Beijing and Washington Are Battling Over Africa’s Green Future

The energy transition depends on building partnerships with African states.

Got a building your selling? Worried about Taxes? Free 1031 eBook


In March 2023, three renewable energy players—Conjuncta from Germany, Infinity from Egypt, and Masdar from the United Arab Emirates—signed an agreement with Mauritania’s government to develop a colossal green hydrogen project in the country, worth a staggering $34 billion. This ambitious project aims to produce up to 8 million tons of green hydrogen a year, to be exported mainly to Europe. Mauritania, a key counter-terrorism partner in the Sahel turned key energy partner for Europe, is an emblematic example of the role African nations are playing in the global green energy transition.

Africa is home to many of the raw materials critical to the global decarbonization race, boasts huge renewable energy potential as well as vital carbon sinks, and will be a crucial partner in the global fight against climate change. As the United States and Europe step up their efforts to accelerate their net zero transitions and “de-risk,” as the U.S. government now likes to term it, green supply chains from China, they will need Africa in their corner.

After decades of successful Chinese diplomacy and development aid in the continent, that will be easier said than done. Western countries need to completely redefine their own partnerships with Africa, under the principles of reciprocity rather than extraction.

With over $40 billion in foreign direct investments on the continent in 2020, China has out-invested the United States in Africa every year since 2013, and is poised to overtake Europe as Africa’s leading trading partner by 2030. African countries have reciprocated: At the United Nations General Assembly, for example, African nations have voted with China more often than with the West, on subjects ranging from the South China Sea to Hong Kong to the treatment of Uyghur minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.

To some extent, Europeans and Americans are to blame for this. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. The West was seen as displaying little solidarity with the African continent, both failing to provide enough vaccines from Western stockpiles and refusing to budge on waiving intellectual property rights for vaccines (first proposed by South Africa and India). China, on the other hand, was quick to provide and publicize support in the form of vaccines and medical equipment. Speaking during the Dakar Peace Forum in December 2021, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa accused the United States and Europe of “just giving us the crumbs from their table.”

African leaders also often accuse their Western counterparts of hypocrisy and expecting the impossible. As Europe weans itself off Russian gas, for example, it has ramped up oil and gas investments in Africa to meet its ongoing needs. Yet it continues to press African governments to stick to renewable energy targets, despite those governments being unable to provide electricity, clean or otherwise, to large portions of their populations. Just look at Germany’s landmark hydrogen deal in Namibia: The $10-billion deal (just slightly less than Namibia’s GDP) will include a desalination plant—but for hydrogen production only, in a country facing a historical drought. Massive solar farms will power the production of green hydrogen, while almost half of Namibia’s population still lacks access to the electrical grid.

To African partners, Western engagement on the continent feels one-sided, insufficient, cumbersome, and oftentimes hypocritical.

New initiatives to reengage with Africa have failed to garner much enthusiasm. The European Union and African Union (AU) announced a multitude of collaborative vaccine and green energy transition projects at an EU-AU summit in mid-February 2022, but they were immediately sidelined upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, the European Union’s version of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Gateway, is seen by many as too little, too late. French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan for a renewed partnership with Africa also seems doomed to fail due to African skepticism of French intentions. Given that Macron’s plan was designed without consulting its proposed African partners, it is unlikely to reverse France’s inexorable drop in popularity among African civil societies.

The United States has made better progress, with commitments such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s $369 million investment for food security, renewable energy infrastructure, and health projects promised at the 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. But there’s still a lot of ground to make up. Experts estimate that China already invested a total of $120 billion in Africa between 2007 and 2020, whereas the United States only invested $20 billion during the same period.

This mismatched approach, where China consistently has the upper hand and the United States and Europe are behind playing catch-up, will have deleterious effects on the green transition. As the United States and Europe seek to build their own green industrial supply chains across wind, solar, and electric vehicles, Africa is an indispensable partner.

One of the key components of the ongoing green industrial arms race between Europe, the United States, and China is access to critical raw materials, which are crucial inputs for things such as batteries and solar panels. An electric vehicle battery, for instance, requires roughly 157 pounds of graphite, 90 pounds of nickel, 49 pounds of copper, 20 pounds of cobalt, and 18 pounds of lithium. The EU’s demand for lithium is projected to increase by up to 18 times by 2030, by which time Africa will be supplying a fifth of the world’s needs. African countries already represent more than two-thirds of global production in cobalt, bauxite, platinum, and many other materials. Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, a mineral used in electric vehicle batteries, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately for the United States and Europe, close to 70 percent of cobalt is refined in China.

In fact, China controls almost the entire supply chain, from extraction and shipping to refining and processing. This means that, in African states, the West must invest in more than just mines; it must invest in production infrastructure as well. Africa also holds the solution to many European headaches across different energy sources. New solar partnerships in North Africa, for example, promise to deliver electricity across the Mediterranean. For nuclear energy, African uranium deposits will drive the revival of the industry across Europe: Orano, the French nuclear giant, recently reopened a shelved uranium project in Niger. South Africa, Malawi, and Namibia also have significant reserves. Kenyan President William Ruto hammered this point home recently at an event in Nairobi, highlighting that Africa had the potential to be a global industrial powerhouse because it had the most green energy in the world.

Policymakers in Europe and the United States must finally start listening to what their African counterparts are requesting. That means less hypocrisy on development issues and more investments, along the lines of what developed nations pledged (but failed to deliver): $100 billion a year. What would this look like?

To begin with, Europe must end the gas hypocrisy. The European Investment Bank has refused to support gas projects in Africa, despite the continent’s vast energy access problem and the health and biodiversity impacts of its reliance on coal and firewood. The West must take a more balanced approach to the energy transition in Africa, recognizing the continent’s negligible impact on global carbon emissions in the first place, and direct its focus to supporting energy infrastructure and generation that meets higher environmental standards instead. At the 2009 U.N. climate summit (COP15), developed countries agreed to mobilize $100 billion a year for developing states by 2020 (pushed to 2023 at the 2019 summit). If Europeans want to be credible in pushing their African partners to adopt renewable sources of energy instead of fossil fuels, they need to put their money where their mouth is, in a literal sense.

The United States and Europe must also work to build genuine industrial partnerships. As the apocryphal quote from a Kenyan official goes, “Every time China visits, we get a hospital; every time Britain visits, we get a lecture.” If the West wants to build its own green supply chains with African nations, it must offer something of value in exchange. That offer should be partnerships that enable African states to move up the global value chain, from purely extractive activities to refining of critical raw materials or even manufacturing panels and batteries. There are already first sketches of such partnerships: Late last year, the United States signed a non-binding agreement with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo on electric vehicle battery value chains. Similarly, Germany recently established a Climate and Development Partnership with Kenya that will, among other things, support the “modernization of the power grid as part of a fully renewable energy system.” This will help increase domestic fertilizer production by decreasing dependencies on fossil gas, thereby creating a more climate-resilient agriculture industry throughout the Horn of Africa.

These industrial partnerships will need to include much-needed private sector investments. That will mean providing incentives for private capital from New York, London, and other Western financial hubs to flow to African countries—for instance via mechanisms that reduce the risks of such investments. They will also need new and more balanced trade relations, especially in the context of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism in Europe and the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States. Chile’s new trade agreement with the European Union could provide a model for such relations. The agreement provides lower prices to EU companies that process their lithium and copper in Chilean refineries.

Prioritizing the green transition will require increased policy dialogue between the West and Africa. Currently, no permanent dialogue platform exists between the European Union and the African Union, with most discussions taking place in ad hoc channels. No EU-AU summit has been officially scheduled as of this article’s publication, either. Recent discussions to include the African Union as a full-fledged 21st member of the G-20 would be a step in the right direction.

Finally, Western partners should provide financing or debt relief support to enable African nations to achieve their own energy transition: not one of transitioning to renewable energy, but one of transitioning from no energy to energy. As debt levels rise across the continent, African nations are increasingly at risk of debt distress and default—while 600 million of the continent’s 1.2 billion people still lack access to electricity, a problem that will require trillions of dollars to solve. More investments are also desperately needed to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which are already disproportionately affecting African nations.

The United States and Europe need to seriously consider options to overhaul debt relief frameworks and increase financing flows to the continent, whether it be by increasing the use of guarantees (at the World Bank or other public institutions’ level), developing access to carbon credits, or using special drawing rights to unlock billions of concessional financing to African nations. The Barbados-led Bridgetown Agenda specifically proposes that the World Bank and other multilateral development banks increase the upper limit of loans to $1 trillion, lent to states to develop greater climate resilience and foster sustainable economic development.

Clearly, the United States and Europe both recognize that their relationship with Africa must fundamentally shift. As the West’s ongoing competition with China bleeds into the global green transition, the United States and Europe must ensure that the partnerships they are building in Africa are mutually beneficial and non-extractive. Otherwise, they will run headlong into the walls erected by an increasingly dominant Beijing. To quote Kenyan President Ruto again: “The global energy and industrial transition is inevitable, and it will find Africa ready and waiting.”


ENB Top News
Energy Dashboard
ENB Podcast
ENB Substack