When we hear about news of renewable energy projects, one must be forgiven for thinking that it’s all beautiful and shiny. But scratching a little bit beneath the surface of this language of "cleanliness," "shininess" and "carbon emission cuts" will reveal another picture, a picture of big capital robbing land and resource rights from the global south in order to safeguard the energy security of the global north.
TuNur solar project in Tunisia is a joint venture between Nur Energy, a British-based solar developer and a group of Maltese and Tunisian investors in the oil and gas sector. In July, the company has filed a request for authorisation from the Tunisian Ministry of Energy, Mines and Renewable Energy for an explicitly export-oriented solar project with a capacity of 4.5 GW.
Like Desertec and the Ouarzazate solar plant in Morocco, this new project is a renewable energy grab or what has been termed ‘Green Grabbing’: the appropriation of land and resources for purportedly environmental ends. It involves massive land grabs (10,000 hectares) as well as extensive water usage to clean and cool the panels in arid and semi-arid regions to export energy to the UK and Europe. Given that Tunisia depends on its neighbour Algeria for its energy needs and faces increasingly frequent power cuts, it would be outrageous and unjust to prioritise exports over the urgent needs of local people.
Forced liberalisations and scramble for resources
It is in a regional context of forced trade liberalisation as well as a scramble for influence and energy resources that we should understand such mega-projects. These projects are mainly designed (usually by Europeans themselves) to satisfy Europe's need for diversifying energy sources away from Russia as well as contributing to its carbon reduction targets. And what better region to achieve these aims than North Africa and West Asia (NAWA): an area well endowed with natural resources, from fossil fuels to sun and wind.
The Sahara is usually described as a vast empty land, sparsely populated and in need of ‘development’. This pretext provides a golden opportunity for Europe to continue its extravagant consumerism and profligate energy consumption at the expense of the global south. Language recasting southern regions and countries as objects of development is reminiscent of the “civilizing mission” used to justify mass dispossession throughout the colonial period, as well as policies designed to control the populations and their environments.
It seems that a familiar ‘colonial’ scheme is being rolled in front of our eyes: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources from the global south to the rich industrialized north, maintaining a profoundly unjust international division of labour. Interestingly, the map of the energy routes to Europe coincides with the same pathways for migration from the African continent. Fortress Europe builds walls and fences to prevent human beings from reaching its shores for sanctuary but it accepts no barriers to resource grabs.
British and EU foreign policy aims to lock North African energy resources (including renewable ones) into the European grid and is heavily influenced by arms and corporate interests. The priority has always been EU "energy security" and interests, usually in a blatant disregard for the will of the people in the region.
Plunder hidden beneath "sustainability" promises
Projects like TuNur are promoted as solutions to the ecological and climate crises but in truth they are hollow, tokenistic techno-fixes. They promise to address these problems without fundamental change, maintaining the status quo and the contradictions of the global system that created these crises in the first place.
Big engineering-focused ‘solutions’ like Desertec, Tunur and Ouarzazate tend to present climate change as a shared problem with no political or socio-economic context. This perspective hides the historical responsibilities of the industrialised north, the problems of the capitalist energy model, and the different vulnerabilities between countries of the north and the south. North Africa is one of the regions hardest hit by global warming, with water supplies in the area being particularly affected. The spread of solar energy initiatives that further plunder these increasingly-scarce water resources would be a great injustice. It is often said that when it comes to the climate crisis, “we are all in it together”, but there are many ways in which this is simply not the case. Black and brown populations in the global south are the first and hardest hit. Furthermore, this obscures the role of neo-colonialism and imperialist domination and hides the injustices they represent, from land grabs and displacements to a systematic denial of people’s access to natural resources and energy of their own countries.
We should be very critical of such mega-projects and their self-proclaimed good intentions, which often sugar-coat brutal exploitation and sheer robbery. We must always ask the relevant-as-ever questions: who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose interests are being served?
Justice and sovereignty
Answering these questions through a distributive justice lens, while taking account of the colonial and neo-colonial legacies alongside issues of race, class and gender reveals an array of parallels between “green projects” and the more obviously destructive extractive industries they are supposed to replace: they deny local people control and access to their land, rob them of resources and concentrate the value created in the hands of domestic and foreign predatory elites and private companies.
The Arab uprisings that started in Tunisia in 2010 were about bread, freedom, social justice and national dignity. Projects like TuNur stand in stark contradiction with these demands. To implement just and truly green projects, which provide for the future of people and the planet, we must take nature back from the clutches of big capital and recast the debate around justice, popular sovereignty and the collective good. The priority must be energy autonomy for local communities and a radical democracy that takes precedence over the logic of a market that sees our land and our livelihoods as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.