The end of clean energy evangelism in Europe


MADRID – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has given Europe a heavy dose of energy realism. While the European Union touted a “painless, win-win” transition to renewable energy, many of its industries, particularly in Germany, had developed a debilitating dependence on cheap Russian gas. This revelation should be the first step towards a more realistic, and less dogmatic, European approach, not only to its own energy transition, but also to that of the Global South.

The European Union has an action plan to stop using Russian fossil fuels. But, while the details of REPowerEU are still being finalized, it is already clear that, like so many European “solutions”, the plan is an exercise in difficulty, exemplified by the fact that it will not be completed until 2030.

Although REPowerEU aims to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy and replace gas in heating and power generation, it also depends on the diversification of the energy supply. Producers in the Global South have already received desperate pleas to help meet the energy needs of the European Union, probably leading to more than a few rolling eyes. After all, countries throughout the developing world have endured years of European proselytizing about the importance of rapid progress toward a carbon-free energy system.

If the European Union cannot achieve this in the short term, to avoid funding an unjust war, to say the least, the Global South certainly cannot. Europe is concerned that economic growth and local livelihoods will suffer if it tries to switch too quickly to renewable energy. Developing economies are concerned that they will have no path to sustained economic growth and poverty reduction.

They are right to worry. The positive correlation between baseload power and prosperity clearly shows that a reliable power supply is essential for economic progress. But, globally, 770 million people, mainly in Africa and Asia, lack access to electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, the pandemic has worsened energy poverty, with 77% of the region’s population now living without electricity, compared to 74% in 2019.

Since future population growth, and thus energy demand growth, will be concentrated in the Global South, this problem will only get much worse. And, at the moment, renewable energies cannot solve it, because they do not provide a sufficiently reliable electricity supply. A scale-up of hydrogen fuel could change this, although this remains a stretch for emerging market and developing economies.

The US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, for his part, has now acknowledged the folly of trying to force developing economies to go fully renewable. On March 7, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he recognized that gas would be crucial for the economic development of African countries. Even the World Bank, without much fanfare, has reversed its moratorium on financing gas projects.

Yes, this new realism implies a short-term increase in African emissions, but from a very low level. The 48 countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) account for 0.55% of global carbon dioxide emissions. As a whole, Africa consumes less energy than any other continent, much less than Europe, especially if historical consumption is taken into account.

Rich countries are well aware of this discrepancy, which is why developing countries have increasingly criticized the climate hypocrisy of the developed world: constant pressure to cut emissions coupled with a prolonged refusal to finance climate mitigation and adaptation in the Global South.

The Green Climate Fund embodies this hypocrisy. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009, developed economies committed to channeling $100 billion each year to mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries by 2020. As of January 2022, pledges from participating countries amounted to a paltry $10 billion.

Sustainability is vital for the future of our planet. But the green transition must be just. And justice demands that the Global South receive the same opportunity for development as the North did. That will only be possible with energy security for all.

That’s why this week’s Sustainable Energy for All Forum is so important. Stakeholders from the public and private sectors will meet in Kigali, Rwanda, to find ways to accelerate progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 7: ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

This year’s Forum comes at a crucial time in the global energy transition. Also, this is the first time since the Forum was launched in 2014 that it will be held in Africa. One hopes that the centrality of the continent in the event, and the harsh realizations that the war in Ukraine has imposed on Europe, will be reflected in its conclusions, which, given the current crisis, will be more consequential than ever.

Europe has always prided itself on being a leader in the transition to green energy. This should not change. But rather than allow its vision to be clouded by idealism and ideology, the EU must ensure that its energy ambitions, for itself and for developing economies, are firmly grounded in reality.

Europe must support the efforts of developing countries to adapt to climate change and achieve net zero emissions. But it must also help them achieve energy security. As one African minister put it succinctly: “We will decarbonize, but first we have to carbonize.”

*The author is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain and a former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank Group, and is a visiting professor at Georgetown University.



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