WHEN BORIS Johnson announced plans for a new “green industrial revolution” last November, he promised Britain would become a global leader in green technology. But there are many other countries vying for that title. China has outlined plans for a green industrial revolution of its own.
While a technological shift is greatly needed in order to move industries away from a dependence on fossil fuels, the focus on technological advances underlies two problems. The idea that technology, and not substantial structural change, is what will solve the climate crisis is misguided.
Resources needed for such technological changes depend on the same extractive and exploitative practices that have ravaged the global south for almost four centuries. At the centre of this exploitation will be the African continent that is seeing increased competition from foreign powers for access to the mineral resources that would be needed to make the green industrial revolution a reality.
What has often been left out of the majority of discourse on the proposed green industrial revolution, is just how critical African labour, land and resources have been towards powering the economic growth, development and industrial revolutions of the Western world.
The exploitation of African resources has been an integral part of this, particularly after the colonisation of the continent in 1885 by European powers. Africa has 40 per cent of the world’s gold deposits, 90 per cent of known chromium and platinum reserves and the largest reserves of cobalt, diamonds and uranium.
To put this in perspective, the uranium used in the development of the nuclear bombs that the United States dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), thus Africa was critical in the development of the atomic age.
Whether it is much of the electronic devices that you use which rely on tantalum, with 71 per cent coming from Africa, or 58 per cent of the cobalt for your batteries, it is more than likely that the critical resources and minerals needed for modern life to function in an industrialised society were sourced and extracted from somewhere in the African continent. This trend of sourcing resources for technological development is not likely to shift anytime in the future.
At COP26 there was little discussion on how unequal value chains across the developing world need to be addressed in the context of the climate crisis. The advent of a Western-led green industrial revolution is likely to continue and even intensify this pattern of extraction and reliance on African land and resources to achieve this. With the increasing investment in green technologies this has been accompanied by an increased interest in extracting raw materials in order to build the green industries of the future.
The need for more solar panels and efficient batteries will almost certainly come from African minerals and resources. This has been accompanied by increased land grabs by foreign entities. Over 60 per cent of all uncultivated arable land is found on the continent with investors spending over $100 million for more than 40 hectares of land.
Competition with the West and other wealthy countries looking to secure their development, such as China and Brazil, are responsible for this significant trend. Many analysts argue that this will drive economic development across the African continent and that many parts of Africa are on the cusp of their own industrial revolutions. According to a report by global management and consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Africa has an opportunity to leapfrog the previous industrial revolutions to the fourth industrial revolution.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that the intensification of demand for African resources will spur such changes. In fact, it is very possible that the drive for natural resources will fuel greater exploitation across the continent. Currently in some countries, such as the DRC, child labour already accounts for some of the resources extracted for today’s technology.
More than 72 million children in Africa are involved in child labour with 31.5 million currently trapped in unsafe working conditions. Your laptop or mobile phone has cobalt and tantalum likely sourced from exploited regions of the DRC with most corporations and manufacturing companies refusing to monitor how the minerals were sourced.
The reality is that for Western countries to obtain the resources to shift their industries towards an environmentally friendly output, they will need to obtain these resources cheaply from exploited labour in the global south.
This detachment from the urgency of action needed to meet the challenges of the climate crisis is in part due to the desire to preserve the large scale consumption that characterises capitalism well into the future.
However, this green industrial revolution lacks the revolutionary characteristics of its namesake and represents more of the same patterns of development in the Western world. Even more concerning is that just as with the first industrial revolution, Africa is set up to play a key role in making this “revolution” a reality for the West.