A Local Perspective on the Global Transition to Sustainable Energy
The global energy sector needs to quickly transition to low-carbon technologies. Power generation leads this transition, and other energy sectors (e.g., transport, heating/ cooling, and industry) will soon follow. This affects entire economies, from direct energy activities and their supply chains through to tax revenues.
At the macro-level, the energy transition will create significant value: cleaner environment, cheaper energy, and job creation. But at the micro-level, impacts will be varied. Positive impacts include improvements in health and community investment. Negative ones range from simple annoyances to serious disturbances and even displacement. Structural change in the energy sector disproportionately affects rural populations, as most energy infrastructure (renewable and thermal power plants, mines, oil and gas fields, transmission lines, etc.) is located in rural areas. Rural people are often more connected to the land and family traditions, less educated, poorer, and perhaps from ethnic minorities – factors that increase vulnerability to change, and lessen the ability to adapt and benefit from new opportunities.
Economies change over time; industries are replaced by others; regions grow at the expense of others. Drivers for structural changes include new technologies, demographic shifts, natural resource discoveries, and government policies. Often, such structural change takes place gradually, allowing time for people to adjust. In the case of the energy transition, change is rapidly happening, and resistance to change could hinder the transition and have environmental, macro-economic, and political repercussions. Resistance can arise from losing a sense of place, cultural identity and social fabric; replacement jobs may be less desirable; uncertainty makes people hesitant to embrace change. A lack of preparation and coordination, together with short notices about new projects or the closing of old projects, can result in difficult transitions for communities. Feeling powerless to decisions made by far-away corporate headquarters and capitals contributes to the rejection of change.
It is unfair for rural populations to carry the entire costs of structural change. Environmental and energy justice is often seen as equal access to a clean environment and to clean, affordable energy. But its meaning should be expanded to cover equal treatment of communities in the energy transition, with a fair sharing of burdens and of benefits.
Sharing of responsibility should include businesses and governments. Businesses have a responsibility to understand the local impacts of their actions, positive and negative. They often drive changes, while local residents are involuntary risk takers with much less ‘agency’ or influence. However, companies mostly react to short-term business risks and opportunities, and have limited responsibility and capability to manage the larger transition and to overcome resistance. Thus, governments have important roles: to create awareness for the need for change and to guarantee a ‘just transition’, in terms of distribution of gains and losses, and in decision-making processes.
The scale of the global energy transition is unprecedented, and it cannot be achieved within a reasonable timeframe without the consent of affected communities. Bringing communities on board is not just a smart move for businesses and governments, it is also a matter of fairness. Countries owe their rural communities respect, acknowledgement of the disruptions caused by the transition, and support to turn the transition into an opportunity for rural development.
In some cases, it may be possible to directly replace existing with new technologies, in the same communities, using ‘brownfield’ instead of ‘greenfield’ sites for renewables. Existing coal plants may be converted to biomass plants. Solar farms can be built on abandoned mines. Natural gas storage facilities can be used for hydrogen. Requirements for local content can be introduced to promote local businesses engaged in new technologies. Workers can be re-trained and, if necessary, supported when they need to move to the locations of new energy technologies. Multiple examples exist of well-managed transitions that minimized disruptions for local people. It is time to apply the lessons learnt from these, and generate broad public support for the energy transition.