This interview is part of a series of interviews with early career academics and practitioners. The interviews discuss ongoing research and projects, as well as advice for other budding scientists.
Anas Fassih is a PhD candidate in political science with a dual emphasis in international relations and comparative politics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He is interested in questions surrounding the conflict dimension of decarbonisation and how the local, national, regional and international scale of decarbonisation affects the sovereignty of the southern state and of the communities affected by the development of solar energy projects in affects Africa. He holds a master’s degree in international politics and security studies from Bradford, UK. His research appeared in Futures and in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.
What (or who) triggered the major shifts in your thinking or encouraged you to pursue your field of research?
Being born and raised in Morocco, I have always been fascinated by politics and international relations as a field and practice. This fascination intensified during my undergraduate degree in English and Postcolonial Studies, where I developed a deep interest in the influence of global politics on individuals in the Global South. Important postcolonial thinkers such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha and Achille Mbembe, whose works I encountered during this period, formed the basis for my understanding of critical approaches to international relations.
With this foundation, I earned a scholarship to study International Politics at the University of Bradford, a hub for Peace Studies scholars. There I became acquainted with the field of safety studies and the subfields of energy security and environmental safety. My curiosity was particularly aroused by the link between security and development, the implications of climate change, the impact of energy transitions on democratization, and the interplay between global energy governance and sovereignty. This intricate matrix of interests eventually led me to a Ph.D. in the field – a journey I am currently undertaking.
What are the trends in global energy politics that you have observed in your research so far that, in your opinion, are not getting enough attention?
One such trend relates to the energy transitions in the South, a region that is often overlooked despite rampant energy poverty. A key area of focus should be the potential role of renewable energy in accelerating the shift to a post-oil society. This needs to be examined from the perspective of marginalized communities that are most affected by experimental initiatives in wind, solar and green hydrogen technologies.
Furthermore, there is an urgent need for in-depth research to develop and refine the concept of energy sovereignty. Centered on community empowerment and ownership of energy systems, energy sovereignty provides a potential framework for answering questions such as: when and how can a community, state or region achieve energy sovereignty? Given its under-theorization, this concept warrants in-depth exploration to provide a clear analysis and a comprehensive framework for analyzing communities’ response to the giant renewable energy infrastructure in the Global South.
Finally, an exploration of the geopolitical implications of energy transitions is also necessary. Given that fossil fuel-based energy regimes have been characterized by resource wars, violence and colonialism, it is crucial to consider a potential scenario under a new energy regime, underpinned by renewables. What conflicts can arise? How can geopolitical shifts resulting from the transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources affect global power structures? These are questions that require careful investigation.
You co-authored one paper about ‘just transitions’ in Morocco and West Africa. Are there lessons from these cases that can be applied more broadly?
Our research focused on ‘just transitions’ in Morocco and West Africa, yielding insightful lessons that can be applied globally. In particular, the case of Morocco, which is home to the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant (CSP) in Ouarzazate, highlighted the importance of participatory ownership in energy systems. The country’s Noor Midelt project, a massive combined photovoltaic (PV) and CSP power station currently in the pre-construction phase, demonstrated a commendable practice of community involvement and consultation. This lesson underlined the need to engage the public in the energy transition and serves as a valuable example for other countries, especially those in the South.
Another critical takeaway is the need to balance renewable energy initiatives with land conservation, minimizing environmental impact and sustainability of livelihoods. This means that energy transition efforts should not lead to environmental damage, such as water stress or disruption to local agricultural practices, further exacerbating the inequality and marginalization they are designed to address. Equally important, adherence to international standards to secure funding should not overshadow genuine attention to local environmental and social concerns. This lesson is of particular importance for countries in the Global South, where the energy transition is often financed by the Global North.
Do you think that the current energy crisis in Europe presents more challenges or opportunities for a ‘just transition’ to renewable energy?
Europe’s current energy crisis presents a twofold story of both complex challenges and potential opportunities within the scope of a ‘just transition’ to renewable energy. The crisis is largely rooted in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and its subsequent impact on the European energy market. This situation is clearly challenging as it has caused a spike in gas and oil prices. However, it also presents a unique opportunity for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies, catalyzing a transition to more sustainable alternatives. The crisis underscores the fragility and volatility associated with an over-reliance on non-renewable energy sources. Germany and the Netherlands serve as tangible examples of countries successfully transitioning to more sustainable energy practices during the crisis.
However, these shifts are not without complications. Financial constraints arise as governments are forced to allocate resources to managing the immediate effects of higher oil and gas prices, which could potentially deter investment in renewable energy infrastructure. More importantly, the transition poses complex ethical challenges on a global scale. For example, the European Union’s urgency to identify alternative energy markets could inadvertently perpetuate injustice in the countries of Africa and the Middle East. Some of these countries are expected to develop extensive solar and wind energy infrastructure, mainly aimed at supplying Europe with electricity. This situation embodies a paradox in the energy transition, where justice for one region can result in an unjust imposition on another region. It underlines the need for a just energy solution that takes into account the consequences for all countries involved.
How would you respond to critics of “just transitions” who call it an idealistic or utopian theory?
I would argue that labeling any ambitious endeavor somewhat utopian, especially those that aim to disrupt historically entrenched energy regimes and practices, is somewhat to be expected. Implementing ‘just transitions’ undoubtedly requires significant shifts in energy production, economic structures and the relationship between people and the environment. Although this necessity meets resistance, this does not make the concept merely idealistic or utopian. Instead, the emphasis is on the magnitude of the changes needed to address the pressing challenge of climate change. Moreover, we should see ‘just transitions’ as a transformation in the longue duree; we are replacing an age-old regime with a new one that has a significant impact on human behavior, state-society relations, and human-environment interactions. Such a transition will not happen overnight; it is a journey through the process of longue duree.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently engrossed in three projects. The first revolves around the decolonization of cross-border energy policy, with a specific focus on Morocco. In this project, I argue that the countries of the global South have substantial capabilities to decolonize their renewable energy policies, formulating coherent strategies that can complement (or challenge) the global policy frameworks established by ‘renewable energy hegemons’, such as Germany, within global energy management. Although this project critically examines the existing structures, it also tries to make relevant policy recommendations. My second project examines the implications of the energy transition for sovereignty and explores how such transitions inform and reshape our understanding of sovereignty in international relations. Finally, my third project aims to explore the breach between the government’s discursive framework for the energy transition and the actual material reality at ground level. It questions the compatibility of global discussions on climate change mitigation with local aspirations and expectations, and explores the extent to which these global narratives align with local hopes and goals.
What is the most important piece of advice you could give to other novice or young scientists?
My main advice to young scientists and budding scientists would be to stay the course. While graduate school and research can seem overwhelming at times, with persistent effort and motivation you will eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel.
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