‘COP has produced 3 decades of empty talk’: an interview with Hamza Hamouchene

In response to the UN COP27 climate talks in Egypt 7-18 November we are publishing a series of articles previewing a special feature in the next issue of Middle East Solidarity on the struggles for climate justice and democracy.
>> Get active, go to https://egyptsolidarityinitiative.org/cop27toolkit/ – take action for political prisoners in Egypt, including British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who is on hunger strike.

In our second interview, we talk to Algerian researcher-activist Hamza Hamouchene, North Africa Programme Coordinator at Transnational Institute about how the COP process is being used to cover up the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure rather than pushing for a transition to renewable energy.

COP27 will open on 7 November in Egypt. The MENA region is at the forefront of some of the impacts of climate change. What do you see as the key questions which ought to be addressed by the COP talks? 

Climate change is already a reality in North Africa and the Middle East, and in the Arab region in general. It is already undermining the social, economic and ecological basis of life in the region. We are seeing huge impacts from droughts, water poverty, wildfires, sea level rises and coastal erosion in many, many countries. The Arab region is one of the first victims of these processes, it is at the forefront of the climate crisis and its impacts. 

For me, the COP process, with its 27 rounds of negotiations so far, has produced three decades of empty talk. All those COPs have failed. Or, as the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has described them, they are ‘blah, blah, blah’. I don’t believe they will resolve the climate crisis and I don’t believe they will put in place adequate and just solutions which will help impoverished countries and communities in the Global South to address that question. 

In terms of the questions and the priorities which need to be on the table, at least in the priorities of the global climate justice movement, and progressive organisations in the region and outside it, first of all is the question of democratisation. You cannot have climate justice without democracy, and without civic spaces for discussion and debate. COP27 is taking place in a military dictatorship where tens of thousands of political prisoners are in jail, in a climate of repression and suppression of freedoms. That poses questions we cannot ignore and which need to be linked to questions of climate justice. 

The other question for me which needs to be on the table is the question of loss and damages. A lot of countries in the Global South are already facing the impacts of climate change: people are dying, people are being displaced, livelihoods are being destroyed. This needs to be taken into account, these people need to be helped not with additional debts but with transfers of wealth and transfers of technology to help them adapt to the climate crisis, and help them with the needed global, rapid transition towards renewable energy. Here we are talking about climate reparations and climate debts which need to be put on the agenda. 

What would you see as the goals of the various regimes in the region at this particular moment, both in terms of the climate talks and in terms of their relations for example with other powers such as the European powers, the US, Russia and China?

That’s a complex question, but let’s unpack it a bit and look at the details of the reality of climate adaptations in the region, the money put into climate adaptation efforts and the reality of the “energy transition”. This phrase is in quotation marks because right now fossil fuel regimes like Algeria are just continuing to drill and explore and export gas, especially in the current context of the war in Ukraine, which has exacerbated the crisis and in a way derailed any effort towards a transition in those countries themselves. We have seen how the EU has been trying to convince many governments in the region to export gas to it, including the Algerian regime and the Egyptian regime, and including the settler-colonial state of Israel. So it is all about gas in reality in the short to medium term. And it is not about the transition. That’s why a lot of scholars and activists are saying we are seeing an energy expansion, not an energy transition. 

Is it fair to say that the COP itself, far from reducing dependency on fossil fuels, is playing a role in cementing the role of gas expansion? 

COP 22 took place in Morocco in 2016 and it was an opportunity for the Moroccan monarchy to greenwash its crimes, to greenwash its pollution, to greenwash its occupation of Western Sahara. It is the same story again with COP27 and will be with COP28, scheduled to be held in the UAE. The Egyptian government is going to use it as an opportunity to present itself as sustainable and to mask the ongoing human rights abuses, the authoritarianism, the exploitation and dispossession of people. The Egyptian government is vying to place itself as an “energy hub” in the region in order to export energy to Europe. This is not just renewable energy, this is gas, this is green hydrogen, this is oil. So, in reality we are seeing an expansion of those fossil fuel interests, we are not seeing a real transition. This is of course related to deals which are taking place with multinationals, with foreign companies and with Western governments. 

Can you tell us a bit about ‘green hydrogen’ because there has been a lot of hype about this being a cleaner alternative fuel?

It is exactly as you’ve described it: hype. And I see it as a back door for the fossil fuel industry to continue its own operation. This is because in the short to medium term it is not ‘green hydrogen’ which is going to be produced, but blue and grey hydrogen from gas. Blue hydrogen is basically hydrogen from gas, with CO2 captured and stored somewhere, so the fossil fuel industry is part of the lobbying efforts at the level of the EU. You find companies like Shell, Total, ENI pushing for hydrogen-based economies because they know they are going to continue exploiting and extracting gas. The EU is concocting all these plans, creating a ‘hydrogen strategy’ and along with those companies involved from Siemens to ENI, they want North African countries to produce green hydrogen, and then to build new renewable energy plants in solar and wind for export. So we are seeing the same neo-colonial mentality being reproduced once again, with those countries once again playing the role of producers of cheap natural resources for export. Meanwhile, the social, economic and ecological costs are externalised to those countries. Those green hydrogen projects will need a lot of land, water and energy. Instead of North African countries using green energy to produce electricity for their own purposes, to advance towards their own green transition, they will spend it safeguarding EU energy security and helping the EU reach its own climate targets. 

If you go around London you’ll see adverts for Octopus Energy which boasts it has a solar farm in Morocco producing clean energy. You’re saying this is actually a repetition of the same pattern as in the past? 

I am seeing it as just the same colonial pattern where we are seeing the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources from the Global South to the Global North, including green energy this time. While Fortress Europe builds its own fences and walls and lets people die in the Mediterranean, or get executed and massacred when trying to jump through the walls. We’ve seen that in Melilla recently in northern Morocco. 

For example in Tunisia we have TuNur, which is owned by a British company, Nur Energy. In collaboration with some Tunisian and Maltese capitalists the company is building a huge solar plant of 4.5 Gigawatts in order to export energy to Europe, including to the UK. I followed that project. In 2017 and 2018 they were saying clearly and openly that they want that energy for export, not for local users. Tunisia depends for its energy on Algeria, on the gas pipeline which goes through it to Italy. Isn’t that neo-colonialism? Isn’t the priority to produce green energy for local consumption? To satisfy local energy needs? To exercise some kind of sovereignty?

Another project being proposed by the ex-CEO of Tesco is Xlinks. This is a collaboration with a Saudi company called Acwa Power. The idea is again to export green electricity from southern Morocco using undersea cables to the UK. That is a project which costs around 30 billion dollars. One wonders where would that money come from? Why don’t these projects think about the local needs? Think about the local communities, and transferring technology and helping Moroccans in their own green transition. For me this is simply green neo-colonialism. 

What would an alternative strategy look like? How do you fit together the pieces of the question of democracy and political freedoms with the question of the transition? 

Most of the projects I mentioned are public-private partnerships, which is a euphemism for privatisation of the profits and socialisation of the loss. Basically, we are seeing a global tendency, well articulated in the region, of privatising the renewable energy sector, liberalising the energy sector, and giving much more power and influence to multinationals and the private sector. For me, the alternative is to have public ownership of the energy infrastructure, of those energy projects. We need to see energy as a right. People need to have access to energy. It needs to be defined as a right, not as a commodity. 

Public ownership goes hand in hand with democratisation. That means involving local communities. Involving workers, including those in fossil fuel industries, in shaping the decision-making around these projects, in shaping the transition that would work for everyone, not necessarily dispossessing them from their resources and land. Of course, this is not a linear process. It would be fraught with tensions and contradictions, mistakes would be made, compromises must take place. But if the communities and workers are behind those projects, it would be smoother. We need to have a different value system, which sees energy as a right, that sees the involvement of communities in a radical, participatory, democratic way at the heart of that just transition.

Finally, what do you think trade unionists and activists in places like Britain should be arguing for and what demands should we be putting on our government around these questions? 

I think that first of all, argue for public ownership of energy and to de-commodify the energy sector, especially in the current climate crisis. The window is closing and a rapid, urgent energy transition needs to take place as soon as possible. The private sector cannot deliver on that front, it needs to be owned by public authorities, by communities, by workers. The other thing I would emphasise is for workers and people in the Global North to exercise pressure on the multinationals that are headquartered in cities like London and Paris. Do not allow them to go and plunder the resources of the Global South and continue fossil fuel projects as well as committing environmental crimes and land grabs. Pressure needs to be exercised here in the Global North. And also put pressure on them over the question of wealth transfer and technology transfer. A rapid transition cannot happen without technology transfer. 

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