“A safe future for our children”: the need for a just energy transition

JP Casey 6 January 2020 (Last Updated January 3rd, 2020 11:57)

As the world moves through a technological revolution to ensure a transition to a clean energy mix, it is vital to ensure a parallel social revolution, so that those abandoned by traditional power grids are not left similarly impoverished by new energy systems. Former UN commissioner Mary Robinson spoke at length about the need for a “just” energy transition earlier this year, prompting questions regarding how it can be delivered, and who is responsible for this shift?

“A safe future for our children”: the need for a just energy transition
“We can no longer afford to regard the 2030 agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary,” said Mary Robinson of the increasing urgency of the need to act on climate change. Credit: Future Power Technology

As of September this year, the world is on pace to fall well short of the climate change goals set out by the Paris Agreement to limit temperature rise to two degrees by 2050. According to National Geographic and the Climate Action Tracker, just two countries are on track to meet the Paris goals, Morocco and The Gambia, whose total carbon dioxide emissions were less than 58 million tonnes in 2016, around just 0.16% of global emissions.

Conversely, many major polluters are doubling down on industrial production; the US alone produced 6.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2016, and the Climate Action Tracker called its environmental policies “critically insufficient”, as a recent rollback of environmental regulation could contribute to a temperature increase of four degrees by 2050, should the US continue on its current path.

The necessary change in the production of renewables is also an excellent opportunity to reform the social elements of an energy framework that has often left people behind. With those outside of traditional industrial hubs left in energy poverty, the growth of renewables could see power, both literally and politically, brought to places beyond Europe, North America and China. While this is a complex transition that will require collaboration between private companies, national governments and enterprising start-ups, the world’s growing climate crisis could ultimately spark a just energy transition.

No-one left behind

“On the 11th of May this year, scientists at the Manau Loa observatory in Hawaii, which has tracked atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since the late 1950s, detected 415.26 parts per million,” said Robinson, at the InnoEnergy Business Booster event earlier this year. “The last time the earth’s atmosphere contained this much carbon dioxide was more than three million years ago, when global sea levels were several metres higher.”

The Climate Action Tracker also predicts a bleak environmental future beyond 2050, with warming of up to 4.8 degrees predicted by 2100 without significant change to policies; even a more optimistic prediction, which takes into account current environmental policies in place around the world, would see global temperature increase by 3.4 degrees by the end of the century.

These increasingly desperate environmental conditions are inspiring similarly dramatic action to tackle climate change, and advance the clean energy transition. While the construction of vast concentrated solar facilities, ambitious offshore wind farms or innovative tidal projects could speed up this transition, these projects could ultimately do more harm than good, as the speed of their implementation could trigger unforeseen social consequences.

“The importance of this growing climate justice movement is a call for a just transition to a world powered by clean energy and climate actions that fully respect human rights,” said Robinson

“Workers in coal, oil and gas won’t be left out, and priority will also be given to reaching the one million people who lack electricity, and the 2.3 billion who cook with charcoal, wood, peat or animal dung and ingest indoor smoke, which kills millions each year.”

Robinson envisions a number of small changes as part of this transition. She advocates for using alternative metrics by which to judge quality of life, for instance replacing the financially-rooted measurement of GDP with more socially-oriented metrics, such as measurements of happiness, to ensure that this transition is both social and technological.

This sensitivity towards those outside of traditional power structures is another hallmark of this transition. The Business Booster event at which she was speaking is an annual showcase of clean energy start-ups looking for investment and development opportunities, and Robinson is optimistic that a combination of innovative ideas, sophisticated technology and the input of those from outside large companies and those who traditionally wield influence in energy can deliver this rapid but just transition.

Commercial projects and cautious development

Considerable responsibility for ensuring this just transition falls on private companies, both in terms of cleaning up existing operations, and ensuring that new projects are both environmentally and socially responsible. From shareholder activism to technological innovation, companies have a unique combination of financial resources, global reach and technological investment that means organisations of all sizes have significant potential to impact the clean energy transition.

However, Robinson pointed out that this position of power gives these companies considerable responsibility to ensure the social elements of this energy transition, noting that there are several examples of companies working on projects that are environmentally sound, but socially destructive.

“There’s one thing the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has noticed in recent years, is that a business that is putting in clean energy quite often abuses human rights,” said Robinson, “and that’s because it’s being done in the wrong way with mega projects.

“I have become aware of examples, [such as] the example in Kenya of the biggest wind farm that took land from the Maasai without even realising it was Maasai land. [There was] no consultation with them as an indigenous people that were deeply affected, and they weren’t going to benefit.”

There are similar examples elsewhere in Kenya, with the lives of the Turkana people, another indigenous group, disrupted by the planned construction of a 310MW wind farm; while the 356 turbines could supply up to 17% of Kenya’s total power capacity, much of this power will be diverted to urban centres, such as the capital Nairobi, completely bypassing the local group.

However, there are companies actively working to address both aspects of the clean energy transition, such as Spanish renewable firm Kemtecnia. The company provides ready-to-use solar panels and wind turbines, packed into containers measuring 20 or 40 feet in length, that can be deployed anywhere around the world, providing a reliable source of power to those in off-grid areas.

Each container can provide up to 350kWp, and while converting this potential electrical output to actual production is difficult, due to variations in geography, mechanical effectiveness and installation quality, British solar panel provider Solarae estimates that each kWp could deliver around 800kWh of energy. At that level each Kemtecnia facility could be given a maximum annual power output of 280MW, enough to power around 27 homes in Spain, according to EU statistics office Eurostat.

The role of government

Above these private companies, national governments also have a role to play in ensuring a just energy transition, as they too have a unique position, with regards to ensuring access to energy security for their populations. Robinson referred to negotiations between countries ahead of the 2015 Paris summit, and described the outcome, which laid the groundwork for the eventual agreement, “remarkable, because it was voluntary.

“Governments could pick and choose [to] do whatever bits of it they wanted to, so it [was] possible to get the agreement,” she said. “Then we went forward to the Paris Climate agreements, and I was even more focused as it was a treaty.”

The world’s governments are also responsible for encouraging renewable power development within their borders, and to this end have steadily increased their commitment to renewable projects over the last decade. According to the International Energy Agency, global renewable subsidies increased from $66bn in 2010 to $112bn in 2014, and close to $200bn in 2018, with total investment expected to reach $250bn by 2035.

While this direct involvement is encouraging, these numbers pale in comparison to fossil fuel subsidies, which remained at more than double renewable subsidies in 2018. This is compounded by some of the world’s major industrial powers continuing to develop fossil fuel sources, with India and Russia both contributing fossil fuel subsidies of more than $40bn in 2013, and China, despite committing over $7bn to renewable projects, still subsidising $22.1bn worth of fossil fuel-fired projects.

This trend – of change that is noticeable, but ultimately ineffective – is one Robinson has seen consistently in global energy politics, and a stumbling block that the world will need to overcome to ensure a just energy transition.

“There is already a coalition of governments focusing on climate neutrality,” she said, “but it’s only about less than 20 governments. We need all 196 governments that are involved in the Paris Climate Agreement, including the United States when the time comes.

“I believe that we can no longer afford to regard the 2030 agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary … and a matter for each member stage to decide on its own. Instead, the full implementation of both of these frameworks has become imperative to have a safe future for our children and grandchildren, and the rest of the world.

“This requires a change of mind-set at the global political level.”