EAN/FAN Workshop 2023: Renewable Energies

Katja Müller, katja.mueller@zirs.uni-halle.de

The transition to renewable energies is a climate-political necessity. To keep global warming well below 2°C, more than 70 % of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 2050. Electricity, heat and e-fuels, generated from renewable energy sources, will need to replace fossil fuelled energy and potentially cover an ever-expanding demand, provide energy security and affordability.

Modern environmentalism has been fostering the development of renewable energies since the 1960s and 1970s. In the Global South, we have seen environmental and peace movements along large infrastructural programmes, often sustained by Indigenous communities and often around large hydropower infrastructures. In some countries of the Soviet Bloc, environmental protection was written into the constitution and progressive environmental policies were adopted in the 1960s. At the same time, these countries in practice often experienced a lack of transparency of environmental damage. In the so-called Western countries, environmentalism took off in the 1970s, said to have been quite radical in its beginnings, experiencing ups and downs, to eventually becoming institutionalized. It was in the 1990s and 2000s that environmental movements became globalized, increasingly putting global effects of energy production onto their agenda, too. (Nulman 2015; Rosewarne et al. 2015; Doherty and Doyle 2014; Rucht 1999; Swarnakar 2019; Behrens and Hoffman 2007)

While environmentalism is but one reason for energy transitions to gain traction worldwide, we could see an increase in renewable energy production and a decidedly more ‘green’ energy politics all over the world. It is not only the signing of the Paris Agreement as a framework for reducing green-house gases in 2015, but the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that depict the states’ political will to take measures as regards energy transitions – with mixed results. The World Resource Institute analysed the NDCs in Oct 2022, finding out that 81 % of the NDCs seek to increase renewable energy, but few explicitly aim to reduce fossil fuel consumption (World Resource Institute 2022). The COP27, held in late 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, was another case in point, showing that countries made a provision to boost “low-emission and renewable energy” – which, by the way, includes and is a nod to fossil gas – while being reluctant to act boldly on fossil fuels, watering down texts that would quicken the pace of decarbonisation.

This indicates that there is an acknowledgement of the need to reduce emission through energy production forms, yet that energy transitions will not come swiftly or easily, due to infrastructural set-ups, lock-in effects, financialisation and politics. And it is in the renewable sector, that we are increasingly observing a repetition of disputable practices known from fossil-fuel entrepreneurs (cf. Boyer and Howe 2019; Franquesa 2018).

As Mette Marie Vad Karsten and Freja Valentin Dunkerley demonstrate, the introduction of renewable energies can come with a lack of transparency. Their research in Denmark shows how concerns of residents are glossed over in the installation of wind turbines. Security issues are discounted, promises are broken, social tensions are emerging. Likewise, the receiving end of green electricity – electric cars – sees a lack of information at the expense of security, too. Karsten and Dunkerley’s research on the maritime transport of electrical vehicles shows that safety practices for handling EV-related fire emergencies are anything but in place. The two cases demonstrate that there is not only one renewable energy future, but multiple ones, depending on “how the green transition is enacted”.

Roberto Cantoni takes to wind energy and aspects of justice, too, when investigating the Cooperate Social Responsibility (CSR) plans of two wind parks installed in Northern Africa, by the Italian-Moroccan joint venture NEGPM. NEGPM implemented a wide range of measures benefiting the communities living adjunct to the wind parks in Midelt and Boujdour, through “stimulating entrepreneurial activities, helping a few students pay their university tuition fees, and improving the health of the local community through medical caravans.” While acknowledging the good intentions and arguably good outcome of CSR in these cases, Cantoni points to an upstream injustice issue that can’t be ignored: Boujdour is a town in the Western Sahara territories under Moroccan occupation, and as such any European undertakings here require the consent of the people of Western Sahara. The Italian company Enel co-built the wind park, but did not obey to this order by the European Court of Justice, making “how the green transition is enacted” in this case highly disputable, to say the least. However, there seems little public outrage or consequences for Italy’s Enel or NEGPM.

Sophia Küpers and Susana Batel pinpoint one aspect that contributes to little outrage or consequences for arguably unjust renewable energy installations. Taking us to Portugal and the country’s hydropower dams, they analyse the language of sacrifice used in media reports, both historically and today. They show how politicians and relocated people in the Roman-Catholic country use sacrifice and the sacrifice discourse to justify, come to terms with and make sense of renewable energy technologies, but also to contest them.

Similarly, the question of justification and justice plays a central role in hydropower dam construction in Georgia. As Elisabed Gedevanishvili demonstrates, the protests formed and eventually succeeding with halting a planned hydropower project in the Rioni Valley were influenced, adopted and transformed by diverse understandings of justice within the protest movement.

We see the commonalities between the cases of renewable energy production: numerous conflicts, injustices and problems arise in the process of planning, installing and operating these energy systems, delegitimizing and impeding energy transitions. Despite, or precisely because of these restraints, we need to and will continue to discuss and analyse renewable energy production, in and beyond their relation to unjust and extractivist practices known from fossil energy production. Renewable energy systems can pose threat to societies and the environment. They might be presented as crucial to counter fossil fuel dominance, but renewable energy production, too, becomes entangled into growth imperatives and capitalist extractivism. By pointing out these faultlines and injustices, we do not mean to delegitimise renewable energies, quite on the contrary: We are tackling this thorny issue and raise important questions about the political and economic landscapes of the post-fossil fuel era, drawing attention to the multiple forms of enacting the “green transition”. We dismantle contemporary flaws in implementing renewable energy systems, hoping that they can open up pathways to more just low-carbon futures.


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