Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? And whose interests are being served? If we don´t ask these questions we will go straight to a green colonialism, with an acceleration of extraction and exploitation, in the service of a so-called common “green agenda”.
Hamza Hamouchene, “The energy transition in North Africa”
In May 2023, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen stated: “An economic growth model centered on fossil fuels is simply obsolete. (…) We need to decarbonize our economies as quickly as possible.” This transformation from fossil-fuel based capitalism to its decarbonized version is being framed as a green transition, which is driven by the need to transition towards renewable energy systems, digitalizing and decarbonizing European economies.
The EU aims to green its economy and to become “climate-neutral” by 2050, which sounds like a good idea – on paper. However, for this to be achieved, EU countries will need access to various raw materials and metals. This has major implications for the rest of the world, and especially for Africa.
At the moment, the EU is highly dependent on imports from China, especially of raw materials and value-added products, such as batteries. This situation is not tenable, considering the economic and political competition (between the US, China and EU) that has already heightened the demand for raw materials.
Historically, Europe has always felt entitled to all of the world’s natural resources, and that sense of entitlement persists to the present day. Instead of raw military might, more subtle methods are now in use to push through the EU´s own interests. In the context of this extreme competition with China, Russia and the US, and with the pressures to ensure a green transition, trade agreements are the EU’s tool of choice when it comes to ring-fencing and attempting to guarantee access to these necessary raw materials.
Enter the Critical Raw Materials Act, an EU law which outlines a set of actions to ensure the EU’s access to a secure, diversified, affordable and sustainable supply of critical raw materials. The EU aims to impose a new set of rules, including Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and other trade related instruments, which will deepen extractivism in supplier countries, many of them in Africa.
To guarantee access to these minerals, the EU is including chapters on Energy and Raw Materials (ERM) in all its new trade agreements with targeted countries. These chapters, which “eliminate export restrictions, including the elimination in principle of all export duties or any measure having an equivalent effect” essentially aim to control the internal policies of countries that are earmarked to supply these critical materials. Countries that are signatories to these trade agreements soon find that they cannot easily pass legislation to nationalise or to keep raw materials for their own use. The inclusion of these chapters deepens the historically constructed international division of labor and seeks to perpetuate unfair extractive relationships rooted in colonial times.
But why focus on fixing the supply side, and not on the more obvious need to reduce the demand for raw materials? EU trade policies continue to favor a logic of expansion and economic growth while deepening the North-South divide, recklessly relying on technological and scientific advancements and expected returns from renewable energies.
Is this trade regime fit to move towards a socio-ecological transition and live up to the EU´s international climate commitments? It will not change anything in the current imbalance of material use, with the EU consuming 25 to 30 percent of metals produced globally, while only making up 6 percent of the world’s population.
Shifting away from fossil fuels and delivering on the green and digital transition without rethinking the current modes of production and consumption will only lead to more extraction
Shifting away from fossil fuels and delivering on the green and digital transition without rethinking the current modes of production and consumption will only lead to more extraction. The EU trade rules benefit Europe, while externalizing the social and environmental costs of an economic model based on extractivism in the countries of the Global South. This will put more pressure on resource rich countries, their ecosystems and water resources, while fueling social conflict. The Energy and Raw Materials chapters included in EU trade agreements are unlikely to help countries in the Global South to enter new paths towards prosperity. Instead, they will simply externalize environmental costs to those countries, allowing Europe to live in the false pretense of “climate neutrality”.
With its current approach to international trade, the EU is merely introducing a new system to continue with old habits. The rules included in the ERM chapters are unilateral and push for lower standards in relation to trade and investment in the raw materials and energy sector. Win-win partnerships do not look like this.
Despite the EU´s assurance that the green transition has to be done in such a way as to “leave no one behind”, the free trade agreements it promotes will effectively do that: exclude the majority of the world from profiting from their own resources. A green and just global transition with these trade agreements is not possible.
Countries in the Global South are taking back control over their natural resources by passing new laws and regulations to make sure that the processing, marketing and selling of raw materials stays in the country
Fortunately, countries in the Global South are taking back control over their natural resources by passing new laws and regulations to make sure that the processing, marketing and selling of raw materials stays in the country. Indonesia, Chile and Mexico are example cases, where they have passed legislation to keep raw materials in their own hands. African countries need to be aware of the EU’s plans, and to act accordingly to protect their own interests as well, otherwise we are simply moving into another era of colonialism, just with a greener name.
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This article is republished from Transnational Institute under a Creative Commons license.