African energy leader calls for reality check on minerals extraction

Chief Europe Correspondent
Amani Abou-Zeid speaks on a panel at an energy conference.
Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for energy and infrastructure at the African Union Commission, speaks on a panel at an energy conference in Vienna in November 2023. Photo credit: ©️UNIDO/juhasz.

VIENNA – Africa’s energy commissioner has a message to countries ramping up their clean technologies: Be careful what you call “green.” 

The world is failing to pay sufficient attention to the energy-intensive practice of mineral extraction, which takes place under questionable human rights and working conditions in many low- and middle-income countries, Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for energy and infrastructure at the African Union Commission, told Cipher in an interview last week. 

The commission is the executive and administrative branch of the African Union, an intergovernmental organization that promotes growth and economic development made up of 55 countries and headquartered in Ethiopia. 

“If you look at the supply chain, I fail to see where the green part is,” she said. “How can a battery be called green under these conditions? How can an electric car that runs in Canada or in Norway or in France be called green? … Once it’s manufactured and on the road, yes, but if you look at the whole process it’s not really like that.” 

Abou-Zeid, an Egyptian national, made the comments on the sidelines of the International Vienna Energy and Climate Forum, which gathered thousands of delegates in a 13th century palace in the Austrian capital to discuss how to scale up climate solutions in low- and middle-income countries. 

As the world shifts away from the legacy fossil fuel system, green technologies and infrastructure will drive increased demand for many critical minerals over the coming decades, as Cipher previously reported. 

Critical minerals like lithium, copper and cobalt are at the core of the world’s ambition to put more electric vehicles on the road, line more rooftops with solar panels and dot fields and seas with powerful wind turbines.   

Africa is a mineral-rich continent, receiving increasing attention from wealthy countries keen to tap its resources. The continent has roughly 85 percent of the world’s manganese, 80 percent of the world’s platinum and chromium, 47 percent of its cobalt, 21 percent of its graphite, and 6 percent of its copper, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

China is currently the biggest importer of these materials from Africa and dominates the refining process. 

The extraction and transportation of critical minerals is still largely reliant on fossil fuels and the process is not very efficient, creating significant waste, Abou-Zeid said. She also questioned the “far from decent working conditions” of the workers.  

Nonprofit organizations, such as Amnesty International, have tried to draw attention to what they describe as human rights abuses in the extractive industry. There is also academic work on the topic describing these abuses as “widespread.”  

“We need to look at the whole supply chain, especially when it involves developing or low-income countries,” Abou-Zeid said. “Don’t look at the tip of the iceberg, look at the whole of it and see exactly what is hiding beneath.” 

The African Union is looking to support African countries developing sustainable critical mineral strategies through its African Minerals Development Center. International coordination and increased oversight will be key to addressing the environmental and social challenges throughout the minerals supply chain, according to the International Energy Agency 

We are calling on our partners to rethink the way they partner, private or public, with developing countries in these processes,” the commissioner added.