The mainstream narratives on the climate change, the ecological crisis and the energy transition in North Africa are still dominated by international neoliberal institutions, whose analyses are biased and exclude questions of class, race, gender, justice, power, or colonial history. Their proposed solutions 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 oppression and resistance, focusing largely on the advice of ‘experts’, to the exclusion of voices from below.
The historical, political, and geophysical realities of the North Africa region mean that both the effects of and the solutions to the climate crisis there will be distinct from those in other contexts. North Africa was forcibly integrated into the global capitalist economy in a subordinate position: colonial powers influenced or forced North African countries to structure their economies around the extraction and export of resources—usually provided cheaply and in raw form—coupled with the import of high-value industrial goods. The result was large-scale transfer of wealth to the imperial centres, at the expense of local development.1
The persistence today of such unequal and asymmetric relations reaffirms the role of North African countries as exporters of natural resources, such as oil and gas, and primary commodities that are heavily dependent on water and land, such as monoculture cash crops. This entrenches an outward-looking extractivist economy, exacerbating food dependency and the ecological crisis while maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neo-colonial hierarchies.2
There are therefore crucial questions that need to be raised when addressing climate change and transitioning towards renewable energies in the region: What does a just response to climate change look like here? Does it mean the freedom to move to, and open borders with, Europe? Does it mean the payment of climate debt, restitution, and redistribution by Western governments, by multinational corporations, and by rich local elites? Does it mean a radical break with the capitalist system? What should happen to fossil fuel resources in the region that are extracted to a significant extent by Western corporations? Who should control and own renewable energy? What does adapting to a changing climate mean, and who will shape and benefit from it? And where are the key agents who will fight for meaningful change and radical transformation?
What is ‘just transition’?
The concept of ‘just transition’ has emerged as a framework that places justice at the centre of the discussion. It is usually traced back to the U.S. in the 1970s, when labour unions, local communities and other social movements sharing an interest in a liveable environment and decent, safe, and fairly paid work aligned against polluting industries and their unfair policies. Over the following decades, the concept was adopted by a range of social movements around the world who have built coalitions and shared visions of transformative solutions for the climate crisis that tackle underlying causes, and that put human rights, ecological regeneration, and people’s sovereignty at the centre.
A just transition is not a stand-alone concept but a field of contestation; a space where struggles about genuine responses to the climate crisis can be formulated and put into practice. Progressive social movements have an abiding conviction that people should not bear the heaviest costs of a sustainable transition. They should rather be the leading agents in shaping such a transition. From feminist and indigenous perspectives to regional and national programmes, movements are advancing their own definitions of both ‘justice’ and ‘transition’ in their diverse contexts.
For us, discussions of a just transition in North Africa and beyond must respond to the reality of unequal development caused by imperialism and colonialism. Therefore, a just transition must include radical transformations that increase the power of working people and reduce the power of capital and governing elites. We need to also recognise that environmental issues cannot be addressed without addressing the racist, sexist, and other oppressive structures of the capitalist economy and that the environmental crisis is much broader than just the climate crisis. Ultimately, a just transition cannot be achieved without transformations of political, as well as economic, power towards greater democratisation.
The concept of a just transition has been shaped partially by labour movements, so the question of decent work remains central to many serious proposal. The International Trade Union Confederation has dubbed the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region the worst in the world for workers’ rights, with systematic violations across the region. Across the Arab world, youth unemployment is almost twice the global average and about two-thirds of workers in North Africa are employed in the informal sector.
Today, the vast majority of humanity, regardless of the kind of work they do, are giving up some part of their essential daily consumption, their human rights, or their ability to live a dignified life in order to keep propping up the super-profits of transnational corporations. Whether this is because their food, health, energy and care systems have been privatised, putting the full burden of care on the family unit—because they have lost or are at risk of losing access to their lands, territories or fishing rights—or because they are unable to find work and struggle to make a living in an informal economy where they have no means to demand a living wage, the effects are the same. It is no coincidence that this precarious and exploited majority is also the group most at risk from climate change, and least able to protect themselves from its effects.
The dynamics are complex and obviously different across countries of North Africa, yet many shared challenges and questions also emerge from an exploration of what would a just transition look like: Whose needs and rights should be prioritized in an energy transition? What model of energy production, and extraction, can deliver energy to all working people? How are Northern countries and International Financial Institutions forcing 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 democratic control of state power for this transition? What alliances of working people are possible, and what role can international solidarity and resistance play in supporting these?
In the various essays in Just Transition(s) in North Africa compiled by the Transnational Institute, the contributors initiate a deeper discussion of what just transition means in the context of North Africa and the Arab region.
Mohamed Gad debunks the World Bank’s claim that the liberalisation of electricity prices in Egypt ended subsidies to the rich and redirected resources towards the poor. Instead, he shows how it paved the way for the entry of international finance, at the expense of the poorest—radically turning a basic service into a commodity.
Jawad Moustakbal, in his article on the energy sector in Morocco, asks important questions including, who decides on, who benefits from, and who pays the price for Morocco’s so-called energy transition?
In their contribution on Tunisia, Chafik Ben Rouine and Flavie Roche show how the country’s energy transition plan relies heavily on privatisation and foreign funding, while neglecting democratic decision-making, situating the country firmly within the global neoliberal programme for the development of renewable energy.
In her article on Algeria, Imane Boukhatem highlights the opportunities, challenges and potential injustices facing the green energy transition in Algeria and argues that the country must rapidly transform its energy sector, with a core focus on social justice.
Mohamed Salah and Razaz Basheir, in their contribution on the electricity crisis in Sudan, they chart the evolution of the energy sector in the country since colonialism and attribute its uneven development to policies from that era and to their continuation in the post-colonial period.
Karen Rignall shows how solar energy is embedded in a long history of extraction in Morocco and reveals some of the striking continuities between fossil fuel commodity chains and those of renewable energies in the country.
In his article, Hamza Hamouchene shows how renewable energy engineering projects tend to present climate change as a problem that is common to the whole planet, without ever questioning the capitalist energy model or the historical responsibilities of the industrialized West.
Joanna Allan, Hamza Lakhal and Mahmoud Lemaadel, in highlighting how extractivism operates today in the part of Western Sahara currently occupied by Morocco, emphasize the voices of the Saharawi population and argue that current renewable energy projects in Western Sahara simply sustain and ‘greenwash’ colonialism, undermining a just transition that could benefit local communities.
Finally, Sakr El Nour, in his essay argues that countries in the region are subjected to unequal exchange with the Global North, particularly the EU, through trade agreements that enable the North to benefit from North African agricultural products at preferential rates. He contends that North Africa needs to recast its agricultural, environmental, food and energy policies.
Breaking with business as usual
It is increasingly clear that a just transition for North Africa requires a recognition of the historical responsibility of the industrialized West in causing global warming. It needs to acknowledge the role of power in shaping both 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 should mean breaking with business as usual that protects global political elites, multinational corporations, and autocratic regimes, while promoting a radical social and ecological transformation.
The imperatives of justice are increasingly leading to a consensus among activists on the need for climate reparations to be (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 massive transfers of wealth and technology, cancelling current odious debts, halting illicit capital flows, dismantling neo-colonial trade and investment agreements like the Energy Charter Treaty and stopping the ongoing plunder of resources. The financing of the transition needs to take into account the current, ongoing and future loss and destruction caused by the changing climate, which is occurring disproportionately in the South.
Yet since inequalities exist not only between North and South, but also within all countries of the world, how can a programme of climate reparations be combined with the creation of a just, democratic, and equitable energy system within the countries of North Africa?
In many ways, the climate crisis and the urgently required green transition offer us a chance to reshape international politics. Coping with the dramatic transformation of our climate will require a break with existing militarist, colonial and neoliberal projects. Therefore, the struggle for a just transition must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities who are most affected, and it must be geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which working people have enough energy, and a clean and safe environment. Above all we must build a future that is in harmony with the revolutionary demands of the African and Arab uprisings: popular sovereignty, bread, freedom, and social justice.
This is a version of the introduction to the dossier Just Transition(s) in North Africa compiled by the Transnational Institute.
Hamza Hamouchene is the North Africa Programme Coordinator at the Transnational Institute. Ouafa Hiddioui is the North Africa Programme Assistant at the Transnational Institute. Katie Sandwell is the Agrarian and Environmental Justice Programme Coordinator at the Transnational Institute.
- ↩ Amin, S. (1990) Delinking: Towards a polycentric world. Zed Books; Amin, S. (2013) The Implosion of Capitalism. Pluto Press. See also Rodney, W. (2012) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Pambazuka Press; and Galeano, E. (1973) Open Veins of Latin America. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- ↩ Hamouchene, H. (2019) ‘Extractivism and resistance in North Africa’. Transnational Institute; Riahi, L. and Hamouchene, H. (2020) ‘Deep and comprehensive dependency: how a trade agreement with the EU could devastate the Tunisian economy’. Transnational Institute.