EQUATIONS, permutations, extrapolations and scenarios about environmental stewardship in the context of energy and dependent technologies will remain incomplete and will miss out vital assumptions as long as African perspectives are not given elaborate consideration. The global quest for renewable energy and emission reduction arising from technological innovations would need to open a special chapter on Africa for its strategic relevance in the big picture.
The dominant and prevailing current narratives, expert opinions, recommendations, action plans and policy directions advocated by some seem to shy away from confronting some salient issues bordering on fairness, justice, sustainability and general prosperity conceptually and practically. The interests generated have been more of commercial than social, prompting a flurry of investment drives that would manifest their impacts sooner than people expect.
One way to affirm justice and ensure sustainability is to consider the vulnerability of Africa as the global community goes in the direction of clean energy. Any evolving global value chain that situates Africa tangentially would have been unfair and unsustainable. The traditional thinking that primary sources of commodities earn the least while those actors at the other end of the chain earn the most is prone to dispute and is now debatable. This is the kind of reasoning used to explain why rural African farmers in commodities like cocoa and coffee earn miserably low income while the European chocolatiers or American coffee shops earn the highest. But this is the same reason that underpins the sustainability questions in the value chains of such internationally traded commodities.
As the world shifts rapidly and resolutely towards green economy, clean energy and climate change mitigation, a good many spin-off business opportunities could endanger the vulnerable populace even further and expose them to practices that would negate the ideals set forth by climate campaigners and green advocates in the absence of proper oversight and regulation. The livelihoods question will force the vulnerable into practices that could further expose the fragile environment to further harm. Africa, which is home to a significant proportion of the world’s poor, could be squeezed beyond measure and would serve only as a launching pad for aggressive commercial interests that would leave nothing behind but tales of anguish, suffering, poverty and hostilities.
Globally acceptable behavioural and procedural standards and benchmarks would need to be set for operators in the emerging green industry in ways that protect the poor, indigenous communities, the natural environments and their livelihoods. Without these, the usual plundering of primary sources associated with various commodities global value chains will make a mockery of the green energy value chain, sometimes in scandalous ways. The aggressiveness, subtlety, nimble and smart ways of doing other businesses may not exactly fit the green business, especially as it needs a lot of goodwill, trust, security, safety and professionalism to endear itself to the public that is just beginning to embrace the new way.
Reputation will matter a lot as the green advocacy, business and industry gather momentum. For the electric vehicles, in particular, the global value chain (GVC) is already susceptible to a reputational crisis. Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to about two-thirds of the global mine supplies of cobalt, a sought-after ingredient for electric vehicles (EVs). The Irish Times, writing in 2018 on ‘Why Congo could stop the charge of electric vehicles,’ explained that car makers and tech firms rely on cobalt mined in Katanga, the unstable province “where Irish soldiers were attacked in 1961.” The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is by far the world’s largest producer of cobalt, has been the top producer of the metal for some time, and its output increased to 90,000 metric tons (MT) in 2018.
As demand for cobalt rises, increasing attention is being directed at the DRC, especially by the auto industry investors. Cobalt mining in the country has been linked to human rights abuses, including child labour and illegal mining in addition to the lingering unstable state of the DRC. Meanwhile, “electric cars are gaining ground, with about one million EV sales predicted in China in 2018, as the country bets on them as an industrial strategy and for better air quality,” noted The Irish Times. The need for transparency, traceability, value chain and supply chain integrity becomes obvious. And the DRC crises will likely linger as long as these attributes remain ignored, or are treated with levity.
While China goes for accolades as the front runner in clean energy cars, the story is different for the country of origin of most Cobalt-Lithium metals. Over the past decade, China has established a monopoly over cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the vast majority of the metal resides. China’s control of the mining, processing and trade in the key battery material cobalt is worth the attention. In the words of Casper Rawles at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, are a major concern, as he noted that “there is no electric vehicle industry without DRC cobalt, but the region is among the most politically unstable, volatile and dangerous places on earth.” China controls seven of the largest DRC cobalt mines, and – in the process – over half DRC’s cobalt supplies. The question is whether China can be truly vindicated on its purported ‘no interference’ claim in the DRC, or in any other African country. How green is this kind of green claim in China?
Madagascar is another country with a remarkable deposit of cobalt, with a mine production of 3,500 MT. Morocco’s mine production stood at 2,300 MT in 2018, up 2,200 MT in 2017, and Zambia’s place may soon be restored as one of the world’s top cobalt suppliers. In 2011, the Southern African nation was the world’s fifth-largest producer, at 5,400 MT, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). All the three African countries stand at the lowest end of the cobalt GVC and thus might remain there, struggling to overcome their environmental challenges while the end users take to the world stage to lay claim to being environmental champions. The transactional relationship between the countries of origin of cobalt and their export destinations need to be given a second and a hard look.
Nuclear power is one of the options in the clean energy mix, notwithstanding its costs. The Chernobyl and Fukushima episodes of April 26, 1986 and March 11, 2011 respectively are notable cases of the high impacts, but low frequencies of disasters associated with nuclear energy.
Of the top five nuclear electricity generation countries in 2016, France got the highest nuclear share of a country’s total power generation, with 73 per cent of its electricity coming from nuclear power, followed by South Korea with 29.3 per cent, US with 19.7 per cent, Russia with 17.8 per cent and China with 3.4 per cent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics, as of June 17, 2019.
While France that produces three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power depends on Niger Republic for uranium, electricity supply still looks like a rare privilege any time its comes. France, a global champion of climate action, is not on an equal footing with Niger, the very source of its uranium. This arrangement will not achieve the global climate ideals being canvassed. As long as Niger remains one of the poorest countries (about 146th in global rating), achieving an emission –free economy remains a mirage.
Mechanisms are needed to reconfigure the relationships between African countries and other countries trading with the continent on critical commodities to prevent an endless rip-off. This is expected to give Africa a space and a level playing field, not just as a bystander or a spectator in the unfolding drama of global green movement, with all its benefits and risks. The sustainable supply of these critical inputs will depend on how Africa is treated by the trading partners like China or France on cobalt for EVs or uranium for electricity respectively. They will determine, in large measure, the success or failure of the global climate advocacy. Africa must truly be accorded a central place in the emerging environmentally-driven technologies and economies.