Questions looming over Morocco’s role as a climate champion

Questions looming over Morocco’s role as a climate champion
Morocco alternative energy, wind energy industrial concept with windmills and flag - alternative renewable energy industrial illustration, 3D illustration © Anton Medvedev /

Morocco presents itself as a pioneer in climate policy, from the ban on plastic bags to designing the world's largest solar power plant. The kingdom is also the focus of European hopes to produce green electricity from the desert in the future. However, Morocco's image as a climate champion is increasingly cracked.

Morocco enjoys a positive reputation of being a pioneer in climate and environmental policies. The kingdom has earned this reputation over the past decade through an ambitious energy transition and its active participation in international climate negotiations - it even hosted COP 22 in Marrakech back in 2016. Since the German government concluded an agreement with Morocco in 2020 on the production and supply of green hydrogen, hopes have also rested on the North African state to play a decisive role in Europe's energy transition.

At the same time, the transition to the use of sustainable energy sources is an even greater challenge for emerging and developing countries. They have fewer financial resources at their disposal to handle investments and, at the same time, have to meet the energy needs of growing populations with even more rapidly increasing consumption needs. This is the case for Morocco. Nevertheless, King Mohamed VI declared environmental policies in general and the energy transition in particular a priority for his country at an early stage. The right to "the access to water and a healthy natural environment" have even been enshrined in the Moroccan constitution of 2011.

This prioritization is due above all to Morocco's geographical location, which is both a curse and a blessing. Morocco's largest neighbours are the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara. The country is therefore particularly affected by rising sea levels and the global growth of deserts. Thousands of Moroccans are already affected by droughts and crop failures, abandoning their livelihoods in rural areas. The consequences are an uncontrolled growth of metropoles like Casablanca and rapidly increasing unemployment. Morocco is thus forced to act, as Hakima El Haité, former environment minister and current president of Liberal International, puts it: "The countries that are suffering cannot wait."

On the other hand, Morocco has immeasurable potential for generating hydropower, wind and solar energy. According to an estimate by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), Morocco could meet all of its electricity needs through renewable energy in the medium term, while still exporting green hydrogen to other countries.

The country has already achieved a great deal with its ambitious climate and environmental policies. Today, Morocco covers around 20 percent of its electricity needs with renewable energy. If all installed capacities were used, this could even be almost 40 percent. By 2030, more than half of the electricity provided is to be generated by water, wind and sun.

However, Morocco's image as a climate champion is currently suffering cracks. There are massive delays and escalating costs, especially in the construction of large solar plants. The lighthouse project Noor near Ouarzazate, currently the world's largest solar power plant, is emblematic of this problem. It has been on the grid since 2016 and supplies up to two million people with electricity.

The power plant causes the Moroccan state a deficit of around 80 million Euro every year, it’s mainly because Morocco backed the wrong horse. This is because Noor is primarily a concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, it has an advantage, the energy from solar heat can be stored throughout the day and called up in the evening when demand is particularly high. However, the rest of the world has invested predominantly in photovoltaics over the past few years, which is why the desired efficiency gains and cost reductions for CSP have failed to materialize. The decision in favor of the wrong technology in retrospect, which is now also causing delays in another major project in Midelt, is not only bad luck, but also the consequence of centralized control that is not very open to competition of various technologies, a conclusion that a report by the Moroccan Economic and Social Council came to.

In this context, experts also criticize the dominance of the state energy agency ONEE (Office nationale d'électricité et de l'eau potable), which hardly allows small and medium-sized energy producers to feed self-generated electricity into the Moroccan grid. As a result, decentralized initiatives and innovative approaches to generating renewable energy are bureaucratically blocked. However, it is precisely with smaller projects and the testing of different technologies that innovations and private-sector initiatives could be promoted and a financial fiasco like Noor be avoided in the future.

For all its centralized control, Morocco's energy policy nevertheless lacks coherence. Instead of relying entirely on the proven enormous potential of renewables in its own country, Morocco continues to invest in fossil fuels. But since it has no oil or coal reserves of its own, it has to import them at a high cost.

In 2018, a new coal-fired power plant went into operation in Safi, and in June, construction work began on a controversial natural gas pipeline. This will connect Morocco with Nigeria along the west coast of Africa. If the country one day supplies green hydrogen to Europe, but continues to meet its own electricity needs largely from coal and gas, little would be gained in terms of climate policy. Europe's hopes for green electricity from the desert should therefore be treated with caution.

Another major task for Morocco is to raise the awareness of its own population for environmental and climate protection. This is evidenced by the sometimes overwhelming quantities of plastic waste that can be found on beaches and along the roads, which have long since become more than just an aesthetic problem, but also contribute to the contamination of water and soil and damage Morocco's attractiveness as a tourist destination.

If Morocco seriously addresses these shortcomings, it can still live up to the claim of being a climate pioneer - and thus show many other emerging and developing countries a successful path to a more sustainable future. In doing so, it could also make use of the engagement of municipal and regional citizens' initiatives, such as those supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in the coastal city of Essaouira. There, young university professors have rallied the regional community behind the joint project of a more sustainable city and, among other things, initiated the construction of cycling lanes and the digitization of the administration.

Another example of a successful, decentralized approach is the "green mosques" project implemented by GIZ and the Moroccan Ministry of Energy: Tens of thousands of mosques are being equipped with solar panels and energy-saving lamps. The responsible imams take this as an opportunity to preach respect for the environment alongside the Koran. On the way to an environmentally conscious society, however, Morocco and its international partners will still need a lot of staying power.




Sebastian Vagt
Sebastian Vagt is the Project Director of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Morocco and Algeria. Sebastian holds a diploma in State and Social Sciences from Munich and Stellenbosch, South Africa. In his previous role at the Foundation, he served as a Defence Analyst in our Brussels office.