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Stopping climate change and averting its worst impacts requires an urgent and dramatic reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions emitted from our energy system. This in turn necessitates a rapid transition away from high-carbon energy sources like fossil fuels, nuclear power, agrofuels and industrial biomass. At the same time, we need an urgent effort to expand energy access and affordability so as to provide everyone in the world with affordable and reliable energy to meet their basic needs. All of this points to a massive new-build programme to roll out low-carbon renewable energy technologies like on- and offshore wind, tidal and solar energy.
This transition is already underway, with renewable energy investment totalling US$257 billion in 2011 and 430,000 MW of renewable energy capacity installed globally in the last decade. Several attempts have been made to map out the scale of the construction of new renewable energy infrastructure that would be needed in order to keep emissions low enough to avoid runaway climate breakdown. According to these plans, it is still technically possible to decarbonise the energy supply in time to avoid runaway climate breakdown. However, what is striking is the staggering scale of industrial build that these plans require in order to reduce emissions from energy while also meeting projected energy demand. For example, the plan by Jacobson and Delucchi aimed at transition to 100 per cent renewable electricity generation of 11.5 TW of energy by 2042 (with renewable electricity sources here defined as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal), would require, among other things, one new tidal plant to be built every 32 minutes, one new wind turbine to be erected every 4 minutes, and one rooftop solar power system to be installed every half a second between 2012 and 2042.
Such an industrial programme carries with it significant risks of its own for sustainability, justice and human rights. Nor is it guaranteed that such a renewables new-build programme would automatically be compatible with stopping climate change and keeping global emissions below highly dangerous tipping points, or that it would tackle the major problems with energy inequality and access examined in this report. While the phasing out of high-carbon energy sources and the expansion of renewable energy is essential, this transition carries significant risks and pitfalls which must be avoided. Some of the major risks and pitfalls which must be avoided in the transformation of the energy system are set out below.
Risks and pitfalls in the energy transition
1. Corporations will try to define what constitutes ‘renewable energy’
Corporations with a vested interest in the current unsustainable and destructive energy system have already begun to use their power to influence and co-opt processes to define how the energy transition happens and what types of energy sources and technologies are used. One key example of this is the corporate capture of the UN Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) process. An international process launched in 2011 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, its stated aim is to tackle the twin challenges of energy access and climate change by providing, as the name suggests, ‘sustainable energy for all’. However, a handpicked unaccountable group dominated by representatives of multinational corporations and fossil fuel interests is defining how this is being achieved. SE4All’s definition of ‘renewable energy’ includes highly destructive and unsustainable sources like mega hydro-dams and agrofuels and also leaves room for ‘advanced fossil fuel technologies’.
2. Construction of renewable energy infrastructure could drive land grabbing, enclosures, human rights abuses and environmental destruction
The large-scale industrial build required to rapidly increase energy generation from renewables also carries a significant risk of replicating the widespread land grabbing, enclosures of commonly held resources, and human rights abuses associated with the destructive energy sources. There are already a significant number of cases where the construction of renewable energy infrastructure has been linked to abuses of communities’ rights to free, prior, informed consent and rights of redress. Also, there are highly concerning cases of state violence being used to push forward renewable energy developments which local communities are resisting, because their rights and needs have not been adequately respected. Moreover, there is a significant risk of rapid and large-scale renewable energy infrastructure expansion [LINK TO CASE STUDY 8]driving the destruction of forests, biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems [/LINK].
3. Environmental destruction and human rights abuses from raw material extraction for renewable energy technology
Most existing solar, wind and tidal energy technologies require large quantities of non-renewable raw materials, including aluminium, chromium, zinc, copper, manganese, nickel, and lead. The mining, extraction and processing of these raw materials often involves land grabbing and other human rights abuses of communities living in close proximity to the mineral resources; labour rights abuses for the workers involved in mining and processing; the destruction of forests, landscapes, biodiversity and ecosystems; and land, air and water pollution.
4. Greenhouse gas emissions from renewable technology roll-out
The lifecycle emissions of renewable energy technologies like tidal, wind and solar are only a fraction of those of traditional fossil-fuel energy sources, but will add up if the transition to a low-carbon energy system is to keep up with the burgeoning energy demands of energy-intensive lifestyles. Emissions are created at every stage in the renewables life cycle, from the mining and processing of material inputs, to manufacturing, to infrastructure construction and servicing.
5. Poor environmental and labour standards in renewable technology manufacturing
The production of many renewable technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels, involves industrial processes which generate effluents and waste that contribute to air, land and water pollution. In addition, as with all industrial processes, there is a risk of labour rights abuses, poor wages, and poor health and safety standards in the manufacturing process. Worker struggles in renewable energy manufacturing have already emerged, including against Vestas wind energy in the UK, and REpower and Enercon in Germany. Enercon only recognized the right of its workers to unionise in September 2013iv. And there were already reports in 2011 of communities and farmers in China being negatively impacted by pollution from solar-panel manufacturingv.
6. Renewables transition becomes a Trojan horse for energy privatisation
There is also a significant risk – already being realised in some countries – that the changes in policy and legal frameworks governing national energy systems that are required to support the renewables transition will be used by corporations and their allies in governments to extend the privatisation of energy infrastructure and services, to the detriment of energy access and affordability. A transition to low-carbon energy sources is by no means guaranteed to go hand in hand with the expansion of access to affordable energy and could mean increased energy poverty and exclusion.
7. Lack of public consent for renewable energy
Finally, there is a strong likelihood that if some or all of the risks above are realised, many citizens and communities will rightly come to regard renewable energy as something that is forced upon them without their consent; that doesn’t benefit them by making energy more accessible or affordable or help meet their basic needs; that is linked to the abuse of their rights; and that furthers their exploitation as workers and consumers by corporations and private financial interests. Such withdrawal of public consent could threaten the energy transition overall and thus dramatically increase the risk of worsening climate impacts and runaway climate breakdown.
Mitigating the risks: reducing energy dependence
If we are to create a sustainable, just and climate-safe energy system, it is essential to mitigate the above risks to the greatest degree possible. We need to focus not just on stopping climate change and avoiding the trap of runaway climate breakdown, but on ensuring that decarbonisation of the energy system does not come at the cost of other social and environmental outcomes. This in turn requires two things.
First, it necessitates that we reduce energy dependence so that the renewable infrastructure needed is minimised. In advanced industrialised countries this means prioritising reduction of energy dependence and excessive energy consumption, increases in energy efficiency, and meeting the reduced energy demand with renewable energy. This doesn’t mean that we should delay the transition to renewable energy until we have reduced energy dependence –the dual aims of energy policy should be to reduce unnecessary and excessive energy use and to meet the remaining essential demand with renewable technologies. In the global South, where energy consumption is far lower, it means increasing energy access and meeting basic energy needs via the roll-out of renewable energy, while avoiding the unsustainable, high-energy consumption models of the industrialised world.
Second, it requires us to minimise corporate influence over the energy transition and exert democratic control over energy policy and the energy system, minimising negative social and environmental outcomes and maximising positive outcomes. How we do this is more difficult, learn more about our approach.