Renewable energy is one of the key solutions that will propel us towards a more sustainable future. But with the concerning rise of reports on the exploitative nature of some renewable energy projects, and the truth behind the provenance and sourcing of the raw materials these projects require coming to light? We can’t assume a just transition will happen. Is the clean energy revolution really as “clean” as the industry makes it seem?
There is no question that we should wean off fossil fuels. Between its massively polluting impacts, the industry’s history of and intent to harm, and its continued attempts to greenwash over all of this, we must do all we can to abolish the fossil fuel industrial complex. On that front, we are making much headway. People all over the world are taking their governments to court, for grossly funding, through millions of dollars of subsidies, fossil fuel companies. There are movements trying to criminalise “ecocide”, primarily targeting these companies. Not to mention, there’s also a growing worldwide truth-telling campaign about the role of fossil fuels in the climate crisis.
We are not moving fast enough, however. Fossil fuel companies still have a chokehold on governments in the so-called Global North. They are still pouring money into disinformation campaigns, and into new oil and gas projects, wherever they can. They are still fighting against being held accountable in the eyes of the law. Yet they are still being invited, given a seat at the table, to shape our futures. The climate action movement must move faster against the fossil fuel industrial complex.
In this regard, unsurprisingly, the movement has been quick to embrace the clean energy revolution. Many among us are banking on this green energy future. But in jumping from one energy source to another, what are we missing? In putting our hopes into another industry, what deeper, structural problems are we failing to address? If we unthinkingly tread down this path, will we eventually see the same crises, in different forms?
What they won’t tell you about clean energy
To be clear, again, we do need cleaner forms of energy. But in our path forward towards a cleaner future, we have to acknowledge the flaws of clean energy as-is today. (It’s possible to do both. Advocate for it as one of the tools in our toolbox, but demand for it to be better.)
In A People’s Green New Deal, researcher and postdoctoral fellow Max Ajl outlines the various problems associated with the proposed clean energy transition. Citing various studies, Ajl suggests that if we account for the costs of storage, diminishing returns, the ecological damage of hydroelectric power (in comparison to wind and solar), “easy claims” about entirely converting our current and increasing energy use to 100% renewables “are unrealistic.”
There are more than a few inconvenient roadblocks. Aside from the ones already mentioned, there’s also the carbon “bump” involved in the transition. Building the infrastructure we need requires energy. “[A]nd that energy cannot for the most part come from renewables”. Researchers have estimated that it would apparently require France’s current yearly consumption to build a replacement infrastructure for the country’s energy consumption, says Ajl.
And it’s not even just about inconvenience. It’s not just about how transitioning to a clean energy future isn’t as feasible, nor as efficient, as it’s made out to be. The more concerning aspect of what they won’t tell you about clean energy is the fact that much of the raw materials involved in the transition come from “poor Third World nations with histories of colonial depredation or recent US coups d’état”.
IMAGE: via New York Times | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of miners hauling bags of cobalt in southeast Democratic Republic of Congo. Two miners, wearing fully long sleeved outfits but without any safety gear, are hauling bags up a narrow tunnel. They are securing themselves on the walls with their bare hands and legs.
The problem is less of the fact itself, but more of the wider socio-political context of our world. In other words, there’s nothing inherently concerning about the geographies of these raw materials. It’s the fact that in this globalised, racialised, imperialist-capitalist system, more powerful nations have exploited resource-rich nations. (In fact, that is how wealthy nations today became wealthy, and how poorer nations today became poor. Read: colonialism, and Structural Adjustment Programs.) Because of this, it’s likely—as it is already playing out today—that the countries and communities that are home to these precious raw materials, will be plundered, destabilised, taken advantage of, by those who want to make (more than) a quick buck. History repeats itself, especially if business-as-usual persists.
Here’s just one example of how it’s happened before. Ajl details: “Cheap cobalt and other minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (which are part of highly disposable iPhones) has meant massive human and material degradation, people suffering with cancer, and an ongoing US-incited war, which prevents the country from exercising national-popular sovereignty over its resources and demanding a just price on world markets.”
And here’s how it’s happening now. “The recent coup d’état in Bolivia is inseparable from Western hostility to the Bolivian government’s interest in decolonization, anti-imperialism, and natural resource sovereignty in general, and its holding of lithium in particular, necessary for batteries [for renewable energy].”
This might come as a surprise to those of us who’ve never looked more closely into “clean” energy. But the truth is where there’s money, in this current system, there will be dirty play. Why is there dirty play? The reason for this is clear when we take a look at who is at the forefront of the “green revolution”.
Whose voice is the loudest in the call for the clean energy revolution?
Here we ought to pay attention to the framing of Green New Deals (GNDs), and by who. While they may read similarly, not all GNDs emphasise the same things. Those coming from the ground-up, or the margins, often sound more cautious of industries and jobs. Whereas, the more mainstream ones are happy to unquestioningly support a simple replacement of energy sources. Without questioning whose agendas the revolution will serve.
Host of Green Dreamer Podcast, Kamea Chayne, notes: “Green agendas have been co-opted by the global ruling powers and “green” billionaires, then unfortunately, enthusiastically supported and promoted by well-intentioned activists primarily in the “Global North” who are far removed from what “the green transition” actually has meant and will mean”.
What’s scary is the way the climate movement is paving the road for “green” billionaires. If we don’t question the system that this clean energy revolution is taking place in, we will simply perpetuate it. Which is exactly what’s happening. According to Forbes, “going green can mint a lot of green backs. With interest in clean energy surging… trailblazers in the green revolution are getting richer. There are now 34 billionaires whose fortunes stem from clean energy products”. Listing the various types of products, Forbes calls it a “red hot stock market”, and notes that 19 of these billionaires have “joined the three comma club for the first time in the past year alone.”
Reading between the lines will tell us this. The clean energy revolution is furthering massive socioeconomic inequality. Raw materials are being taken from poorer nations, used to make products for (supposedly) most of the world, and ultimately the profits grow the investment portfolios of the mega-rich. What does that sound like? Right—business-as-usual.
Isn’t getting world finance behind clean energy a good thing?
Isn’t it great that billionaires and stock market bros are getting behind clean energy? Developing and growing clean energy markets: that’s what we greenies want, no?
No, we don’t want green capitalism. That clean energy is making for a new class of green billionaires is not something to celebrate. That’s like endorsing the brand of white corporate feminism by replacing men at the top with white women at the top, calling them #girlboss, and calling it a day on feminism. That might be better, but by whose standards, and for who? Coming back to clean energy, we don’t just want another industrial complex to replace the fossil fuel one.
These billionaires don’t care about the environment. They care about the money that they can earn from it. They care about preserving their wealth. As journalist and author Max Blumenthal says, Mike Bloomberg and all the other billionaires who are at the front of the clean energy revolution are just “part of this investor class that wants to get in on the renewable revolution, the fourth industrial revolution.” If they really cared about climate change, they would acknowledge that capitalism is the problem. But if they did that, the entire system that props them and their wealth up would be at risk of falling apart.
Clean energy revolution or green colonialism?
So we know that those who benefit from business-as-usual are pushing the clean energy revolution. Naturally, what it ends up looking like is a continuation of what got us here to begin with. And indigenous groups all over the world have been calling it out.
At COP26, indigenous representatives called some renewable energy projects “green colonialism”, highlighting the fact that they were exploiting indigenous lands to harness this so-called green energy, likening it to plundering of resource-rich nations and the massive drain of wealth during colonial times. Not all clean energy projects are necessarily set up with such intentions, of course. But the fact is that many of these proposals, as Ajl has previously pointed out, fail to “properly acknowledge that the wealth of the richer countries rests on economic exploitation and ecological spoliation of the poorer ones.” Without such clear acknowledgement, clean energy projects can easily slide into green colonialism.
Indeed, we’re already seeing instances of such green colonialism today. Dayna Nadine Scott and Adrian A. Smith have theorised in the McGill Law Journal “sacrifice zones” in the green energy economy, explaining that while this has normally been used to describe the effects felt by communities who live near or downstream from “industrial complexes of extraction, refining, and petrochemical production”, we have been seeing green energy projects also create sacrifice zones. Bodies of nature and real communities rendered sacrifices for the “greater good” of providing energy.
Hence the question: “clean” for who?
IMAGE: via Global Citizen | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of Climate Youth activists, Indigenous people, and parents protesting at the end of the COP26 Leaders Summit in Glasgow. They are holding up lit-up letters on black signs, forming the words “END CLIMATE BETRAYAL”. Each person holds up one letter. They are standing in front of a row of trees and a conference centre lit up in bright green. It seems to be late at night.
Often, as Evelyn Chapman explains for EcoResolution: “Indigenous people have unsurprisingly borne the brunt of this, largely because legal protection of their ancestral land is flimsy at best.” This is the case in Kenya, which hasn’t ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 1989 Convention which legally requires governments to consult with Indigenous peoples regarding measures that affect them, and guarantees Indigenous peoples’ participation in decision making processes. Developers see indigenous lands as “vacant, fallow and virgin”. Consequently, indigenous peoples experience land dispossession, forced removal, loss of livelihood and culture.
Examples all over the world
Such disregard for indigenous rights is happening all over the world. It’s happening in the Volta Grande region of the Amazon, because of a recent decision by the Federal Regional Court. Significantly, this will divert 80% of the Xingu River flow away from local communities, compromising the food security and livelihoods of indigenous people. All for the creation of a hydroelectric dam complex, to meet the industrial demands of other regions in Brazil.
It’s also happening in Norway, a country supposedly leading the way for climate action, to the Sami people. (One wonders if we should continue to abide by and uphold our current sustainability metrics if this is the case.) And even in cases where there is an initial approval, developers may fail to inform communities about the full extent of the damage. This was the case in Indonesia, to locals on the island of Sulawesi.
The region’s clean energy push seems to not be without its problems, reports Reuters about Asia. It notes that such projects “receive government incentives and less scrutiny than fossil-fuel projects”, which thus allow for human rights abuses to happen. In Ban Khu, a village in southern Thailand, a biomass plant that began operating despite villagers’ concerns, led to water supply contamination and health problems. In India, large-scale solar and wind parks have seen rural communities being uprooted without requisite compensation.
It’s not that these indigenous groups and local communities don’t understand the positive effects and need for renewable energy. (They do, actually.) It’s that these projects have gone ahead without respect for the traditional ecosystem and land caretakers.
IMAGE: via YaleEnvironment360 | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of Reynaldo Santana, the King of the Naso, on the banks of the Teribe River in northwest Panama. He is wearing a yellow top and black pants that cut off at his knees, and grey shoes. He stands on rocks, and behind him is a lush forest. The sky is cloudy, and it looks rather overcast. He faces away from the camera.
And these abuses are increasing. London-based nonprofit Business and Human Rights Resources Centre reports that allegations of human rights violations in the sector have increased in recent years. None of the 15 largest renewable energy companies “have a formal policy acknowledging the rights of human rights and environmental defenders”.
You would think that at the very least, the communities and indigenous peoples get to experience the benefits of these energy projects. But that’s not always the case. “[It] is just for other countries,” says Marcelo Guerra, president of National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama and chief of the Indigenous Buglé community. Ikal Ang’elei of the environmentalist Friends of Lake Turkana group in Kenya adds that it’s the big international institutions and global financial interests that benefit, at the expense of local communities.
The issue here is that there’s continued exploitation of the Global South and marginalised groups, in an extractive relationship that benefits the Global North, or more privileged consumers. For the latter, the clean energy revolution presents an opportunity to “decouple” economic growth from environmental consequences. But clearly, what’s happening is instead an invisibilising of the supply chain. A pretense that green growth is possible. When really it’s creating sacrifice zones out of exploited communities. For consumers who don’t know better: it’s out of sight, out of mind.
We need clean energy
The truth is that we do still need clean energy. As mentioned, there’s no question that we should wean off fossil fuels. And part of the way forward to get there is to develop renewable energy projects wherever we can. But this must come with a reckoning of the facts. That currently, the clean energy revolution under business-as-usual is allowing for the exploitation of resource-rich nations and nations and communities that are easily exploitable. That while clean energy benefits the entire world? Right now, it’s allowing for rich billionaires to create an entirely new energy industrial complex.
We must move forward with a clean energy revolution that breaks free from our colonial paradigms. That means divesting from the business-as-usual, extractive way of doing things. It means not relentlessly prioritising economic growth and “development” at all costs. (We need to talk about how richer nations have taken up most of the carbon budget. And about how simply replacing fossil with renewable won’t change the fact that richer nations are consuming far beyond their means.)
It means rejecting a world that furthers massive inequality. It means pursuing GNDs that are truly about climate justice and a just transition. What does that look like?
IMAGE: via ROAPE | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of young climate protestors. At the very foreground is a young Black woman. She is holding a loudhailer with one hand and her other hand is raised in a solidarity fist, and she is pictured while yelling. Those behind her are holding various signs. One reads “SYSTEM CHANGE NOT CLIMATE CHANGE” in pale blue on a black background. Another reads “FRAGILE” but the rest is not visible. The rest of the protestors are also shouting. There is a texture overlay on the photo, muting the originally vibrant colours.
Ajl offers some answers in A People’s Green New Deal. He emphasises that national and indigenous sovereignty are crucial. “[T]here seems to be no way to ensure just prices outside countries acquiring sovereignty over their resources, and then banding together to ensure just payment”. This means that power needs to be held by the people who steward these resources and lands. Often, these people already know what’s best to do for the land.
Whatever forms GNDs take, Ajl writes, we must start with acknowledging that much of what we’ve built in richer nations, much of what the energy system has thus far powered, “has been based on a relationship which denies many rights to Indigenous peoples and peoples on the periphery of the world economic order, and trying to make amends for those denials”, so that we don’t repeat the same history with the clean energy revolution.
A clean energy revolution that builds upon a just transition is possible. We can negotiate a world without a new energy industrial complex, without green colonialism. We must believe that it is, and act like it every single day until that future arrives.
FEATURED IMAGE: via Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: An idyllic photo of windmills on a green field in Turlock, United States. Windmills pepper the grassy, green landscape. The sky is a soft orange and pink, and there are no clouds.
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