A Just Energy Transition – the Green Conundrum
The message at COP23 has been clear: an energy transition to renewables is what our global society needs to prepare for. And quick. One of the words often mentioned in the same message is ‘inclusive’; the energy transition needs to involve and benefit all parts of society, and to counter inequality and socio-economic polarization (a legacy of the fossil fuel industry). This emphasis on societal inclusion is one of the things I found inspiring and quite beautiful during COP23. Especially when discussing sustainable forest management, the inclusion of indigenous peoples is essential for success and durability. This importance appears to have been acknowledged at COP23 and is included in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement.
However, we are currently facing a huge conundrum, very clearly explained by a fantastic expert panel during the side-event ‘Achieving Socially and Ecologically Beneficial Renewable Energy Systems through Community Engagement’. An energy transition to renewables requires raw materials to produce solar panels or windmills. Currently, the primary method of retrieving these materials is through mining, despite the fact that many of the necessary minerals can be found aboveground as ‘secondary ore’. Secondary ore can be found in waste piles and landfills within dumped products that contain huge amounts of minerals and metals. Although we already have the technology to retrieve this secondary ore, funding for the required infrastructure has not yet been provided, and is a matter that has apparently been overlooked by authorities. A lot of the mining activities that generate the materials needed for windmills occur in places like the Amazonian region – places where, as you may have guessed, the expansion of mining areas often goes hand in hand with deforestation. Deforestation has significant consequences for the lives of indigenous and local communities, and mining can lead to the pollution of ground water reservoirs and rivers that supply drinking water to these communities. Deforestation to support a green energy transition: yep, there you have the conundrum.
Image by Naomi van den Berg.
This conundrum, however, should not serve as an excuse to postpone the transition to renewables. No, this is still something that global society should strive for. However, it serves to show that we need to include the concept of circularity in the supply chain – the idea of ‘cradle to cradle’ – if we want to strive for a just energy transition and the inclusion of all parts of society.
Naomi van den Berg is a MSc student at Wageningen University, studying Forest & Nature Conservation. Her main interests are modelling chemical cycling and population dynamics in forest ecosystems, and wildlife ecology. She strives for a career that combines both science and policy-making. She is super happy to have gotten the opportunity to represent IFSA and to push for inclusion of forests in all kinds of discussions at COP23. Forests for the win!