With COP22 (the UN Climate Change Conference) wrapping up, it’s hard to feel optimistic. Coinciding with the US election victory of Donald Trump – the man who dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax – the conference has been muted by the alarm bells screaming round the world. This is a shame for several reasons. As UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon declared in a speech to the conference, the drive for action on climate change is ‘unstoppable’. Some countries have already made significant steps towards a more renewable, cleaner future – not least the conference’s host nation, Morocco.
Approximately 200 kilometres south-east of Marrakesh is the world’s largest concentrated solar plant (CSP). Built near the city of Ouarzazate, its first phase went live in February. By 2018, it is projected to reach a generating capacity of 580 megawatts, sufficient to power a million homes; whilst three further plants have already been conceived. Noor One is a magnificent spectacle: 500,000 crescent-shaped mirrors gleam across the desert, following the turn of the sun, sucking the heat down through steel pipes into steam-driven, energy-generating turbines. This is the kind of clean, safe energy project last year’s Paris talks were supposed to foster. With its commitment to 52% renewable electricity generation by 2030, Morocco is leading the conference by example, demonstrating its commitment to a renewable future with a plethora of projects, ranging from Africa’s first city bicycle hire scheme to a removal of subsidies on petroleum products.
But the kingdom’s energy programme is far from perfect. As critics have pointed out, coal still represents 35% of its energy production, and the volumes of water required for CSP are contentious. Most controversially, development is underway on an ambitious wind programme, led by the German multinational Siemens, with two wind farms to be built in Western Sahara. This has been occupied territory since it was seized by Morocco in 1975. The project underlines the kingdom’s continued exploitation of its illegally held neighbour (whose abundant phosphate and fishing resources have proven extremely lucrative), not to mention the unethical practise of Siemens and its partners. Very serious questions are raised by such a programme, and should not be ignored.
Moreover, as far as the solar programme is concerned, Noor One is unlikely to be replicated across the region. It represents an inspiration for North Africa, rather than a model. The crescent-shaped mirrors are expensive, and the turbines need large volumes of water; few countries in this arid region would be able to replicate it. They lack the security, infrastructure, resources and, pivotally, the lure for outside investors. But what they all share is the sun. More energy falls on the world’s deserts in six hours than the entire world consumes in a year; and no desert has greater potential for farming solar power than the Sahara.
I saw the small-scale potential of solar on travels around the Sahara over the last six years, especially in Mali, where I came across several villages that had established their own ‘grids’ of photovoltaic panels. For the first time, villagers were able to access energy, to charge up mobile phones, use the internet, and find out about market and security developments in their region. As the oldest inhabitant of Djoungiani village told me, ‘life is better now – we can communicate with other villages and receive news more quickly.’ Solar offers a new path for previously disconnected, isolated communities. Greater access to energy can kickstart failing economies and help to develop them; in tandem, larger plants can be built in the desert, supplying energy to Europe. Developing these economies is likely to reduce banditry, arms-smuggling, narco-trafficking and ultimately mass migration. It would have a positive impact both in North Africa and Europe, where so many of the recent political crises have been sparked by the failure to engage constructively with the countries of the southern Mediterranean.
These projects are in stark contrast to the retrograde policies adopted elsewhere. The election of Trump is likely to leave the world more polluted and over-fracked, whilst his vow to stop contributions to the UN’s Green Climate Fund could cost billions. So soon after the Paris Agreement, when the path towards a more sustainable future is so urgent, the potential long-term damage of Trump’s environmental mis-leadership is hard to estimate. Sadly, he isn’t as isolated as we’d like to think.
Britain’s new post-Brexit government signalled its backwardness by signing a controversial nuclear deal – £18 billion to be flushed down three dangerous installations, starting with Hinkley Point in Somerset. The lifespan of these plants in terms of energy production is estimated at sixty years, but their legacy, regarding the hazardously radioactive material left behind (or ‘spent fuel’, as the nuclear industry likes to call it), is likely to be millennia. France and China, Britain’s partners in this project, are committed to a nuclear future – rather than investing their ample resources in the long-term vision of renewables. With solar technology rapidly developing, interconnectors enabling wider proliferation and the development of transmission lines and submarine cables, solar represents a more enduring, progressive and ultimately prosperous direction.
Fossil fuels always leave a stink. France’s exploitative policies in Niger have done nothing to raise that destitute country. Oil has turned the Middle East into the most volatile region on earth. It lured allied forces to Libya, unleashing the world’s largest cache of unlicensed weaponry, arming criminal and jihadist gangs across North Africa. But solar power offers a clean slate. Less vulnerable to terrorist attacks, more likely to impact positively on the local population.
A millennium ago, Europe was stuck in the so-called Dark Ages. Gold from Africa was a significant factor in medieval Europe’s economic development, supplying the ready capital that enabled ruling classes to build, pay their armies and commission merchant voyages. How fitting it would be, after all those years of colonialism and mismanaged aid, if Africa were to help the West again. Noor One is only the start. How fitting it would be if Africa enabled us to keep our lights on and saved us all from another Dark Age.