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Morocco takes lead in climate change fight, but at what cost?

Morocco is pushing forward with an ambitious renewable energy sector, but its policies may be doing more harm than good.
A thermosolar power plant is pictured at Noor III near the city of Ouarzazate, Morocco, November 4, 2016. Picture taken November 4, 2016. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal - RTX2S18M

During the COP22, the United Nation’s climate conference that is currently taking place (Nov. 7-18) in Marrakech, journalists are being taken to visit the kingdom’s most ambitious project, the solar plant NOOR I. Noor, which mean “light” in Arabic, is the world’s largest concentrated solar plant and started functioning in Ouarzazate in February. Still under expansion, the Ouarzazate solar plant will cover an area as large as 4,200 football fields (3,000 hectares) and provide electricity for 1.1 million Moroccans.

Morocco has launched an ambitious strategy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions with a focus on the energy sector, according to a Heinrich Boll Foundation report. Morocco’s Green Investment Plan is spending $11.5 billion on solar and wind energy programs over a period of 10 years. By 2030, Morocco aims to cover 52% of its energy needs with renewables.

Morocco is the only North African country that has virtually no fossil fuel resources. The expansion of renewable capacity will reduce the kingdom’s dependency on imports that reached 91% in 2014. To attract private sector investments in green energies, Morocco has largely stopped fossil fuel subsidies and instead funds the difference between production cost and the selling price of green energy.

Dorothea Richewski, the director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Rabat, calls for caution. “This is financed mostly by loans from international finance institutions. As a result, Morocco’s dependency on fossil fuels will be replaced by a financial dependency. In 2015, Morocco’s debt already reached more than 63% of the gross domestic product [GDP].”

Renewable energy infrastructures are earmarked for their positive socio-economic impact. Morocco was ranked among the poorest countries in the Arab world.

But according to Richewski, there are still some lessons to be learned. “There were very high expectations in terms of employment around the development of NOOR I. However, there were fewer jobs created than expected and many were only temporary. Small- and medium-size businesses were not sufficiently included in the construction of NOOR I, whereas they are key for job creation and local economic development,” he said.

The development of Morocco’s green energy sector is orchestrated by King Mohammed VI, whose fortune was estimated as the fifth largest in Africa in 2015 and is largely due to his majority shareholding of the National Investment Company. This giant founded Nareva Holding, an energy company that aims to become a Moroccan pioneer in renewables. Over the last years, Nareva Holding won numerous national tenders, including for the Tarfaya wind park, Africa’s largest.

Nareva Holding also launched partnerships to develop green energy projects in North and West Africa, including Ghana, Egypt, Cameroun and Senegal. Beside business opportunities, these partnerships offer additional diplomatic leverage at a time when Morocco wishes to rejoin the African Union after 32 years of absence.

Cedric Philibert, a renewable energy senior analyst at the International Energy Agency, told Al-Monitor that he is skeptical whether Moroccan green energy programs can be replicated in sub-Saharan Africa. “Morocco has developed huge energy plants. But in sub-Saharan Africa, it is rather likely that the energetic transition will be more decentralized, with smaller units such as solar cells to charge smartphones or at the village level.”

The development of the Moroccan wind energy program also faces fierce criticism in Western Sahara. The Foum El Oued wind park already operates in this disputed territory. Two additional wind farms are planned over the next years. Erik Hagen, the chair of Western Sahara Resource Watch, told Al-Monitor in this regard, “In just four years, the kingdom plans to produce over a staggering quarter of its renewable energy in Western Sahara.”

Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1976. After a 15-year long conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s national liberation organization, a cease-fire came into effect with the promise of a referendum of self-determination in Western Sahara the following year. The International Court of Justice as well as the United Nations are in favor of the referendum. But until today, Morocco failed to organize it while developing economic activity in what it calls its “southern provinces.”

According to Hans Corell, a former legal counsel of the United Nations, the natural resources from a “non-self-governing territory” such as Western Sahara can only be used with the agreement and for the benefit of the local population.

Said Mouline, the director general of the Moroccan National Agency for the Development of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, told Al-Monitor that the wind parks close to el-Aaiun, the largest city in Western Sahara, produce electricity for the local population. “This region is being developed according to the rules of sustainable development. This is different from countries that export petrol and do not distribute the benefits to local populations.”

But according to Phosboucraa, a government-owned phosphate mining company, 95% of its energy is produced by the nearby Foum El Oued wind park. Phosphate exports traditionally account for 10% of Morocco’s GDP. In their report published before the COP22, Western Sahara Resource Watch points out that the use of locally produced renewable energies makes the depletion of nonrenewable resources in Western Sahara more profitable by lowering production costs.

Western Sahara Resource Watch also criticizes the German company Siemens for striking a deal with Nareva Holding for the Foum El Oued wind power project. Hagen said, “According to international law, Siemens should consult the local Sahrawi population before entering into deals in this territory.” A Siemens spokesperson told Al-Monitor that the company was a mere supplier and that the delivery of wind turbines to the Foum El Oued site was not in breach of international law.

As the COP22 comes to an end, Western Sahara Resource Watch is questioning Morocco’s reputation as a green energy champion. Hagen added, “Of course, it is important to fight climate change. At the same time, it is very surprising that the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] — the UN body responsible for the COP22 — does not question these Moroccan projects that take place in a territory over which the UN itself does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty.”

At the COP22, Morocco emerges as an African leader in green energies. But many criticize the political and financial interests that the palace is pursuing through its renewable energy policies.

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