Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell, Old wells and the new colonialism – The challenges of climate change and just energy transition in North Africa (Sefsafa Publishing (Cairo) and the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam), 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell (HH & KS): A lot of the writing on climate change, the ecological crisis, and the energy transition in North Africa and the Arab region is dominated by international neoliberal institutions. Their analyses are biased and leave out questions of class, race, gender, justice, power, and colonial history. Their proposed solutions and prescriptions are market-based, top-down, and do not address the root causes of the climate, ecological, food, and energy crises. The knowledge produced by such institutions is profoundly disempowering and overlooks questions of agency and resistance, focusing largely on the advice of “experts,” to the exclusion of voices “from below.”

This book is one attempt to remedy that.

Until now, no widely available collection of writings by critical North African researchers or activists on a just energy transition had been published in Arabic, English, or French. While important books on Green New Deals and the needed energy transition are gaining increasing attention, writings by critical authors from the Global South remain marginal. Given the critical importance of challenging eurocentrism and the need for a class-conscious, internationalist, and decolonial response to the climate crisis, as well as the importance of critically reflecting on and challenging the role that local governments and elites play in the fossil energy regime, this is a massive gap. With the international climate talks COP27 (Egypt 2022) and COP28 (UAE 2023) taking place in the Arab region, such critical reflections and writings are even more urgent and significant for global audiences.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HH & KS: The book is a collection of essays from North African countries focusing on dimensions of the energy transition and how to make this process equitable and just. The chapters cover a wide range of countries, from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, and Tunisia to Egypt and Sudan. The book also includes regional contributions on agricultural transitions and the new hydrogen scramble in North Africa.

It adopts an explicit “justice” lens, aiming to expose policies and practices that protect political elites, multinational corporations, and authoritarian/military regimes. It seeks to recognize and contribute to processes of knowledge production and resistance against “extractivism,” land-/resource-grabbing, and neocolonial agendas and towards transformative sustainability from the ground up, based on the conviction that this offers the greatest potential for addressing environmental, food, energy, and social crises.

The book aims to advance a deeper analysis of the present state of the energy and material transition in the region. A better understanding of the current situation, the actors involved, and the would-be winners and losers is crucial for any rallying efforts for a just transition.

To our knowledge, this is the first collection of essays in Arabic to directly tackle the question of the energy transition in North Africa using a justice lens and a just transition framework. It aims to enrich national/regional and global discussions around the transition. Contributors share insights and reflections on the energy transition in their contexts; highlight tensions and challenges; and advance perspectives on alternatives, alliance-building, and solidarities.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HH & KS: The book builds on and consolidates previous work around environmental/climate justice and energy democracy. Through it, we would like to make an important contribution to evolving global discussions on climate action and just transition by interrogating what these processes will mean in the unique circumstances of different countries in the North African region, which include (a) authoritarian regimes, (b) oil-dependent economies, (c) histories of colonisation and imperialism, and (d) potentially immense green energy resources. The book builds on past research with social movements in the region and internationally that has explored resistance movements, environmental justice, extractivism, and global principles of just transition, bringing these ideas into dialogue in the context of this especially critical region.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HH & KSThe book is for scholars, students, activists, journalists, and policymakers who are interested in climate justice, just energy transitions, sustainability, or green energy, globally or in North Africa/the Arab region.

The collection can be used as teaching/research material for undergraduate and postgraduate students with an interest in the political economy of sustainability and green transitions.

The book aims to increase the structural critique in “green” transition debates, by centring the voices of activists, scholars, and writers from North Africa. While highlighting the urgency of the climate crisis in the region, it pushes back against the entrenchment of extractivism and energy colonialism, emphasizing the need for holistic analyses and structural change. The book strives to counteract the dominant neoliberal/neocolonial discourse on the “green” transition that is promoted by various international actors in the region and challenges the “security” discourse by avoiding demands framed around climate security, food security, or energy security; instead, it promotes notions of justice, sovereignty, and decoloniality.

By pushing forward this analysis, we hope that the book would be able to support progressive forces/movements/grassroots groups in North Africa and the Arab region to articulate a localized, democratic, and public response to the urgently needed energy transition, incorporating political, economic, social, class, and environmental analyses. This is important since the next climate talks in 2023 (COP28) will be in the United Arab Emirates. Last but not least, the collection aspires to lay a groundwork for international solidarity and collective strategies between movements from the Arab region and transnational climate and environmental justice movements by visibilizing progressive struggles and grassroots proposals for social and environmental transformation from the region.

Because a just transition entails planetary transformation and since North Africa will be one critical locus of that change, we strongly believe that relevance of the book is global, not (just) regional. Through strengthening the emerging study of energy transitions through a political economy lens, the book aims to articulate and explore concepts and political ideas that can help to guide and galvanize transformative grassroots-led change.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

HH & KS: We are working on a second edition of the book (in Arabic and English) that would move beyond the focus on North Africa to touch on other countries in the Arab region from the Machrek to the Gulf. This is important to illuminate the dynamics and trends in the whole Arab region. It will also be timely and relevant as the next climate talks will be held in the United Arab Emirates.

We will also publish a primer on climate reparations/climate debts exploring ongoing discussions around loss and damage, climate finance, and the urgent need to equitably share wealth and technology in the global responses to the climate crisis. 

J: Any final words? 

HH & KS: The dynamics of just transition are complex and different across countries, yet many shared challenges and questions also emerge: Whose needs and rights should be prioritized in an energy transition? What model of energy production, and of extraction, can deliver energy to all working people? How are Northern countries and international financial institutions pushing the region into shouldering the burden of the energy transition, and what would a more just solution look like? What role should states play in driving a just transition, and what are the possibilities for a democratic reclaiming of state power for this goal? What alliances of working people, environmental justice movements, and other political actors within the region are possible and necessary, and what role can international solidarity and resistance play in supporting these?

It is increasingly clear that a just transition for North Africa will require a recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialized West. It will also need to acknowledge the role of power in shaping how climate change is caused, and who carries the burden of its impacts and of “solutions” to the crisis. Climate justice and a just transition will mean breaking with “business as usual” that protects global political elites, multinational corporations, and non-democratic regimes, and a radical social and ecological transformation and adaptation process. The imperatives of justice and pragmatism are increasingly converging on the need for climate reparations or debts to be definitely (re)paid to countries in the Global South by the rich North. This must take the form not of loans and additional debts but of transfers of wealth and technology, cancelling odious debts, halting illicit capital flows, dismantling neocolonial trade and investment agreements like the Energy Charter Treaty, and stopping the ongoing plunder of resources. The financing of the transition needs to address current, ongoing, and future loss and damage, disproportionately impacting the South. But, as inequalities exist not only between North and South, but also within countries, how can climate reparations be combined with the creation of a just, democratic, and equitable energy system within the countries of North Africa and the Arab region?

These questions are increasingly urgent. International negotiations on climate action are stagnating as climate change is accelerating, with its effects increasingly deadly and undeniable. This book is intended as a tool for activists, both in North Africa and around the world, to help them continue posing critical questions and building coalitions, alliances, and popular power in support of their own solutions for a just transition.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 7-12)

Just in time: the urgent need for a just transition in North Africa 

‘It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.’ That’s the warning from Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the latest comprehensive review (2022) of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The review report warns that the world is set to reach 1.5ºC of warming within the next two decades and states that only the most drastic cuts in carbon emissions, starting today, can prevent an environmental and climate disaster. Since these reviews are conducted every six to seven years, this can be seen as the last warning from the IPCC before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown, with terrifying consequences. The planet is overheating all too quickly, with already noticeable and catastrophic impacts. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared when the report was released: ‘In concrete terms, this means major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.’

This reality of climate breakdown is already visible in North Africa and the Arab region, undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt are experiencing recurrent severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and small-scale farmers. In the summer of 2021, Algeria was struck by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Tunisia experienced a suffocating heat wave, with temperatures soaring close to 50ºC; southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third year in a row; and in southeast Egypt 1,100 people lost their homes to flooding and hundreds were injured by scorpions driven out of the ground by the severe weather conditions. In the years ahead, the IPCC projects that the Mediterranean region will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.

The impacts of these changes are disproportionately felt by the marginalized in society, especially small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists, agricultural labourers and fisherfolk. Already, people are being forced off their lands by stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, expanding deserts and rising sea levels. Crops are failing and water supplies are dwindling, deeply impacting food production in a region that is chronically dependent on food imports. There will be huge pressure on already scarce water supplies due to changes in rainfall and seawater intrusion into groundwater reserves, as well as groundwater overuse. According to an article in the Lancet, this will place most Arab countries under the absolute water-poverty level of 500 m³ per person per year by 2050.

Climate scientists are predicting that the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could change in such a manner that the very survival of its inhabitants will be in jeopardy. In North Africa, for example, those whose lives will be changed the most by climate change include the small farmers in the Nile Delta and rural areas in Morocco and Tunisia, the fisherfolk of Jerba and Kerkennah (Tunisia), the inhabitants of In Salah in Algeria, the Saharawi refugees in the Tindouf camps (Algeria), and the millions living in informal settlements in Cairo, Khartoum, Tunis and Casablanca.

The violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice that is made by corporations and Western governments, together with national ruling classes in individual countries. Energy and climate plans are shaped by authoritarian regimes and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Despite all their promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are enemies of climate justice and of humanity’s survival.

Every year, the world’s political leaders, advisers, media and corporate lobbyists gather for another United Nations climate Conference of the Parties (COP). But despite the threat facing the planet, governments continue to allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. After three decades of what the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called ‘blah blah blah’, it has become evident that the climate talks are bankrupt and are failing. They have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions, like carbon trading and so-called ‘net-zero’ and ‘nature-based solutions’, instead of forcing industrialized nations and multinationals to reduce carbon emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground.

COP26, held in Glasgow in 2021, attracted massive media attention but achieved no major breakthroughs. The 2022 and 2023 climate talks that will be held in the Arab region (COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates) are likewise not expected to achieve much, especially in the context of the intensification of geopolitical rivalries unleashed by the war in Ukraine, a context that is not amenable to cooperation between major powers and which provides yet another pretext for continuing the global addiction to fossil fuels. This could be the final nail in the coffin of global climate talks.

Humanity’s survival depends on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and adapting to the already changing climate while moving towards renewable energies, sustainable levels of energy use and other social transformations. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt – finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and changing the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities – and on trying to shift to green sources of energy by building the required infrastructure and investing in green jobs and technology. But whose interest will this adaptation and energy transition serve? And who will be expected to bear the heaviest costs of the climate crisis, and of responses to it?

The same authoritarian and greedy power structures that have contributed to climate change are now shaping the response to it. Their main goal is to protect private interests and to make even greater profits. While international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF are now articulating the need for a climate transition, their vision is of a capitalist and often corporate-led transition, not one led by and for working people. The voices of civil society organizations and social movements are largely unheard when it comes to the implications of this transition and the need for just and democratic alternatives. By contrast, the international financial institutions, alongside the German development agency GIZ and the different European Union (EU) agencies, speak loudly, organizing events and publishing reports in all the countries of the Arab region. They highlight the dangers of a warmer world and argue for urgent action, including using more renewable energy and adaptation plans. However, their analysis of climate change and the needed transition is limited and in fact dangerous as it threatens to reproduce the patterns of dispossession and resource plunder that characterize the prevailing fossil fuel regime.

The vision of the future that is pushed by the World Bank, GIZ, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the French Development Agency and much of the EU is one where economies are subjugated to private profit, including through further privatization of water, land, resources, energy – and even the atmosphere. The latest stage in this development includes the public–private partnerships (PPPs) being implemented in every sector in the region, including in renewable energies. The drive towards the privatization of energy and corporate control of the energy transition is global and is not unique to North Africa and the Arab region, but the dynamic is quite advanced here and has so far been met with only limited resistance. Morocco is already advancing along this path, and so is Tunisia. A major push is under way to expand the privatization of the Tunisian renewable energy sector and to give huge incentives to foreign investors to produce green energy in the country, including for export. Tunisian law (modified in 2019) even allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects in a country that suffers from acute food dependency (as revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic and again at the time of writing, as war rages in Ukraine).

As developments like this take place across the region, they highlight the importance of asking: ‘Energy for what and for whom?’ ‘Who is the energy transition intended to serve?’ The supposedly ‘green economy’ and the broader mainstream vision of so-called ‘sustainable development’ are being presented by international financial institutions, corporations and governments as a new paradigm. But in reality this is merely an extension of the existing logics of capital accumulation, commodification and financialization, including of the natural world.