How Renewable Energy Can Learn from the Carbon-Based Energy Sector
Published June 10, 2015
By Hannah Blyth and J.J. Messner
Fund for Peace – Global Square Blog
On Monday, the leaders of the G7 made clear that our future will strongly be based on clean energy. In their meeting in the Bavarian Alps, the world’s largest industrialized economies pledged to dramatically reduce or altogether eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century, a commitment likely to be solidified in December in Paris. As pressure builds for the world economy to expedite a shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas in order to avert the effects of climate change, attention will turn to cleaner energy, such as wind, solar, and hydro power.
Already propelled by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the 2007 Kyoto Protocol, emission-reduction projects in developing countries have become a major source of investment by industrialized countries to meet a part of their emission reduction targets.
This should be applauded. But we should not kid ourselves that clean energy will be completely free of challenges. Despite the many positive elements that renewable energy can bring to these countries, the construction and operation of these major projects does not render them immune from the challenges of implementation.
The oil, gas, and mining industries have operated in complex environments for decades, and in doing so have attracted attention in connection with conflict, violence, and human rights abuses in and around their operations. Indeed, it was with these challenges in mind that the Voluntary Principles on Security & Human Rights was established as an industry-standard framework in 2000. Much of this conflict has occurred as a result of the impacts and effects that the large scale nature of oil, gas, and mining projects have on communities and society at-large. These projects can generate friction between those communities, the projects, and their governments – particularly, government security forces. The displacement of local communities, influx of a foreign workforce, new revenue flows, public and private security force presence, and impacts on natural resources are just a few of the challenges that are faced by major projects beyond just the extractives sector.
Clean energy differs greatly from oil, gas, and mining from an environmental sense, in terms of carbon emissions. But a solar farm, a wind farm, or a hydroelectric dam can be just as large in terms of infrastructure and scale – and are just as likely to impact local communities – as their carbon-based counterparts. Therefore, we cannot assume that clean energy will not impact communities, or will not be developed in fragile or complex environments – they will be, and have been already.
Despite an often positive green public relations image, renewable energy projects can have adverse effects on local communities in the same way that extractives projects have been the focus of scrutiny. In a 2013 paper by Curtis Thomas from the University of Richmond, he details two cases of human rights violations by renewable energy projects in Panama. Facing many of the complex issues that go along with persons displaced by the project, the construction of the hydro plants triggered conflict and land rights issues within the indigenous communities, and included allegations of human rights violations by public security forces protecting one of the site operations. Similar issues of adverse environmental and social justice impacts are also explored in the Boruca Hydro energy project in Costa Rica in a 2010 book by Jürgen Carls and Warren Haffer.
The carbon-based energy sector has decades of experience in working in complex environments, and managing security and human rights impacts. In other words, the carbon-based energy sectors have seen this all before, and have amassed a multitude of lessons of how to operate responsibly and effectively in complex environments, lessons that can and should be shared with – and learned by – the clean energy sector.
Comprehensive stakeholder engagement with the local communities as well as civil society organizations and government is something that is increasingly the norm for many new mining, oil and gas projects. Likewise, in addition to the ecological benefits that clean energy brings to the economy and the environment, the sector will do well to consider the potential social impacts of their operations, and to plan risk mitigation strategies for renewable infrastructure projects in the same way that leading companies in the carbon-based energy sector have for years.
This is a critical juncture for the clean energy sector. Through its work on the Voluntary Principles, FFP has encountered various clean energy companies that recognize the challenges and are taking appropriate steps to mitigate their risks and impacts. But as the clean energy sector is on the verge of a boom, now is the time to instil the right approach and to integrate existing frameworks such as the Voluntary Principles. This is more so the case in recognizing just how much the clean energy sector has to gain from being proactive. As history has amply demonstrated, when a carbon-based energy company is embroiled in conflict or abuse, society’s reaction tends to be that “we expected no less”; but if a clean energy company were to be embroiled in such a situation, apart from the potential negative impacts on the affected communities, there would also likely be a significant reputational hit on an industry that would otherwise be viewed as “clean”.
Incontrovertibly, clean energy is the way of the future. As the appetite for alternative energy continues to grow, now more than ever companies, investors and governments should look to learn from the important progress the extractives industry has made in areas such as the Voluntary Principles to promote sustainable development and security for the affected communities.