News
26 Jan 2024, 13:31
Ferdinando Cotugno

Italy makes cooperation with Africa G7 climate and energy focus

Photo shows Italy's prime minister Giorgia Meloni during a speech at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai in 2023. Image made available by Italian government under licence (CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 IT)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/it/deed.en]
Italy's prime minister Giorgia Meloni at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai in 2023. Image made available by Italian government under licence CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 IT.

Energy and climate cooperation, as well as countering migration, will be among the top priorities of Italy's G7 presidency this year. Led by prime minister Giorgia Meloni, the country's right-wing government will bring its contradictory climate and energy policy to the G7 presidency, experts say. One of the main concerns is Rome’s strong fossil fuel ties due to state-owned oil and gas company Eni, which could weaken the country's climate-friendly transition and dent its international reputation. Expectations are high for Meloni as the host of the G7 leaders' summit in the luxury resort of Borgo Egnazia in the southeastern Puglia region on 13-15 June.

Content

  1. Intro
  2. NGOs doubt Italy's standing as credible decarbonisation partner in Africa
  3. "Strong ambiguity" regarding Italy's role in international climate cooperation
  4. Energy security before energy transition
  5. G7 summit under the influence of elections
  6. To understand Italy's G7 priorities, "look into a crystal ball"

Italy is set to use its presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) this year to put a focus on cooperation with African countries to strengthen their economies in a bid to slow migration to Europe, using energy projects as a key vehicle. The leaders' summit in June takes place shortly after the EU elections, which present a first test for prime minister Georgia Meloni, whose climate policy has been ambiguous, analysts say.

"Italy’s two focuses for the G7 will be migration and energy, which the country now sees as related issues," says Maurantonio Albrizio, European affairs director of the NGO Legambiente, one of the most prominent environmental NGOs in the country. He explains that the main pillar of Italy's focus on Africa is the Mattei Plan, a new collaboration and development master project between Italy and Africa named after Enrico Mattei, founder of Eni, the state-controlled oil and gas company.

"The idea behind the Mattei Plan is to encourage development in Africa, including through energy investments, to stop migratory flows, which remains a primary political issue for Italy," Albrizio says. The Mattei Plan is one of the cornerstones of Meloni's foreign policy, which aims to make Italy an interface between the global north and the African continent. "Each presidency has the opportunity to invite countries to the G7, and I expect invitations to African nations to launch the Mattei Plan, make financial pledges and make it a strategy that is no longer just Italian," Albrizio adds.

As a first stepping stone of Italy's 2024 foreign policy agenda, Meloni has invited African governments to Rome for a two-day summit in just a few days (28-29 January). The prime minister is expected to reveal details of the Mattei Plan.

If we want to work on a strategy that brings African and European interests together, one example is energy, because Africa is potentially a huge energy producer and Europe has an energy supply problem.

Giorgia Meloni, Italian prime minister

While the Italian government has not presented full details of its G7 plans, Meloni herself said that cooperation with Africa would be a “crucial focus” of the one-year presidency, and that energy would play an important role. “If we want to work on a strategy that brings African and European interests together, one example is energy, because Africa is potentially a huge energy producer and Europe has an energy supply problem,” she said during a press conference at the start of the year. Meloni called for investments in, “above all, clean energy.”

The southern European country took over the rotating G7 presidency on 1 January. Italy has taken significant steps in its green transition over the past decade, but the current government under Meloni has also put a focus on making the country a “gas hub” in the Mediterranean Sea, demonstrating its still deep ties to fossil fuels.

Italy took over the presidency from Japan. After the 2023 summit, the G7 faced criticism over what many saw as a weak outcome on climate policy, with Japan's resistance to a coal phase out agreement and Germany's insistence on more public investment in gas – an issue where it could now see eye to eye with Italy. This year's presidency takes place against the backdrop of a year with elections in many of the G7 countries, including the EU, likely the UK and the U.S., where the prospect of a second term of former president Donald Trump is rekindling worries about how the country would position itself on multilateralism.

NGOs doubt Italy's standing as credible decarbonisation partner in Africa

Italy's fossil energy interests in Africa cast a shadow over Meloni's declared aim to forge a new post-colonial and non-paternalistic relationship. "Italy is still not credible as a decarbonisation partner in Africa precisely because of its relationship with Eni, which has a strategy of extending the fossil business, accelerated by the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine," says Legambiente's Albrizio.

Enrico Giovannini, former minister of infrastructure and sustainable mobility and current scientific director of ASviS, the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development, says he is unconvinced about the effectiveness of the strategy and about Italy's ability to interact with the entire continent, not just the five or six countries it does business with. “Most African countries are sceptical,” says the former infrastructure minister under then-prime minister Mario Draghi. “Distrust has increased since the pandemic. The failure to distribute vaccines showed what it means not to have equitable relations with the global north. They are looking for partners who can be equal and invest heavily in sustainable development. Italy has sent contradictory messages about its intentions.”

"Strong ambiguity" regarding Italy's role in international climate cooperation

Giovannini says the most contradictory message comes from the Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), a key document from which to derive the government's policy objectives. According to think tank ECCO Climate's report cards, the NECP does not offer a credible vision for an exit from fossil fuels, and from gas in particular. In the coming months, a final version will be drafted. The EU would like it to be more focused on decarbonisation and less tied to fossil interests. The deadline for the final version is June, the same month when the European elections and the G7 summit will be held.

“There is strong ambiguity” regarding Italy’s role in the international climate arena, says Luca Bergamaschi, co-founder of the energy and climate think tank ECCO. The government had made important contributions by establishing the Italian Climate Fund to finance projects in emerging and developing countries, or by participating in the new loss and damage fund. “However, Italy is weak on core mitigation and energy issues,” says the researcher. “Gas is still on top of every strategy.”

Energy security before energy transition

An early clue as to how Italy will act on climate and energy during its G7 presidency in 2024 dates back to 2022, when Meloni formed her government. She chose to change the name of the ministry in charge of climate and energy from Ministry of Ecological Transition to Ministry of Environment and Energy Security. More than a matter of naming, it was a programmatic manifesto: energy security comes before energy transition. Meloni chose to entrust it to a minister with little expertise in climate and environmental issues, Gilberto Pichetto Fratin. Meloni reiterated her vision in her main speech at COP28. At the plenary in Dubai, she spoke of "decarbonising pragmatically," with a technology-neutral approach, "free of unnecessary radicalism." "What we must pursue is an ecological transition, not an ideological one," she said.

Italy will bring its domestic climate and energy contradictions to the presidency of the G7. It is a country heavily affected by the climate crisis. In 2023, there were two catastrophic floods, in Emilia-Romagna in May and in Tuscany in November, which caused 20 billion euros in damage and 25 deaths. During a recent visit to Forlí in Emilia-Romagna, Meloni was booed and challenged for her handling of the aftermath of the emergency – a rare occurrence at a time when her popularity was at an all-time high.

Earlier this year, the government released a climate change adaptation plan that was challenged by the scientific community and civil society for its lack of vision, operability and funding. For renewables, 2023 was a year of growth after a long stall: 5.7 GW of renewables capacity were installed, six times more than the 2014-2021 average. However, the draft NECP is still heavily focused on fossil fuels, particularly gas. Italy's energy and climate strategy often overlaps with that of Eni. However, Eni's transition plan is not compatible with the 1.5°C global temperature rise limit, and the company has plans to make Italy a gas hub between the Middle East, where it has made significant investments in recent years, and Africa, where it has a historic and established presence. Finally, Italy is the G7 country furthest behind in electric car development.

G7 summit under the influence of elections

The key events of the Italy-led G7 summit are the climate, energy and environment ministers’ meeting on 28-30 April in Turin; the finance ministerial on 23-25 May in Stresa; and the leaders' summit on 13-15 June in the luxury resort of Borgo Egnazia in Puglia.

There is, however, another parallel event that will have an impact on Italy’s G7 presidency. The European elections on 9 June – along with the local elections in 3,000 municipalities in Italy – will present a first test for Meloni's popularity and could influence the country’s G7 presidency on climate issues.

Some parties from the governing majority like Lega and also Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia party have chosen to campaign criticising key climate action and the European Green Deal. Half of the Italian presidency will thus take place during a crucial election cycle. As Ecco's Bergamaschi says, "The Borgo Egnazia summit comes a week after the European elections, which may consolidate Meloni's role as an important figure at the European level. The polls are in her favour; the Puglia summit with other international leaders could be a celebration of her rise."

Photo shows Borgo Egnazia, Italy. Image made available by Italian government.
The 2024 G7 summit will take place in Borgo Egnazia from 13-15 June. Image made available by Italian government under licence CC-BY 3.0.

It is often mentioned in the Italian public debate that there are two Melonis. There is the arch-right-wing Meloni attached to her party's ancient post-fascist roots, who uses dismissive and populist rhetoric on environmentalism, and there is also the international Meloni, who uses much more cautious language and wants to be seen as a credible interlocutor for the international community. "Meloni wants to use this year and the G7 to establish herself globally as a reliable conservative leader," explains Legambiente's Albrizio.

One of the main unknowns of Italy’s G7 presidency will be the internal turmoil caused by the campaign for the European elections. According to Giovannini, "some political forces in government are strongly opposed to the Green Deal and transitional policies. The paradox is that we could be in a situation where at the G7 summits Italy promotes policies against which a part of the majority actively campaigns, saying the exact opposite."

Ecco's Bergamaschi agrees: "The climate agenda is all focused on Meloni, there is no overarching government strategy. The other ministers are weak on climate, there is an ambiguity of ambition, especially with a minister as important as [infrastructure minister Matteo] Salvini, leader of the Lega, who opposes European policies on electric cars and sustainable mobility."

To understand Italy's G7 priorities, "look into a crystal ball"

Italy's climate strategy for the G7 presidency is still somewhat unclear, partly because the Meloni government tends to communicate little, not hold frequent press conferences, and has bad relations with most media. Jokingly, Albrizio says that trying to read Italy’s intentions at the G7 is like looking into a “crystal ball.” According to Bergamaschi, "Italy can be expected to insist on the fronts on which it is most solid, namely finance and adaptation, while it will play rearguard on mitigation, an issue on which it has less credibility because of its energy policies and relations with the oil and gas sector."

As finance will be the central issue at COP29, Meloni might choose to use the G7 to create a productive momentum on delivering climate finance. Italy has made a number of goodwill moves on the finance front: it has chosen to contribute 100 million euros to the loss and damage fund at COP28, and has a climate fund for international climate finance of more than 4 billion euros. These are still commitments and not actual money; this year will show when it will actually be disbursed, whether it will be redirected from other cooperation funds, and how it will be spent. It is likely that, confirming her strategy, Meloni will choose to allocate it to Africa, according to the newspaper Il Foglio.

Italian experts also worry about the legacy of COP28 and of the Dubai consensus on ”transitioning away from fossil fuels.” Governments from almost 200 countries in December 2023 agreed to transition away from fossil fuels, quickly ramp up renewables, financially support vulnerable developing economies dealing with unavoidable losses and damages from climate change, and decided basic goals regarding adaptation to climate change effects. G7 has a key role to play in implementing the policies and the finance to start this transition.

Jacopo Bencini, an analyst at the Italian Climate Network, has been following climate conferences for several years now. "In Italy, there is a basic misunderstanding about what happened in Dubai. We saw this in the official ministerial comments after COP28, in which the role of gas was again emphasised, as if the government had found a confirmation in Dubai of its strategies."

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