Green transitions in Africa-Europe relations: What role for the European Green Deal?

April 10, 2021
Share this page

This article is excerpted from a special series on Africa-EU relations during the German EU presidency, produced by members of the European Think Tank Group (ETTG). The views expressed are those of the authors. Download the previous ETTG paper here.

Europe–Africa relations are facing a double challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic puts social and economic systems under strain at a point when the consequences of the climate crisis are being increasingly felt on both continents.  Green transitions have the potential to support Africa–Europe cooperation by combining the climate agenda with an innovative socio-economic project for jobs creation and sustainable growth. Green transitions can be a fruitful area for cooperation because common interests and interdependencies between both continents are high.

Green transitions are key topics in the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU). Both bodies are committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement within which green transitions are key elements. The EU has initiated the European Green Deal with an ambitious agenda to transform Europe into a carbon-neutral continent by 2050. On both continents, green transitions play a prominent role in debates about socio-economic COVID-19 recovery programs.

Notwithstanding these commonalities, the EU and the AU approach green transitions from very different angles. Whereas the EU has a major historic responsibility and continues to have very high per capita emissions, African countries have contributed little to climate change but will be  severely affected by its consequences. The AU’s Agenda 2063 gives strong priority to poverty reduction and climate adaptation, whereas the social dimension of the European Green Deal is limited.

Acknowledging these differences will need to be the starting point for identifying priorities for AU– EU cooperation on developing green transitions. There are six particularly relevant fields of action for AU-EU cooperation: energy transitions, the circular economy, trade, climate change adaptation in the agricultural sector, climate diplomacy, and financial instruments. For each of these fields of action, this paper discusses reform initiatives on both continents and offers specific recommendations.

Energy Transitions

There are three main avenues for cooperation between African and EU countries in the energy sector: enhancing electricity access through renewable energy, supporting green transitions, and green energy trading.

Enhancing electricity access through renewable energy

Industrial growth, demographic changes and mobility needs will ensure a rising energy demand in Africa. At the same time, Africa is already facing serious electricity shortages and high prices. Renewables, especially decentralized solar energy, have the potential to provide affordable and clean energy on a large scale. This offers opportunities for intensifying EU-African cooperation on renewable energy.  Such cooperation could take the form of energy partnerships with technology transfers, capacity building and investment in infrastructure expansion.

Supporting green transitions

While African countries have only contributed a combined 3% to global CO2 emissions, some African countries rely heavily on fossil fuels for consumption and export. Phasing out fossil fuels can bring socio-economic opportunities. Transitioning or leapfrogging into clean economies would help avoid pollution, fossil-fuel lock-ins and potential future lack of competitiveness. It could also offer safer jobs, economic diversification, reduced water demand and cheaper energy production. Negative side effects will need to be tackled to avoid constraining development. AU-EU partnerships should focus on retraining and transitional income support and other areas that hold the greatest co-benefits in terms of job creation and growth.

Green energy trading

Fossil fuel exports make up a significant proportion of all African exports to the EU. A transition from fossil fuel to green energy trade is crucial to reaching climate change commitments. The first priority of international cooperation should be to invest in meeting African domestic demands and tapping into regional energy potentials through regional power pools.

Key recommendations:

  • Invest in green energy infrastructure and regional power pools.
  • Support labor-intensive, job generating energy transition projects.
  • Invest in education and training in the renewable energy sector.
  • Encourage lower labor taxes in green industries.
  • Support economic diversification and gradually increase carbon taxes, stranded asset rebates. and re-training and transitional income support.

Circular Economy

The greatest economic potential for green job creation and growth in Africa and Europe lies in a comprehensive circular economy that encompasses value chains across both continents, close cooperation and joint learning from the start. This approach offers opportunities to overcome obstacles for sustainable development in African countries as well as sustainable trade relations for Europe.

Tacking waste and creating jobs

The EU exports a large proportion of waste, and particularly electronic waste, to Africa. The lack of environmental standards in processing of waste results in major problems. The EU should engage in a dialogue with African countries on revising regulations and cooperating on sustainable waste trade. A reform under the EU Green Deal could include a focus on enabling and promoting sustainable recycling and re-manufacturing in African countries through the circular economy model.

Leveraging digitalization for the circular economy

Digitalization offers opportunities for value chain production improvements to establish circular economies. Digital technologies open up opportunities for improved information sharing between producers, consumers and recycling companies to enable effective recycling and to optimize material and energy efficiency – reducing resource consumption. The EU should cooperate with African partners to stimulate innovation on how to leverage digitalization for the creation of circular economies.

Key recommendations

  • Formulate a joint EU-Africa vision for supporting a comprehensive circular economy encompassing value chains across both continents.
  • Revise regulations and foster new cooperation on sustainable e-waste trade between the EU and Africa.
  • Invest in remanufacturing and recycling facilities in Africa that adhere to health and environmental standards.
  • Reduce the export of plastics and packaging materials from the EU to developing countries.
  • Leverage digitalization to improve information sharing, increase energy efficiency and reduce overproduction in value chains within and between EU and Africa.


The EU is the largest trading partner for the group of Least Developing Countries, and 31% of African exports in 2019 went to the EU-27. Changes in EU trade policy therefore have an enormous impact on developing countries. The Green Deal could result in a decrease in trade in resource- and CO2-intensive sectors and also provide new opportunities in green transition and circular economy sectors.

Avoiding new trade barriers

The Green Deal could introduce non-tariff barriers through a carbon border tax or high environmental standards. The EU should take concerns of burdens on developing countries into account by exempting products from Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Ensuring resource extraction value chains are compatible with human rights

With the Green Deal, there will be opportunities for sustainable value chains in mining and resource extraction and agricultural production. The EU needs to ensure the implementation of social and environmental standards along the full resource extraction value chain. Laws covering due diligence in value chains and local resource governance should be supported to enable better monitoring. The EU should also support value adding and processing of raw materials in developing countries.

Agricultural trade

The EU has introduced an ambitious agenda for more sustainable agriculture in Europe with the Farm-to-Fork Strategy. The agenda aims to make the EU more food secure and sets new global sustainability standards in the agricultural sector. Trade agreements and green alliances with Africa are intended to promote a global transition to sustainable agriculture. The EU should support research, innovation and investment in agriculture in Africa to ensure new sustainability standards do not impose an additional barrier on African agricultural exporters. Food security should be the first priority in Europe-Africa agricultural cooperation, especially as hunger and food insecurity are increasing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Recommendations

  • Ensure that African stakeholders are actively involved on new trade regulations.
  • Exempt exports of LDCs from the carbon border adjustment mechanism.
  • Seize new trade opportunities on crucial raw materials for clean technologies, but increase transparency and monitoring on human rights and sustainability.
  • Include African farmers’ representatives in decision-making on EU regulations impacting Africa-Europe agricultural trade.
  • Increase research, innovation, and investments in the agricultural sector of developing countries to facilitate market access.

Climate Change Adaptation in the Agricultural Sector

The agricultural sector will be most strongly affected by climate impacts. However, one of the most contentious issues for Europe and Africa has been finding common ground between adaptation and mitigation, and to ensure that adaptation finance prioritizes the agriculture sector. Current levels of global climate finance for Arica will not meet the adaptation needs. EU policies and activities in Africa must be in line with continental, regional and local priorities in Africa, but the EU Green Deal does not reflect this.

Priority investments should be made in scientific research to help create knowledge on climate adaptation in the agriculture sector. Climate-smart agriculture is boosting food security and resilience, but the challenge is translating scientific solutions into practical solutions that can be adopted by farmers. EU institutions should invest in capacity and technology development and transfer and the creation of communication and monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

Key recommendations

  • Prioritize investments in scientific research to increase knowledge on climate adaptation in agriculture.
  • Build linkages between international, regional, and national science organizations with farmers and agriculture extension agencies.
  • Work towards more coherence between various adaptation-related and agriculture-related policies.
  • Increase funding to adaptation in the agricultural sector, including through private-sector investments.


AU-EU Climate Diplomacy

The next AU-EU summit should be used to forge ambitious climate partnerships that reinforce support for the Paris Agreement and a worldwide low-carbon and climate-resilient transformation. While Africa and the EU have historically engaged in climate diplomacy regularly, there are still a number of challenges that need to be overcome before the EU and AU can speak with one voice and find a unified position on climate change. One key challenge is the lack of effective institutional mechanisms and governance platforms to cooperate on climate change. Currently, there are multiple overlapping and competing frameworks. A more targeted climate initiative based on a continent-to-continent partnership with a strategic long-term plan could bring a clearer perspective and enhance the effectiveness of climate action.

Key recommendations:

  • Consolidate the different climate diplomacy frameworks and channels to a comprehensive AU-EU climate strategy with one strategic long-term plan.
  • Focus AU-EU diplomatic efforts on sustainable energy and sustainable food systems.
  • Foster cooperation on different governance levels, including city-to-city, country-to-country, civil society, and business alliances.
  • Build on past experiences of successful Africa-Europe cooperation to form a European-African alliance for leadership on climate action.
  • Include the blue economy in the Africa-Europe partnership on climate.

Financial Instruments

The current financial means dedicated to climate mitigation and adaptation are not sufficient to realize the EU ambitions for global leadership on climate change as outlined in the Green Deal. In order to be effective in the domain of climate finance and financing, the EU needs to mobilize additional resources for Africa-Europe cooperation on green transition. Carbon border adjustment proceeds should be used to support African countries to cut back the carbon intensity of their industries, including by developing better access to renewable energy. As many Green Deal objectives are compatible with business interests, the private sector can become a vehicle for green AU-EU cooperation. AU-EU cooperation should foster the development of a dynamic sector of African companies and entrepreneurs that provide innovative solutions to reduce CO2 emissions and strengthen climate resilience.

Key recommendations:

  • Coordinate and align the EU Green Deal objectives with the bilateral development finance of EU member states.
  • Increase grant-based adaptation funding by the EU institutions to African countries, especially the LDCs.
  • Review the methodology to measure how funding is contributing to climate objectives.
  • Stimulate the private sector to make use of the business potential associated with cooperation on green transitions in Africa and Europe.
  • Continue developing innovative finance mechanisms in Africa and Europe to leverage the private sector to fund adaptation.


There are six priority areas for AU-EU cooperation on carbon neutrality and socially inclusive development: energy transitions, the circular economy, trade, climate change adaptation in the agricultural sector, climate diplomacy, and climate financing.

The Green Deal allows the bundling of different policy reforms on topics such as energy, circular economy and agriculture. In AU-EU relations, debates on energy, transport, climate, digitalization and agriculture previously took place in separate task forces and partnership. An AU-EU partnership on green transitions can be done more coherently with interlinkages between different partnerships and working groups, with the overall objective of achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement.

In setting up cooperation on green transitions and the Green Deal in preparation for the AU-EU summit, the EU should learn from past experiences. Previous initiatives were criticized because African states and the AU did not feel well informed and integrated in the process of establishing initiatives.

Cooperation on green transitions and the Green Deal requires significant political and technical resources and investments from the EU and member states. The EU should avoid the impression that the Green Deal will distract political attention from other pre-existing commitments and in its cooperation with African partners. Existing African initiatives under the Agenda 2063 and international frameworks should be a key starting point for cooperation.

Successful cooperation will depend on whether and how African countries define their own strategic objectives in the partnership and formulate clear expectations with their European partners on how joint knowledge production and cooperation will be organized.

About the article

The European Think Tanks Group (ETTG) is a network of European independent think tanks working on EU international cooperation for global sustainable development. This article is excerpted from the paper “Strengthening the Digital Partnership Between Africa and Europe”, which is part of a special series on Africa-EU relations produced by the following ETTG members: the German Development Institute (DIE), European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), and African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). The paper was published with financial support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Gmbh on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Download Policy Brief
Read Policy Brief




Share this page


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *