energy globalisation human rights

The risk of hydrogen colonialism

Last week I wrote about the moral hazard of hydrogen, a cautionary tale of how the ‘hydrogen revolution’ could lead us astray and play into the hands of the fossil fuel industry. With more of a global perspective, there’s another risk that I want to briefly look at today: hydrogen colonialism.

What do I mean by that?

Well, a lot of the time colonialism refers to political status, and whether countries are being occupied by an imperial power. But it’s always been bigger than that. As Kwame Nkrumah described in his classic book on the subject, Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, it’s better thought of as a broad system of power imbalances. Whatever the formal political structures may be, colonialism can continue through finance, through trade, land ownership, through international institutions and a whole multiplicity of power dynamics.

In a colonial power relationship, other countries are used as sites of production for the imperial powers. Grow the cotton or the tobacco or the sugar in the colonies, and then ship them to the mother country. That’s where the value will be added and the final product consumed.

Hydrogen could end up as part of this story, if developing countries specialise in hydrogen production for export. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Mauritania and Namibia are planning major investments in renewable energy for hydrogen. This will then be shipped north to Europe, an important new source of trade for both countries.

At the same time, half of Mauritainians have no electricity. Namibia has a million people without power. Imagine vast acres of solar panels being installed in the desert in your own country, while you continue to use candles. Imagine knowing that all the energy being produced is not for you, but for the white people up north.

This would be a repeat of the injustice seen in the fossil fuel industry. There is no shortage of examples of African nations where, in collusion with regional elites, oil and gas wealth hasn’t trickled very far down. Among the more extreme examples is Equatorial Guinea, which rapidly became one of the wealthiest nations on the continent when oil was discovered. Twenty years later, 70% of the population still lives below the poverty line, while President Teodoro Obiang has an estimated $600 million stashed in bank accounts across the world.

Done badly, a rush into hydrogen could play out in similar ways, with the benefits shared among local elites, and the majority gaining neither profit nor power. But that’s not inevitable. There’s no reason why it could not be done well, if approached with transparency and a focus on shared prosperity.

As we read more about schemes like Germany and Namibia’s partnership for hydrogen, let’s be alert to the echoes of colonial extraction, and ensure that everybody gains from energy investment.


  1. I’m sure you are aware of the irony of a man who talks about colonialism opining on what African countries what they should and shouldn’t do

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