The media coverage of the Nigerien conflict has focused onmany issues, including the implications for Europeans and Americans and the security in the Sahel. However, not many reports have dealt with how the conflict could cause the global climate change agenda to unravel. The West African state is the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium, following Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia.
Niger’s uranium reserves are estimated to be over 700,000 tonnes or about 7% of the world’s known reserves. Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that can be used to generate nuclear power. French company Orano(formerly Areva) is the dominant player in Niger’s uranium industry. The company has been operating in Niger since the 1970s and operates two uranium mines in Arlit and Akouta.
France relies heavily on Niger for uranium, a key ingredient in its large nuclear power plants. In 2020, Niger supplied 72% of France’s uranium imports (although some sources put it at a modest 20%), making Niamey the country’s single largest supplier. Left-wing Green politician Sandrine Rousseau exclaimed on X (former Twitter), “Niger supplies France with the uranium it needs for its nuclear power plants… Reminder: nuclear power does not make for energy independence.”
France is the world’s second-largest producer of nuclear power, after the US. Nuclear power accounted for about 70-75% of the country’s total electricity production and bringsin more than 3 billion euros per year in revenues. If South Africa is dependent on coal for its electricity production, then France is one of the most nuclear-dependent countries globally.
Like Eskom, the state-owned utility company Électricité de France (EDF) plays a central role in the construction, operation, and maintenance of nuclear power plants in France. EDF has also ensured that France is a majorexporter of nuclear, power, technology and expertise to other countries. The company has built nuclear power plants in countries around the world, including China, India and the UAE. Thus, EDF’s export of nuclear technology has helped to make France a major player in the global nuclear power market.
Besides the nuclear industry’s commercial importance, theFrench government has historically also viewed nuclear power as a means to enhance energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the growing importance of the decarbonisation agenda in the world, the global demand for nuclear power is expected to grow in the coming years. The EDF and a handful of companies from Russia, China and the US are well-positioned to meet this demand.
Unlike in most of the European Union (EU), the abundance of nuclear energy has allowed France to minimise its reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation. France has a generation surplus and this allows it to export electricity to Europe. Only second to Russia in 2020, Paris exported about 40 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity to other European countries. Its electricity exports are made possible by the pan-European electricity grid.
The pan-European electricity grid is a vital part of the European energy infrastructure and ensures that there is a reliable supply of electricity available to consumers across the continent. Not only that, the pan-European electricity grid also helps to promote the integration of renewable energy sources into the European energy mix.
According to the European Council of the European Union, the regional bloc produced 2,641 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in 2022. Of this, almost 40% came from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. Fossil fuels made up 38.6% of the total, with nuclear power accounting for over 20%. The main fossil fuel used to generate electricity was gas, accounting for 19.6% of the total, followed by coal at 15.8%.
France’s importance to European electricity generation and energy mix cannot be overlooked. In 2022, it accounted for about 21% of the total electricity produced in the EU. With its nuclear exports, Paris guarantees the EU a stable baseload and therefore reliable electricity. Its nuclear energy ranks higher than solar and wind power which are easily affected by weather conditions.
As per 2023 data, France still trails Germany in terms of electricity production and diversity of sources. A major part of electricity produced and fed into the grid in Germany in 2021 came from conventional energy sources (lignite, nuclear, gas and coal) and accounted for 57.6% of total electricity production. The proportion of electricity produced from renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro and fed into the grid varies.
Announced in 2019, the EU’s Green Deal calls for member countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 as part of the 2021 European climate law. The goal is to achieve “climate neutrality” by 2050. The EU also boasts of being a shaper of global action on climate change through the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015.
Through its member countries, it encourages global partners, both in international fora and in bilateral relations, to accelerate action to limit global warming. The bloc, together with Britain, France, Germany and the US, concluded a USD8.5 billion Just Transition deal with South Africa. South Africa is undergoing gripping blackouts and has asked for the agreement to be reviewed. This Western strategy to influence the internal affairs of developing countries in the name of environmentalism is dismissed as green imperialism or colonialism.
Furthermore, the EU and its member states claim to bethe largest providers of climate financing in the world. It is against this background that France hosted the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in June 2023, with theobjective of “tackling the lack of financial support for developing countries”. Many developed countries complained about failed promises.
The Ukraine conflict exposed the fragility of the EU’s Green Deal due to restricted supplies of Russian natural gas. Countries not only re-ignited coal-fired power stations but also began to import more coal from places like South Africa and Colombia. Now, the biggest straw on the camel’s back is the Nigerien conflict.
If Moscow’s involvement in the coup d’état can be proven, then Russia has a strategy to throttle its vociferous neighbour by hitting its energy security. And this means that the EU is more vulnerable than it was just a few months ago. The world’s biggest uranium producer Kazakhstan(46%), a close Russian ally, might not be there when the chilly winter hits. Energy disruptions could also impact various economies across Europe’s industrial powerhouses.
Although both France and the European Commission have downplayed the potential threat should Niger’s uranium be cut, it is evident that risk could cause more disturbances than Russian gas. And if the soaring temperatures in Europe are anything to go by, there lies very cold months ahead. But ECOWAS is already trembling in its boots.
When the taps for Russian gas closed, demand for ‘dirty’ coal went up. France and the EU could be forced to gobble even more coal and the Green Deal will be in disarray. The impetus for the global climate change agenda is also likely to falter. And China recently told John Kerry it “will deal with climate its own way”.