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The challenge of transforming the current energy system is one of the most difficult steps of all and needs the most discussion among those communities, activists, campaigners and organisations whose aim is to bring about this change.
Around the world, many communities are fighting for a just and sustainable energy system through local campaigns and struggles. This report has shown some of the struggles that Friends of the Earth International member groups are engaged in, working with communities to support their battles to resist polluting and destructive oil, gas and coal extraction, dirty waste-to-energy incineration, land grabbing, mega dams, and high-risk, expensive and dangerous nuclear power. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, communities on the front line are resisting with everything they have the grabbing, commodification and destruction of their common resources to feed the destructive energy system. These struggles are not just about resisting the encroachment of destructive energy, they are also prefigurative: defending livelihoods based on low-impact, sustainable energy use and the collective protection of commonly-held natural resources that will need to be a central feature of a just and sustainable energy system. All of these struggles are about living, building and embodying the world we want to see.
Many communities are also taking the issue of affordable energy access into their own hands, building small-scale, locally-owned and -controlled wind, solar and micro-hydro co-operatives which meet local needs and end their reliance on the current exploitative, destructive, corporate-controlled energy system. In a forthcoming publication, we will provide more information on some of the community-led renewable energy projects and initiatives that our member groups are involved in supporting around the world.
All of these prefigurative efforts are essential – defending and building just and sustainable ways of meeting our basic energy needs and protecting our natural resources inside the shell of the old broken system. They are essential not only for exposing the deep flaws and failings of the current system and showing what is possible, but also for delivering real improvements now: real cuts in emissions, real improvements in energy access and affordability, and a strengthened sense of community, solidarity and empowerment among the people involved.
While some of these local struggles and initiatives are succeeding, many are not. The resources available to communities resisting destructive energy projects from encroaching on their lands are tiny compared to the financial, political and legal resources that corporations can use to ensure their ability to exploit and profit from destructive, harmful energy. Similarly, many community renewable energy projects are struggling to get off the ground because of lack of funds, and the only current alternative is to hand over control to outside investors who are likely to value maximising return on their investments over local economic wellbeing, sustainability and energy access.
Although great efforts are being made to strengthen and connect community struggles, many remain atomised, or unconnected to related endeavours, like those of energy sector and mine workers for decent wages and safe working conditions. And finally, there are many places where community-led, small-scale solutions are simply not commensurate with the need – in slums and mega cities around the world where access to basic energy services remain entirely conditional on capacity to pay.
This poses a number of critical questions for the environmental justice movement: how can we help scale up, strengthen and replicate resistance to the ongoing encroachment of the destructive, unsustainable energy system, and support the construction of grassroots, sustainable alternatives instead? How can we bring our skills, expertise and resources to help strengthen and spread this resistance and the initiatives that prefigure just, sustainable and climate-safe energy system?
Many campaigning organisations are already lending direct support to community initiatives by assisting alliance-building and communication between groups involved in energy struggles in order to share experiences and skills. But given the scale of corporate vested interests that these local struggles are challenging, and the urgency and threat of the climate crisis, these efforts are necessary but not sufficient.
Most of the levers that can influence the production and distribution of energy in any major way are held by national governments, including:
- what exploration and extraction licenses to issue;
- how to regulate extractive industries;
- what type of energy infrastructure to encourage through finance and other measures;
- what labour, social and environmental standards to impose on energy infrastructure, on energy technology manufacturing, and on energy-intensive industries;
- whether or not to regulate to expand energy access and ensure energy affordability.
All of these powers are in the hands of the state. And in most places these decisions have been captured by private vested interests, like the owners and financiers of extractive industries, as well as energy companies and large-scale corporate energy users like mines, smelters and petro-chemical industries.
Unless we can exert real democratic control over national governments’ decisions about the energy system then it is likely that grassroots struggles which do succeed will remain lone islands in the context of an overall energy system that remains unsustainable, exploitative and unjust. Without taking control of energy production and distribution out of the hands of the owners and financiers of corporations that profit from the current unsustainable system, the urgent transformation we need to a just and sustainable system will never get under way.
There is no blueprint for how transformation can be achieved. Different countries and localities are already in very different situations in terms of the degree of corporate versus social control over energy policy and energy infrastructure. But it is clear that to win we need to build our power, strengthening the collective forces working to bring about change at the national and international level. And this in turn points to the urgent need for dialogue and alliance-building. We need to build a common vision with all those who have an interest in transforming the energy system and whose skills are needed to make it happen, and a common strategy for how to get there. This process must include affected communities, communities without energy, energy users, energy sector workers, campaigners, academics and technical specialists amongst others. Therefore, Friends of the Earth International’s vision of a just and sustainable energy system, and the steps needed to get there, is not set in stone, but our initial contribution to that conversation. We are ready and willing to change our perspective based on what we hear and understand from others in the movement.
As part of this process, we will inevitably need to address questions of nationalisation and public / social ownership and control over energy resources, energy infrastructure and energy-intensive industries. Democratic government ownership or strict governance over the energy system is a precondition for ensuring the urgent transformation we need. History shows that breaking down government monopoly ownership and control of energy resources and infrastructure often opens the way for market liberalisation and corporate control rather than community control and clean energy. In the recent experiences of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, nationalisation of energy resources and infrastructure has been a centrepiece of the major leaps those countries and their governments have made in terms of economic justice. Yet there is nothing inherently progressive about nationalisation. Hitler’s Germany and apartheid South Africa both nationalised aspects of the energy system, and many post-Soviet countries have had negative experiences under nationalised energy systems.
Increasing public control and reducing corporate control over the energy system is another necessary but not sufficient step in transforming the system. We also need to ensure that our governments are accountable to and act in the interests of ordinary people. We need them to prioritise social outcomes like community rights, tackling climate change, and expanding energy access. And we need decisions on energy to be delegated to the most local and least centralised level possible, and for all directly-affected groups to have the power to influence decisions, including affected communities, energy users, energy sector workers, and people who are excluded from energy systems.
As Friends of the Earth International, we believe that the transformation of the energy system will only be possible if we can help to build a sufficient collective force to outweigh those groups in whose interests the current system is operating.