andre Gunder Frank’s The Development of Underdevelopment (1966) and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).

This rigging, even before the possible second coming of Trump, has already brought “The Fastest Warming on Earth.” Growing numbers of people are chanting the slogan: system change, not climate change. Yet there is an urgent need for the addition of many more voices. We face the reality of the end of humanity being more comprehensible to (most) politicians (and capitalists) than the end of capitalism. Humanity is fast running out of time to stop this madness. 

The question is whether enough of us will take action before it’s too late to stop the tipping point being reached of unstoppable climate change. Might the wake-up call be a reminder of Trump’s tweet that: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” 

The political protection of their own national economies and its competitiveness guarantees the continuation of climate change, until enough of us worldwide say: Enough! No more!

Jeff Rudin is at the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town. 

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Mail & Guardian

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