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Growth in global energy demand due to population and economic growth has caused energy-sector emissions to rise and surpass historic records. Clearly, efforts to sustainably mitigate climate change must therefore utilize renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and sustainably harnessed biomass. This transition to renewables can play a key role in diversifying and reinventing energy markets, but moreover, contribute to reducing vulnerability and sustaining peace.
Ongoing efforts to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals saw the number of new renewable energy installations outpace the number of new fossil fuel installations globally towards the end of the last decade. This progress can also be attributed to the dramatic decline in the costs of renewable energy technologies. For instance, the costs of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology have plummeted by 90 per cent over the past decade. The gradual shift to low carbon economies has seen countries like Costa Rica generate over 99 per cent of its electricity from renewables in 2017. Yet, if renewable energy projects are not planned and governed correctly, these multi-stakeholder projects can have ‘undesirable, unintended or perverse effects’ that give rise to distinct and serious security concerns.
This blog argues that renewable energy can be a key human security tool that can deliver progress and still respond to the wider challenge of global warming in fragile communities. However, to date, this potential remains largely underutilized by development and security sector practitioners.
What are the undesirable, unintended negative impacts?
Renewable energy is driving key development indicators such as health, education, food security, gender equality, climate change and livelihood. However, renewable energy projects can also have unintended negative impacts and lead to: (a) land-use conflicts; (b) exploitation in countries with critical minerals; (c) poor interstate cooperation; and (d) aggravated pre-existing conflicts.
The development of utility-scale (large scale) renewable energy projects and their transmission lines requires sizeable amounts of land and have been linked to conflicts over land usage, tenure and transformation. The conflicts arise from competing land-use interests as people are displaced from their land, their traditions and have their livelihoods disrupted. Africa’s largest windfarm—the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya—is delivering many positive socio-economic co-benefits associated with renewable energy, both locally, at the project site through corporate social responsibility programmes, and delivering clean power upstream at national levels (see image below). However, local residents claim that the communally owned land where the project is located was not acquired in accordance with Kenya’s Trust Land Act and the Kenyan Constitution. Further, local energy security improvements have not materialized as local residents are not connected to the national grid. These local grievances have manifested in protests and litigation. For instance, there is an ongoing five-year court legal battle between local residents and the wind power project company.
Critical renewable energy minerals and fragility
Additionally, ineffective management of the entire renewable energy value chain is connected to fuel exploitation and exacerbates instances of fragility and conflict. If the international community meets the goals enshrined in the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, there will be increased demand for critical minerals which are crucial for renewable energy technology development. A 2018 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) demonstrates that ‘a substantial percentage of the minerals required for green energy technologies are located in states with high measures of fragility and corruption’. The same report reveals that over 63 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves—a metal used in battery production for electric cars and energy storage—are situated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country already struggling with political instability and fragility. Cobalt mines in the DRC have become hotspots for exploitation by armed groups, violence, human rights violations, environmental destruction, widespread corruption and child labour. The extraction of nickel in Guatemala and lithium in the ‘Lithium Triangle’, a region between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, have also been linked to violent practices and increased grievances within local communities.
Compromised interstate political stability and cooperation
Challenges associated with the development of renewable energy projects can sometimes span state boundaries and compromise interstate political stability and cooperation. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is situated on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile tributary and over 80 per cent of the water in River Nile originates from the Ethiopian highlands. Since its inception, the project has been mired in a decade-long controversy and has fuelled a ‘hydro-political’ shift in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Central to the dispute is the speed at which the dam will be filled without negatively impacting the water and food security of millions of people downstream. A recent SIPRI Policy Paper shows that, if not recognized and comprehensively addressed, climate-related risks are likely to intensify the dispute and the resulting ‘tensions may amplify societal stress and relations and negatively affect political dynamics at the communal, bilateral and regional levels’.
Renewable energy projects exacerbating pre-existing fragility
There are growing concerns that pre-existing local fragility can also complicate the development of renewable energy projects, and vice versa. This includes areas where the precursors of armed conflict are present and local communities are already vulnerable to the unprecedented impacts of climate change because of their low adaptive capacity. For instance, large-scale hydropower projects in Myanmar have been linked to communities grievances typically involving human rights risks, land and natural resource governance challenges, and the risk of armed conflict. Evidently, there is a delicate balance between achieving renewable energy business objectives in fragile settings while maintaining positive relationships with all stakeholders, including affected communities.
Conflict sensitivity and other ways forward
Renewable energy development projects can provide access to clean energy and mitigate the deteriorating impact of climate change. However, as shown in the outlined cases, these projects may exacerbate human security risks when commensurate compensation packages to the affected local communities are not provided. Here, the environmental and climate mitigation rationale to support renewable energy may be insufficient to avoid social impacts and potential conflicts.
There is a strong need for improved community engagement measures that combine top-down and bottom-up approaches for effective transitions to renewable energy. Such an approach can be achieved by paying special attention to free, prior and informed consent and developing mechanisms for addressing grievances before, during and after projects. This would ensure that any vulnerabilities that may arise are addressed in a timely manner. Moreover, community engagement approaches are likely to prevent uneven power dynamics between large companies and local communities. Such power dynamics often subject projects to vigorous opposition, make them susceptible to land-use conflicts and may cause them to fail to meet climate targets.
The need for conflict sensitivity
The highlighted examples depict that the implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation projects has to be ‘conflict sensitive’, especially when exploiting resources in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Here, the framing of conflict sensitivity is understood as safeguarding against ‘increasing grievances and inequalities among groups, or displacing poor and marginalized communities from land essential to their livelihoods for project development’. Conflict sensitive climate adaptation and mitigation approaches should aim to create shared values while paying close attention to the underlying social, economic and political contextual factors.
Ultimately, the onus is on all stakeholders to learn from the missteps of the fossil fuel era. Stakeholders should understand the proclivity of renewable energy projects that may inadvertently exacerbate conflict dynamics. Useful international voluntary instruments exist that utilize ethical business approaches that protect human rights while avoiding exacerbating conflicts. Such approaches can guide green transitions. For instance, the UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights, outlines state-level and corporate obligations that respect human rights in all business functions. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas provides detailed recommendations for companies to respect human rights and avoid contributing to conflict.
Conflict sensitivity has also proven to be compatible with development cooperation and humanitarian assistance initiatives. For instance, in 2017 the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency developed a conflict sensitivity toolkit with the overarching objective of ‘do no harm’ by assessing the risks and opportunities related to conflicts and tensions in all development cooperation programming. The toolkit recognizes that vulnerabilities and opportunities exist in all societies and an integrated conflict-sensitive perspective will contribute to peaceful and inclusive societies.
In conclusion, leveraging on a clean energy revolution that comprehensively addresses human rights concerns can provide a broader perspective for improving energy security, foster development, and build and sustain long term peace, including in fragile contexts.
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