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Guest Article by Edward DeMarco, CQ Researcher

The following is the Introduction and Overview to an in-depth article by Edward DeMarco published today in CQ Researcher. CQ Researcher, a division of CQ Press, provides “in-depth reports on today’s issues.” The full article contains, in addition to the Introduction and Overview replicated here, the following setions: Background, Current Situation, Outlook, Pro/Con, Discussion Questions, Chronology and Short Features. I was invited to write the Pro perspective for the Pro/Con section and I will follow this post up with a separate post replicating that section. Please note that the full article (hyperlinked above) is freely accessible for one week from today but will go behind a paywall starting Friday, November 24th.

Introduction

The postwar, U.S.-dominated geopolitical order shaped by oil is yielding to a new system built on carbon-free renewable energy and electric vehicles. In the emerging international scramble for so-called green energy, China is leading, with its control over many supplies of minerals essential for batteries, wind turbines and other technologies. China is also key to addressing climate change because its coal-powered economy creates more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions than any other country. To counter China, the United States is rallying allies and friendly mineral-rich countries to forge alternative supply chains that can enable green energy industries to scale up. And, faced with Russian aggression in Ukraine, Europe is shedding energy ties to Moscow and expanding its domestic wind and solar power sources. Clean hydrogen may also create new energy powers — from Australia to Chile and Africa — as industrial demand for fossil-free energy surges. Competition extends into the Arctic, where retreating ice is spurring the hunt for green energy minerals. While the transition will take decades, the rules of the game are being set now — in Beijing and Washington.

The oil-dominated geopolitical order is changing as countries embrace carbon-free energy sources to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. That transition has produced tensions, in part due to the need for rare earth minerals used in clean energy technologies, such as these wind turbines and solar panels near Klettwitz, Germany. (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)

Overview

In late September, as Russia was calling up 300,000 military recruits to overcome battlefield losses in Ukraine, and Europe coped with shrinking Russian natural gas supplies due to the war there, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened a little-noticed meeting in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Attending were ministers from mineral-rich U.S. allies Canada and Australia, along with Britain, France, Japan and South Korea — all among the world’s 10 largest economies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, speaks at the Minerals Security Partnership meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. Participants included ministers from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea and African mining nations. (AFP/Getty Images/Craig Ruttle)

Alongside them sat envoys from other mining nations, including Brazil, Argentina and five African countries — Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia — whose mineral exports are needed for the coming transition from globe-warming fossil fuels to green energy. Those minerals range from lithium and copper used in electric vehicles, to platinum needed for batteries and neodymium required for wind turbine magnets.1 (See Short Feature.)

The African and South American mining nations, along with Mongolia, joined members of the newly formed Minerals Security Partnership, which will offer financing, loan guarantees and technical assistance to accelerate the production of key minerals needed for electric vehicles and to boost solar and wind power. The initiative, said Blinken, is needed because “critical mineral supply chains are simply vital to our shared future.”2

In his opening remarks, Blinken did not mention the biggest economy absent from the table — China — whose sizeable control over the global supply of minerals needed for green energy technologies has many of the ministers worried about the international security implications.

As countries deal with increasingly intense storms, droughts, rising seas, human migration and conflict caused by a warming planet, the transition to green energy to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases is reshaping the U.S.-dominated, post-World War II geopolitical system. That system is rooted in the use of fossil fuels — oil, natural gas and coal — the major sources of those emissions. The transition to a carbon-free economy has strengthened the power of China, which controls a large percentage of the world’s green energy minerals and has massive investments in carbon-free technologies and electric cars.3 Many governments worry that China could use its dominance in the green energy market for geopolitical leverage.

“We’ll stand together with others against economic coercion and intimidation,” Blinken said in May, explaining the new U.S. partnership during a China policy speech. “We’ll boost supply chain security and resilience by reshoring production or sourcing materials from other countries in sensitive sectors like pharmaceuticals and critical minerals, so that we’re not dependent on any one supplier.”4

As Washington and Beijing race to establish a framework for that emerging green energy system, other countries — such as Australia, Chile and several African nations — could become consequential energy players.

The joining of economic and mining powers under U.S. leadership highlights the geopolitical shift under way as the world aims to reduce human-caused carbon emissions to “net zero” in the second half of this century, a goal established by the 2015 Paris climate agreement. To achieve that goal, 195 countries pledged to limit the increase in the global average temperature to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. But even that 2-degree rise, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned, would intensify heat, drought and rainfall, harm ocean life and double the share of plants, insects and vertebrates at risk of losing most of their habitat.5

In its 2022 update, the IPCC said achieving the net zero goal would require “a rapid acceleration of mitigation efforts after 2030,” but some models say the world may not reach the goal until the early 2070s. For example, China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, does not intend to reach its peak carbon emissions before 2030 and will not achieve net zero carbon emissions before 2060.6

Given this timeline, the uncoupling of international fossil fuel alliances will take longer than many green advocates and activist governments would like, experts say. As a result, the two geopolitical systems — one seven decades old and built on oil and an emerging one shaped by the sun, wind and key minerals — are likely to co-exist for some time.

The realization that oil and natural gas are likely to continue to play a major role in the energy economy is an unwelcome reality in many places, including Europe, says former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, chief executive of the Energy Futures Initiative, a clean energy advocacy group in Washington. It “has elevated the importance of more seriously defining the multi-decadal clean energy transition, rather than a simple-minded focus by many on the net-zero end state.”

For example, U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach a record 12.3 million barrels a day in 2023, while the U.S. share of electrical power generated by renewable energy — solar, wind and hydropower — will increase from 20 percent in 2021 to 24 percent in 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.7

And while renewable sources will generate more U.S. electricity than coal this year, China still depends on the fuel for more than 60 percent of its electricity and plans to increase that usage through 2030. Coal-generated electricity powers the growing number of electric vehicles on Chinese streets. This year, a quarter of all new cars bought in China will be electric or plug-in hybrids, served by about 4 million charging units, double the total a year ago. The United States is far behind, with about 140,000 charging units.8

Reaching net zero by 2050 “requires nothing short of a total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies,” said the International Energy Agency, a research and coordination organization whose 31 member countries include the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Japan and Germany.9

A man charges an electric bus in Wuhan, China. Although a quarter of China’s new cars are electric or plug-in hybrids, most of the electricity for the country’s 4 million charging stations comes from coal-fired power plants. (Getty Images/Visual China Group)

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, exemplifies the emerging choices at the intersection of energy and national security. Since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 caused Japan to reduce its reliance on nuclear power, the country has depended on gas and coal to generate electricity, according to IEA data. Yet Japan is pivoting toward green energy, notably hydrogen, and collaborating with developing nations in Asia to accelerate its transition toward carbon neutrality.10

Concern about energy security is also forcing countries to recalculate the geopolitical equation in favor of renewables. Russia’s war in Ukraine exposed Europe’s dependence on Russian gas supplies and prompted a rapid shift of strategy toward renewables. Germany is expanding its wind energy to further displace fossil fuels.11

The war itself may have broken out in part due to international competition for green energy minerals. Some analysts cite the European Union’s 2021 deal to access Ukrainian minerals used in electric vehicles — such as lithium, cobalt and so-called rare earth elements — as a possible factor in Russia’s decision to invade. Rare earths are 15 lesser-known metals such as neodymium and terbium valued for their magnetic and optical properties.12 (See Short Feature.)

As the effects of climate change intensify in developing countries, the United States by 2030 is likely to face a high risk of climate-related demands for financing and technology assistance, an influx of climate refugees and a greater need to supply aid and humanitarian relief, according to a U.S. national intelligence estimate.13

“Geopolitical tensions are likely to grow as countries increasingly argue about how to accelerate the reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions needed to meet Paris Agreement goals,” the National Intelligence Council said last year. “Debate will center on who bears more responsibility to act and to pay — and how quickly — and countries will compete to control resources and dominate new technologies needed for the clean energy transition.”14

At November’s 27th conference of parties to the U.N. climate convention (COP27) in Egypt, debate centered on how industrialized countries that generate the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions should compensate developing nations — which spew far less carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere — for climate-related damages. Seventeen of the world’s 20 most climate-vulnerable countries are in Africa.

“The most valuable contribution that developed countries can make is to reduce their emissions faster while investing in Africa to build sustainable, green power,” Rwanda President Paul Kagame said at the gathering. “Questioning whether Africa is ready to make use of climate finance should not be used as an excuse to justify inaction.”15

Meanwhile, among the new arenas for global competition are mineral- and sun-rich Africa, as well as the Arctic, where shrinking seasonal ice is opening new shipping channels and aiding the hunt for green energy minerals and untapped oil and gas. (See Short Feature.)

With the world’s largest solar energy potential, Africa could strengthen its geopolitical position as other countries jockey to access the continent’s green energy minerals and seek to convince Africans to protect their carbon-absorbing rainforests.16

One encouraging sign: Hydrogen — the most abundant element in the universe — can be extracted from water to produce a clean fuel. The investment bank Goldman Sachs said $5 trillion may be needed to develop “clean” hydrogen as a fuel source, which could help cut greenhouse gas emissions about 15 percent “while becoming a key pillar of the energy mix.”17 And hydrogen production is arriving at commercial scale in countries as far-flung as Australia and Namibia.

Dozens of countries, including Germany and Japan, have rolled out strategies to harness hydrogen for industrial use and transportation, while stepping up diplomatic outreach to future exporters. The idea is to use renewables such as solar energy to extract “green” hydrogen gas from fresh or salt water through electrolysis, then transport the gas through pipelines or, in liquified form, by ship to industrial markets. The Hydrogen Council, a Brussels-based industry group promoting hydrogen-based energy, said 680 large-scale projects are planned worldwide in this decade, up 50 percent from a year ago. Based on planned hydrogen projects, global capacity could reach 134 gigawatts in 2030, from around 1 gigawatt this year, according to the International Energy Agency.18

As energy strategists, investors and policymakers strive to understand the scale, sources and sequencing of this transition and the countries poised to benefit, these are some of the questions on their agendas:

Will China dictate the pace of the world’s transition to green energy?

In August, China suspended climate talks with U.S. presidential climate envoy John Kerry after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in self-governing Taiwan, a visit the Chinese government called an affront to its “one China” policy that claims Taiwan as part of China.19

An announcement that the talks would resume came on Nov. 14 after the first face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping in Indonesia, a hopeful signal for advocates of more aggressive action on climate change who were meeting at the same time in Egypt at COP27.20

China and the United States had issued a joint declaration in late 2021 on the “seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis” and committed to accelerated actions and cooperation in the 2020s on reducing greenhouse gases, especially methane, and speeding up the shift to renewable energy.21

“Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon, and it accounts for nearly half of the net warming we’re experiencing now,” Biden told the COP27 meeting on Nov. 11. “So, cutting methane by at least 30 percent by 2030 can be our best chance to keep within reach of 1.5 degrees Celsius target.”22

The world’s energy transition would be eased if the United States and China “cooperate substantially, including in technology transfers, both ways,” but rising tensions between the two countries made that unlikely, says Henry Lee, director of the environment and natural resources program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Lithium mines, such as this one in Chile’s Atacama Desert, provide a key element needed for green technology such as electric vehicles. China currently has a lock on the lithium-ion battery supply chain, prompting the United States and others to seek alternate supplies. (Getty Images/John Moore)

Chinese control over key minerals used in electric vehicles and other green technologies sharpen the divide, as reflected in the aim of the U.S.-led Minerals Security Partnership to create alternative supplies. Currently, China refines 68 percent of the world’s nickel, 40 percent of copper, 59 percent of lithium and 73 percent of cobalt, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington. China also controlled 79 percent of lithium-ion battery manufacturing in 2021.23

The United States relies totally on imports for 14 “critical” minerals, including graphite, manganese, niobium and rare earths, and depends on imports for more than 75 percent of 10 others, according to congressional researchers.24

“This is China’s hegemonic weapon,” says James Kennedy, a consultant on rare earth elements, such as dysprosium, used to strengthen magnets for vehicles and wind turbines.25 “The U.S. uses oil and the dollar as hegemonic tools. China is using critical materials as a hegemonic tool.”

In September 2020, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13953, which declared that U.S. dependence on “foreign adversaries” for critical minerals was a national emergency. Trump said China had used “aggressive economic practices to strategically flood the global market for rare earth elements and displace its competitors,” while coercing industries that rely on these elements to locate in China.26

Countries key to the minerals-security initiative buttressed the U.S. stance. In June, Canada called for advanced economies to prioritize creation of critical mineral supply chain resilience for lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earths. Britain published a similar strategy document in July.27

In August, the European Union said China’s control of critical minerals posed a risk of supplies being “used as a geopolitical leverage, for instance through export restrictions.”28

“We are much more dependent on those critical minerals in comparison to oil and gas,” raising concerns if relations with China deteriorate, says Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As the green energy transition accelerates, Chinese companies are securing their international positions. CATL, the world’s biggest electric-vehicle battery maker, last year bought a minority stake in a copper and cobalt mine in Congo. It is setting up factories in Germany and Hungary and reducing carbon emissions in its batteries to meet U.S. and European standards.29

However, says the Belfer Center’s Lee, while China will have a major influence on the green transition, “I don’t think any one country will dictate the pace” of it. “You’re looking at a machine with many moving parts.”

As China flexes its muscles in renewable energy and electric vehicles, it also depends on coal to provide electricity for those cars as it ramps up the use of wind and solar. During his Oct. 16 speech to the Chinese Communist Party congress, Xi pledged to “push forward the clean and low-carbon transition” in industry, transportation and construction, but admitted China would also need to step up its use of fossil fuels. “Coal will be used in a cleaner and more efficient way, and greater efforts will be made to explore and develop petroleum and natural gas, discover more untapped reserves, and increase production,” Xi said.30

That tighter embrace of fossil fuels, however, could diminish China’s influence over the transition from carbon-based fuels.

Stabilizing carbon emissions in 2030, says Neil Hirst, a senior policy fellow for energy and mitigation at Imperial College London, is “a tough call for the Chinese,” because of economic growth and social progress considerations.

The boost in coal use will raise China’s carbon emissions by 1.5 to 2.5 percent by 2025 — above prior estimates — although long-term, carbon-reduction targets should still be viable, says Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser on climate change and energy transition at Beijing University’s Institute of Energy. “Coal will not go away very soon,” he says. “It will last several decades.” In his projections, coal will still account for 7 to 10 percent of total Chinese energy production in 2050.

China’s renewed commitment to coal contrasts with Xi’s 2021 announcement at the United Nations that China would no longer build coal projects abroad.31

The Climate Action Tracker, produced by German researchers, rates China’s target for reduced greenhouse gas emissions as “highly insufficient” and said that “if all countries followed the level of ambition implicit in this development, it would lead to a warming of 3°C degrees globally,” or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.32 That is double the optimal Paris Agreement limit and would threaten a range of natural systems.

A study by the Australian Academy of Science found that just 3 degrees of warming would exacerbate heat waves and drought, diminish water supplies and have ecosystem-changing effects on forests, fisheries and ocean reefs.33

As climate worries escalate and energy goes green, China’s neighbor and rival, India, may be the geopolitical wild card. Access to fossil fuels is crucial for India, the world’s third-largest carbon dioxide emitter. As international pressure mounts to squeeze carbon out of the energy system, India will face challenges in energy-intensive industries such as iron and steel production, cement and chemicals, according to an MIT study.34

Still, India is accelerating its conversion to renewable energy, pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitions and tens of billions of dollars of planned investment from Indian billionaires. Solar and wind energy will become India’s dominant power sources by 2050, while hydrogen use for transport will increase in this decade, according to The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.35

The United States should “privately work behind the scenes to assist India with the larger policy dilemma about how to begin a transition into a cleaner, green economy and achieve it with American technology and private sector trade,” said Tim Roemer, the former U.S. ambassador to India. “America needs to play this strategically for the long term — and not push India into the powerful gravitation of the China-Russia orbit.”36

Can hydrogen diminish energy competition among nations?

At the World Hydrogen Summit, held in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in May, a futuristic city named Neom claimed a top prize for its plans to generate environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel.37

The accolade was less surprising than the place where Neom is being built: Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s biggest producers of crude oil and natural gas. For decades, the Saudi kingdom has played a central role in the supply and pricing of the world’s oil, making it a crucial geopolitical player.

During a July visit to Jeddah to confer with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Biden and the Saudis signed a partnership to develop and finance clean energy sources, such as green hydrogen, nuclear and solar.38

Creating green hydrogen from water by using solar and wind energy to power electrolysis produces carbon-free energy that can be traded internationally. “By opening up the long-distance transport of sunlight and wind, hydrogen will become the new oil,” energy executive Marco Alverá wrote in his 2021 book, The Hydrogen Revolution. 39

Siemens Mobility unveils the first hydrogen-powered train in collaboration with German rail operator Deutsche Bahn in Krefeld, Germany, on May 5. Experts hope the use of hydrogen fuel, made from water, can reduce carbon emissions and ease global tensions spawned during the oil era. (AFP/Getty Images/Ina Fassbender)

“Green hydrogen is a huge growth area for us, and we believe it’s going to be a contributor in the future economy and the future energy as we transition to a decarbonized world,” Saudi Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih told Bloomberg in July.40

Saudi Arabia will be competing with a range of green energy newcomers. The United Arab Emirates, the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, is forging a hydrogen partnership with the United Kingdom. Hydrogen could enable the U.A.E. “to maintain or grow its geostrategic energy position despite global decarbonisation policies,” said a study by the Dubai-based World Green Economy Organization.41

As an energy source that is created rather than extracted, hydrogen has raised hopes that it can dissipate global tensions spawned during the oil era. Italian energy researcher Marco Giuli said hydrogen is likely to “reduce the geopolitical sensitivity of energy trade” by focusing more on domestic needs than on “grabbing resources.”42

Others are more cautious, however.

“Hydrogen will certainly play a significant role in decarbonizing multiple sectors of the energy economy,” says Moniz, the former U.S. energy secretary. “However, arguing that it would eliminate geopolitical considerations is a step too far. Hydrogen should abate, but not eliminate, geopolitical competition.”

Countries increasingly are focusing on building a global market for hydrogen and negotiating future trade deals. Germany has opened hydrogen offices in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, with the goal, in part, of helping oil exporters adapt to the transition and reducing economic disruptions and security risks.43

Chile, which seeks to become a green hydrogen power in South America, is discussing with the Netherlands how to create “export-import corridors” between Chile and Europe. The European Union’s energy strategy is to support three renewable hydrogen import corridors via the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea and, “as soon as conditions allow, with Ukraine.”44

Some say that hydrogen could “completely democratize global energy markets and let most countries self-produce,” says Jeffrey Beyer, managing director of Zest Associates in Dubai, a clean-energy consultancy, and author of the U.A.E. study. “The reality is that some countries have lots of indigenous energy sources and others don’t.”

Japan, whose reliance on Middle East oil makes it susceptible to geopolitical jolts, is pursuing a regional hydrogen strategy that would support Asian markets. In September, Japan hosted a green energy meeting of 20 nations, including Southeast Asia’s rising economies of Indonesia and Vietnam.45

“Currently, the international finance industry is rapidly withdrawing investments from fossil fuel projects,” Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Nishimura Yasutoshi told the Asia Green Growth Partnership on Sept. 26. “However, Asia is highly dependent on fossil fuels amid growing energy demand and its potential for renewable energy is not necessarily as high as it is in Europe.”46

In February, the specially built ship Suiso Frontier arrived in Kobe, Japan, from Australia with the first cargo of liquified hydrogen in a pilot project, viewed as a milestone in the transition to green energy.47

Australia is also developing hydrogen ties with Germany. “If our current pipeline of clean hydrogen projects is completed on time, Australia could be one of the world’s largest hydrogen suppliers by 2030,” a 2021 Australian government report said.48

An analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency, an Abu Dhabi-based intergovernmental organization, suggests that about one-third of hydrogen would be traded across borders by 2050, about half of that probably in pipelines, including those now used to transport natural gas. Exporting countries will gain in strategic importance and new shipping routes will shape security and defense plans, the agency said.49

Coastal countries might hold an advantage over dry, inland areas, because desalination of seawater adds only one U.S. cent per kilogram to the cost of hydrogen, energy executive Alverá wrote.50

Hydrogen “will change the dynamics of geopolitics in energy,” says Jamie Speirs, a fellow in energy analysis and policy at the Sustainable Gas Institute at the Imperial College London. “Some countries will do this better than others, and those are the places where green hydrogen will be done at scale.”

China is already the world’s largest producer and consumer of hydrogen, but it is made using coal. China’s new strategy calls for creating 50,000 hydrogen-fueled vehicles by 2025, using more hydrogen in industry and increasing the manufacture of electrolyzers for hydrogen production.51

While hydrogen is riding a wave of optimism, Speirs says it’s “easy to get carried away by the hype” surrounding it. “We might find out that hydrogen isn’t as low-carbon as we hope, or need it to be, to meet our targets,” undercutting the confidence of governments and investors, he says.

Can Africa parlay its green assets into geopolitical influence?

On Africa’s arid southwestern coast, Namibia boasts a population of only 2.7 million people in an area almost twice the size of California, which has nearly 40 million people. Namibia currently depends on electricity from South Africa. Yet, it has two assets of increasing international interest: high solar energy potential and metals coveted for electric vehicles.52

Germany, which is seeking hydrogen to decarbonize its industries, formed a partnership with Namibia last year, linked to a Namibian government initiative that has awarded 1,544 square miles of land to investors for a $9.4 billion green hydrogen project. The enterprise will convert Atlantic Ocean water into hydrogen, fueled by the country’s abundant solar and wind power.53

“The global race for the best hydrogen technologies and the best sites for hydrogen production is already on,” Germany’s federal research minister at the time, Anja Karliczek, said during the signing of the partnership. Namibia could produce hydrogen “at the most competitive price in the world.”54

A recent U.S. assessment described Namibia, which also has new lithium and cobalt mines, as “an up-and-coming source country for critical minerals” used in electric vehicles and battery storage. In October, Namibia Critical Metals said its Lofdal mine could produce significant amounts of dysprosium and terbium — rare earth metals used in the permanent magnets of electric vehicles — to supply Japan long term. China currently controls the world’s supply of dysprosium and terbium.55

Besides Namibia, other African regions are well-positioned to capitalize on the green energy transition — from the continent’s vast, sun-washed deserts and savannas to its carbon-capturing Congo Basin rainforest and the vast supply of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Clean energy investments on the continent are projected to rise sixfold from 2026 to 2030, with total annual energy investment averaging about $190 billion, according to the International Energy Agency.56

Whether Africa can translate those assets into geopolitical clout hinges on tackling entrenched economic barriers.

“Much more needs to happen from African governments to be able to change the game completely” regarding critical minerals, says Alfonso Medinilla, head of climate and green transition geopolitics at ECDPM, a think tank on Africa-Europe relations. African countries need to get away from the current model of merely extracting raw materials and exporting them to be processed elsewhere, he says. Instead, he says, they should process the minerals domestically and export the higher value finished products.

James Mwangi, founder of the Kenya-based Climate Action Network Africa, agrees. Antiquated supply chains that export raw African materials without adding value incur a large carbon cost and concentrate poverty and instability in Africa, he says.

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina told Norwegian investors in September that Africa’s lithium deposits could “make Africa competitive with China and Chile in the race for supplying global value chains for electric cars.” He also touted Africa’s green hydrogen potential, along with a $20 billion “Desert to Power” plan to turn 11 countries in the Sahel — a transition belt between the Sahara Desert and tropical regions to the south — into the world’s largest solar zone.57

Some hydrogen projects already emerging in Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and South Africa are using renewable energy to make ammonia for fertilizer, which would strengthen Africa’s food security, the International Energy Agency said. African farmers face a shortage of imported fertilizer due to the war in Ukraine.58

Experts say African countries must balance domestic needs and international interests as they strive to amass green geopolitical influence. The DRC illustrates the challenge, as Secretary of State Blinken highlighted during an August visit to its capital, Kinshasa. “On climate, the Democratic Republic of Congo is vital to the future of the planet,” Blinken said. “It’s as simple as that. The Congo Basin rainforest absorbs more carbon than is emitted by the entire continent of Africa.”59

A large swath of flooded rainforest — a region the size of England — runs through the DRC and neighboring Republic of Congo. The peat under the water contains about 30 billion metric tons of carbon — as much as the world emits in about three years.

A moratorium on logging concessions in the DRC rainforest took effect in 2002. Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom have been funding a forest preservation and management initiative that could lead to the lifting of that moratorium in 2023. Western countries would like for the DRC and other Congo Basin nations to leave their rainforests undisturbed or for them to be sustainably developed.

But the African governments also are eyeing the sizeable oil deposits underneath the peat.

“The challenge is to find an equilibrium, a balance between the well-being of the Congolese people” and an ecological framework, said Congolese Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula.60

A national audit of rainforest logging published this year found that six DRC government ministers in a row had violated forest-protection laws and illegally allocated at least 18 concessions to themselves. The environmental advocacy group Greenpeace Africa, which said the logging moratorium is routinely violated, found that a DRC environment minister had awarded a logging permit to Chinese and other companies covering an area equal to four times the size of Kinshasa.61

Another Central African country, Gabon, has been trying to balance its domestic needs while helping in the global effort to slow climate change. The tiny nation aims to sustainably manage its abundant, carbon-absorbing rainforest by banning exports of logs, controlling and tracking tree harvesting and developing domestic manufacturing of wood products.62

Expanding renewable energy and helping to create an industrial base in Africa could position the United States more strongly against China, says Mwangi. Africa’s projected population surge — estimated to represent 52 percent of world growth by 2050 — makes it an enticing alternative market to China’s for U.S. companies, given current trade tensions between China and the United States, he says.63

“Don’t think about Africa purely as a climate victim,” Mwangi says. Instead, focus on the potential of the African economy to help lower the cost of meeting global net zero emissions targets, he says.

At COP27, Biden announced investments in climate adaptation and green energy in Africa, including early warning systems and disaster-risk protection. He said the United States is joining the EU and Germany in a $500-million effort to help Egypt add 10 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 while reducing 5 gigawatts of “inefficient” gas-powered facilities and capturing natural gas that flares or leaks from oil and gas operations.64

During the conference, countries such as Kenya and Nigeria announced the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative, designed to generate $6 billion by 2030 for African communities to invest in renewable energy and other efforts to curb climate change. It would set up a system for trading carbon credits, each representing one ton of carbon dioxide emissions that a polluter can purchase, with the funds being invested in carbon-reduction systems, such as a forest.65

Achieving a so-called African Green Deal would require bold, government-directed efforts to boost energy availability and reduce carbon emissions while expanding economic growth and ensuring social equity, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. “African leaders must clearly articulate, map and assert their own climate transition and development agendas” with regional coordination, the agency said.66

Ethiopia also aims to become a major player in Africa’s efforts to become a world leader in renewable energy. It seeks to boost its power output ninefold by 2037 by expanding its hydropower, wind, solar and geothermal resources.67

Africa’s largest hydropower dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, has begun to generate electricity amid tensions with downstream Egypt.68

Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a massive hydropower plant on the Nile River that has begun to generate electricity, caused tension with downstream Egypt, which relies heavily on the Nile for its water. Ethiopia aims to become a major player in Africa’s efforts to be a global renewable energy leader but that plan could be limited by the need for financing. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Minasse Wondimu Hailu)

But Ethiopia’s potential is limited by investment risks and the need for “prohibitively costly” energy-delivery infrastructure, says Mikael Alemu, an Ethiopian-Israeli entrepreneur and co-founder of 10 Green Gigawatt for Ethiopia, a solar energy development company.

“My partners and myself believe in [the] enormous potential of solar energy in Ethiopia, and we know hundreds of investors who share this belief,” he says. “But very few investors today can accept the country and currency risks of Ethiopia, and therefore there is just a handful of private energy developers.”

Some activists say that as the green energy transition gathers momentum, some African countries, such as Mozambique, continue to bet too much on new oil and gas production, where European and Japanese investors are tapping major gas discoveries for export.69

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