Shifting our energy system: working both sides of the equation

Our planet is at a crossroads of emergencies. We must strive to achieve an extremely quick shift in energy sources to avoid the worst effects of climate change, as we have committed to in the Paris Agreement. But to tackle inequality and deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, we also need to deliver sustainable energy access for every person in the world.

According to scientists, we have as little as a decade left to halve our emissions, which means abandoning all sources of fossil energy before the middle of the century. But we need to align this goal with the conservation of our ecosystems, respect for people’s rights, and access to clean energy for all. If we want to avoid past mistakes, these goals need to be taken into account in energy policies.

At Christian Aid, we are working on both sides of the equation. With our partners in the Big Shift Global, we are campaigning to shift bank investments from fossil fuels to clean energy. But at the same time, in the countries where our programmes and partners deliver projects on the ground, we also have begun to address the challenges of shifting the energy system by providing local energy solutions.

Green energy dilemmas

Several energy sources – especially wind and solar – are widely considered as ‘green’, ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’. There are others that are given the ‘green energy’ label as well - biofuels and large hydropower projects, usually built on rivers running through large, well-conserved natural areas.

Biofuels are produced from when hydrocarbons for transport or heating are extracted from corn, sugarcane, soya or other food crops. They are presented as clean and renewable because, being obtained from plants, they are supposed to have low carbon emissions: organic carbon is captured again in the next growing season, from the same land. They present one extra potential advantage: as they are produced on arable land, they could be grown locally, serving the energy needs of those hardest to reach.

Large-scale hydropower projects also offer some advantages: once the huge construction costs are redeemed they serve to provide cheap, predictable electricity for large populations. Around 100 large-scale projects are already in place or under development in Latin America, with massive investments from China, Europe and the US.

Should we embrace these models, in order to achieve the rapid phase-out of fossil energy that we need? Not without a comprehensive plan. Despite the undeniable advantages of emissions avoided, biofuels and large hydropower projects can bring severe social and environmental consequences. They imply large-scale changes in ecosystem occupation and land use. And big dams still emit methane from sediment, and sink large areas of tropical forest. This same forest is being logged at a fast and increasing pace for large-scale cultivation of biofuel crops.

Ecosystem destruction carries with it hundreds of human rights violations, when affected communities are evicted without consent from their land, not to mention the increase in food prices when biofuels compete for arable land. As argued by one of our partners in Brazil, the Movement of People Affected by Dams – who support rights claims by communities threatened or affected by dam construction – energy alternatives need to be in the service of people, not profits.

A just and sustainable energy transition

There is no simple answer to aligning social and environmental safeguards with the huge change in energy infrastructures that is needed to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. But at the very least, investors and decision makers need to include such safeguards in planning investments in energy infrastructure. Thus legislation on indigenous communities, appropriate environmental evaluation and avoidance of people’s displacement must be starting points for designing renewable energy solutions. We need many renewable energy sources as fast as possible, but not at any cost. We need political will and rights-based approaches to planning.

Some renewable energy solutions need to be in the form of off-grid, small-scale, decentralized local renewable facilities. For instance, in Guatemala, indigenous communities have resisted the construction of dams on their land without their consent. Christian Aid’s partner Madreselva has not only supported this struggle, but – crucially – has also supported the establishment of micro hydro dams in communities in the north of the country. These small-scale projects have been built by the communities, for the communities - and been funded by a wide range of partners, from local NGOs to investment banks. Micro hydro projects have been widely accepted by the communities as they enable basic energy access without killing rivers or flooding jungles.

Similarly, in Bolivia, we are working on clean energy models that operate for communities that need better energy access for their homes and livelihoods.  With our partner Soluciones Prácticas, we have worked to support communities in the Amazon to benefit from solar technology, getting clean energy into kitchens in the form of solar ovens. Soluciones Prácticas is also committed to micro hydro power plants, as well as small-scale wind power facilities and biodigestors for treating waste and energy alike.

We know that we do not have all the solutions. But at Christian Aid, we are rooted in the communities where we work. We listen to and learn from our partners to strive for answers to the question of how to achieve clean energy access that aligns with the Paris Agreement targets. We believe that the equation involving people, energy, ecosystems and climate can be solved.


Read this blog in Spanish here.

Sign the Big Shift email petition demanding that the World Bank honour its commitments to the Paris Agreement, and support clean energy access, here.