Europe and Africa are strategic partners and their relations are built on a comprehensive set of diplomatic, trade, and financial instruments. In the field of the green transition, the EU-Africa partnership is characterized by a high degree of complementarity. Cooperation over renewable energy best exemplifies this. Africa needs the support of the EU both in terms of technical and financial assistance to unlock its renewable energy potential and address its lack of energy access, which remains the main obstacle in the path towards sustainable growth. Mutual interests and, most importantly, high economic interdependence encourage the EU and Africa to seek the adoption of a common approach to green transition.
The EU Green Deal
The EU Green Deal is one of the overarching priorities of the European Commission and it is the blueprint of the EU economic and recovery strategy after the COVID-19 pandemic. Its ultimate goal is to tackle climate change and lead transformative social and economic change in society. Although often perceived primarily as a European project, the EU Green Deal portrays a strong external dimension. Climate change is a global threat and the EU Green Deal’s success will depend on Brussels’ ability to push partners in adopting its same vision and norms. In this regard, the EU strives to become the leading agenda-setter in international climate policy, and it is committed to mainstream the EU Green Deal in its foreign policy, too. The European Council’s conclusions on “Climate and Energy Diplomacy - Delivering on the external dimension of the European Green Deal” in January 2021 confirmed its geopolitical dimension, outlining a series of activities through which the EU aims at delivering the external dimension of the EU Green Deal: boosting the energy transition sector, further scaling up mobilization of international climate finance, discouraging investments into fossil fuels sectors in low-income countries, aligning trade policy to climate commitment and carbon border adjustment mechanisms, and enhancing climate adaptation and resilience to natural disaster and environmental degradation. The implementation of the EU Green Deal will bring transformative changes in the energy markets, trade patterns, value chains, and secure energy supply with subsequent and direct impacts on the EU’s relations with third countries.
The EU Green Deal impact on Africa
Speaking at the opening session of the EU-Africa Forum on Green Investment in Africa in April 2021, President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen remarked that “the green transition is not just a necessity to fight climate change. The green transition is the biggest economic opportunity of our times and can be the engine of our recovery, simultaneously in Europe and Africa”. As identified in the African Union’s "Agenda 2063: the Africa we want", the green transition is at the core of the Africa political debate. Although African countries have contributed to global warming only to a very small extent, the effects and consequences of climate change severely affect the continent. Thus, Africa is interested in the EU’s ambitious climate policies across the world. At the same time, economic growth and jobs are also at the top of the agenda of most African countries. Many African leaders are worried that the implementation of the European Green Deal could harm Africa’s structural transformation process. In particular, due to the COVID-19 effects on the economy and commodities’ price, Africa’s pathway towards low-carbon economies might be facing the hard choice between ambitious climate goals and job creation in the short term.
According to the last Africa Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency, around 580 millions of people in Africa have no access to energy. The health crisis and economic downturn caused by Covid-19 are pushing countries further away from the target of achieving universal energy access. Africa has enormous potential in terms of renewable energy, mostly solar. The shift toward renewable energy could have a compound effect. On the one hand, cheap renewable energy could lead to increased energy access across the continent. On the other hand, it could pose serious challenges such as widespread unemployment due to job losses and stranded assets for those countries that currently rely on fossil fuel and coal (e.g. Nigeria, Angola etc.). In the medium- to long-term, a transition from fossil fuel to green-energy trade relations between the EU and African countries will be crucial to reach commitments made under the Paris Agreement.
Another aspect of the EU Green Deal implementation revolves around trade. The EU Green Deal foresees the adoption of a carbon board adjustment mechanism in June 2021 to reduce the risk of carbon leakage facing regions that have different climate standards and target in place. In 2020, the EU was Africa’s largest trade partner, with 28 % of both exports and imports dominated by primary (mainly energy and raw materials) and manufactured goods. The adoption of a carbon border adjustment mechanism will strongly affect the entire value chain of those countries that export high-intensive industry goods to the EU.
Finally, in the context of the EU Green Deal, the EU will need to increase its import of raw materials to support the development of new technologies for the green transition. In the upcoming years, the EU will aim to enhance “the supply of critical raw materials necessary for clean technologies, digital, space and defence applications”. The demand for these materials will rise, creating new trade opportunities. At the same time, the EU needs to develop new indicators to measure accountability to monitor human rights and environmental standards violations, both traditionally linked to the extractive industry.
The EU has linked the COVID-19 recovery plan to the green transition agenda and Africa seems to show significant ambition – with the support of several international partners – to “build back better”. By supporting Africa’s recovery, the EU has to address the hesitations expressed by some African countries and overcome the wrong perception that the green transition might slow down Africa’s economic development, which has been severely affected by the pandemic. The months ahead offer some opportunities to provide such assurances to the African countries. Due to the pandemic, the EU-Africa summit has been postponed to the first half of 2022. The summit – both in terms of deliverables and visibility – will be a crucial moment to assess to what extent the EU and Africa are aligned on the green transition. Following the launch of the EU Strategy with Africa, the summit can be the right occasion to present a common narrative around strategic priorities and the recovery and mostly define how the EU and Africa want to achieve common objectives.
In this context, the EU could work to build coalitions and raise ambition to address more investments towards Africa. Achieving climate neutrality is the EU Green Deal’s main goal, while climate adaptation is at the core of Africa’s economic growth. African countries have high expectations around the outcome of the COP26 and they will call for a stronger financial commitment on behalf of developed countries towards Africa, including their financial commitment aimed at increasing adaptation capabilities to climate change. Moreover, to strengthen its position in the climate talks, Africa is pushing to host the COP27 next year. In alignment with the Green Deal priorities, the EU has an important chance to address Africa’s appetite for more support in climate adaptation and present itself as a reliable partner.
The green transition has the potential to support EU-Africa cooperation by combining the climate agenda with actions to boost jobs creation and sustainable growth. Geographic proximity, economic matters, and the security nexus make Africa’s green transition compliant with the EU vision one of the key challenges for the EU’s current foreign policy as well as in the future.