The Clean Energy Transition needs to be Fast – but it must also be Fair

December 8, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Dante Dalabajan and Ruth Mayne introduce a new Oxfam research report – produced by staff and partners from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, US and Europe. The paper investigates the implications of the clean energy transition for lower-income countries and communities and asks how the world can achieve a truly just, as well as fast, transition.

As acknowledged at the recent COP27, the world urgently needs to transition to clean energy to prevent the climate crisis intensifying. Oxfam’s new research highlights how the sheer scale of transition required and the many social and economic benefits of clean energy, also offer humanity an unprecedented opportunity to simultaneously create a fairer – as well as greener – future. To seize and realise this opportunity, the transition needs to be undertaken with justice and communities’ rights at its core.  

Yet Oxfam research, published yesterday, suggests that marginalised communities are threatened by a double jeopardy: not only are they often more affected by the climate crisis due to their economic and social vulnerabilities, but also, in too many cases, they bear more of the costs and fewer of the benefits of the energy transition. Such injustices not only entrench existing and historic injustices and inequalities, but they also breed resistance that slows the transition and brings us faster to a climate precipice.

The world desperately needs a fast energy transition

Recent devastating flooding, hurricanes, heatwaves and droughts have affected millions of people on virtually all continents. They are the indelible marks of a global climate gone awry and provide a frightening insight into a volatile future. Experts have repeatedly said that to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees and prevent an irreversible climate emergency we need to reduce global emissions by half by 2030, reach net-zero by 2050 and go net-negative from there on.  

Yet the world’s use of fossil fuels, which accounts for 73% of global emissions, continues to drive the crisis, turbocharged by the dominant economic model’s relentless pursuit of growth and profit.  Global emissions are still rising rather than falling, and according to the UN, the world could be on track for a temperature rise of about 2.8C by the end of the century, a catastrophic scenario, particularly for low-income and marginalised communities who have contributed the least to the crisis but often lack the resources to adapt.

Celsa Nable is a member of a women’s group that launched a solar project on Hilabaan Island, in the Philippines supported and funded by Oxfam and its partner SIKAT (Picture: Erielle Esturas/Oxfam Pilipinas)

but that transition also needs to be just

The responsibility for reducing emissions lies primarily with wealthy countries, which grew rich on fossil fuels use, and which are responsible for an estimated 92% of all excess historical emissions. But the energy transition also has important implications for communities in lower-income, lower-emitting countries. Not only are some countries beginning to transition but investors and companies are also increasing their renewable energy investments in these countries or looking for critical minerals for low-carbon technologies, such as batteries used in wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Oxfam’s new research paper finds signs of clean energy benefits emerging in the surveyed countries – green jobs, protection against volatile fuel bills, strengthened energy security. It also identifies examples of clean energy initiatives that share ownership and benefits with communities, including helping improve access to affordable and reliable electricity for lighting, cooking and domestic labour-saving appliances.

Yet it also identifies a range of injustices. A lack of promised external finance and support from wealthy, high-emitting countries is constraining the ability of lower-income countries to undertake the energy transition and what finance there is rarely benefits marginalised communities. The research also finds too many cases where clean energy and transition mineral policies and projects: fail to meaningfully consult affected communities; push the costs onto communities through land grabs or lack of social protection for workers made redundant from the old fossil fuel industries; exclude communities from sharing the benefits of clean energy; or fail to provide affected community with compensation for resources or environmental harms

In La Guajira, Colombia, for example, a territory of the Wayuu people that is protected as an indigenous shelter by the Constitution, many wind and solar energy installations were fast-tracked for approval through a Presidential edict without the consent of the 248 indigenous communities living in the area.

Such injustices are generating  resistance to, and suspension of, large renewable energy and transition projects due to injustices such as lack of community consultation, land grabs, pollution or other and human rights abuses.

Ahmad is a date farmer in the Jordan Valley. He manages a date plantation and takes care of a new solar water system installed by Oxfam and partner Economic and Social Development Centre (ESDC). The farm has no access to mainland electricity so previously they were using high cost diesel to power their irrigation pump. Now, the farmers have access to water at all times, their crops are healthier, and they are spending less money on fuel, and more on their business and families.

Time to put justice at the heart of the energy revolution

While recognition of the need for a just transition has grown in recent years, there are still too many examples of energy policies and projects which narrowly prioritise carbon reduction or efficiency without adequately integrating justice and rights.

Only 36% of surveyed key net zero criteria across 33 standards and voluntary initiatives contain any mention of provisions for climate justice or equity, according to a recent study. And the Business and Human Rights Centre’s renewable energy benchmark finds that most major renewable energy companies do not have policies and practices in place to ensure that minimum international human rights standards are upheld in their operations and supply chains.

So how can we ensure the transition to clean energy is truly just? Building on the crucial work of the International Labour Organisation, trade unions and the climate justice movement, our research identifies four justice principles and associated rights needed to ensure a fast but also economically and socially just transition:

  • Recognition-based justice requires that the rights and concerns of, and injustices experienced by, affected marginalised economic and social groups are recognized and addressed.
  • Procedural justice requires that affected people have a meaningful say in the design and implementation of transition policies and projects, including the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent and to organise and to protest, among others.
  • Distributional justice requires a fair distribution of the responsibilities, costs and benefits of climate/energy action across different economic and social groups and ensures protection of the right to life, an adequate standard of living, health, and access to land, among others.
  • Remedial justice requires that people are fairly compensated for any harm resulting from energy projects or for loss and damage from climate change.

The report also highlights practical examples of just energy solutions. In the Philippines, for instance, Oxfam has worked with a local organization, SIKAT, and women’s associations to set up a community-based micro-grid system in off-grid Hilabaan Island. Some of the co-benefits for local women include reduced time spent on care and domestic work, improved access to affordable and reliable electricity to light their homes and strengthened home-based livelihoods both from running the cooperative and because home lighting enables evening work. Such initiatives could be mainstreamed and scaled up with finance and a supportive and inclusive government policy framework.

Energy is vital for human flourishing and development. We urgently need to create a new clean, and more efficient energy system to mitigate the climate crisis. But whether the transition is both fast and fair will depend on whether all of us – governments, companies, and civil society – put justice and rights at the heart of every carbon reduction and energy transition initiative.

December 8, 2022
Duncan Green