The push for renewable energy: a role for impact assessment?

Depending on which day you’re looking at the news, or which sources you’re following, or even which sections you choose to delve into, it can be unclear where we stand in terms of renewable and clean energy. New coalfields are being developed in Australia, Ecuador’s rain forests continue to be transformed into oil fields, and fracking is becoming commonplace news. At the same time, investments in renewable energy seem to be growing and governments continue to proclaim their commitment to green technologies and sustainable energy policies. So the question remains: why are we not further along in our push for ‘green growth?’

United States President Barack Obama discussing his commitments to changing the US’s energy policy at a June 2013 speech at Georgetown.

Christina Figuere’s, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), stated in early January that investment in clean technology needs to grow to $1 trillion a year within the next 10 to 15 years, signifying a tripling over current investments ($300 billion/yr). In mid-January, in line with this imperative, Ceres Investor Network organized a meeting of the world’s chief financial interests to discuss the needed increase in renewable investments [1]. This is a prime example of how more and more we are putting our environmental future at the mercy of business; placing faith in their ability to see that our current trajectory is unsustainable and not viable economically. It is increasingly common to frame decisions regarding unsustainable energy in terms of investor motivations rather than social and environmental imperatives [2].

All this leads me to question what role government can have in promoting renewable energy. As much as our world has opened up and globalization has entrenched the role of the private sector and economic interests, the role of the state should not be discounted. For one, it is governments that meet at international organizations to enter into agreements about policies for energy and climate. In 2011 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that almost 80% of the world’s energy could be supplied through renewable sources (bioenergy, solar, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, and wind energy) by 2050, pushing us towards stabilizing the climate, pending “consistent climate and energy policy support” [3]. The main hiccup towards moving in this regard is not an issue of resource availability but rather the proper economic and political policies supporting their development.

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030. (Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030.
(Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

Increased emphasis on natural gas and oil in the form of fracking, oil sands, and heavy-crude are proof to many that we are moving into what Hampshire College Professor Michael T. Klare [4] names “The Third Carbon Age: The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.” Klare bases a number of his findings on a November 2012 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that states that our energy demands led to government subsidies for fossil fuels totalling $523 billion in 2011 [5]. Coal alone has met the need of almost half of the rising energy demands in the past 10 years. Similarly to the IPPC report, the IEA report states that actually realizing energy efficiency is not related to unprecedented technological discoveries, but rather on “taking actions to remove the barriers obstructing the implementation of energy efficiency measures that are economically viable” [5]. The key is to change the incentives in decision-making processes. As a student of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), I believe that impact assessment can play a pivotal role in the process towards shaping energy policy decisions. The incorporation of energy efficiency priorities and overall sustainability into impact assessment is absolutely integral to our ability to move towards sustainable energy.

World’s total energy use projected through 2013 – more and more energy will be accounted for by renewable energy sources.
(Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

The pressure to include sustainability thought processes within EIA has been the subject of much research. Pope, et al. [6] discuss the importance of performing an ‘assessment for sustainability,’ in order to actually determine whether a plan is sustainable. Its purpose is simple: to unambiguously answer the closed-question of whether or not a policy or plan is sustainable. The guidelines for a sustainability assessment should be created in a top-down manner: determining what it means to be sustainable, and then identifying principles that represent this objective. The authors find that when sustainability assessment is incorporated within EIA, it tends to be through bringing in the thinking of economics, environment and society, and then attempting to reduce negative effects to all three. This results in an inherent competition and the acceptance that that trade-offs are necessary. However, since this is at a project level, the overall goal of sustainability at the level of society is never addressed. At this point a project has already been decided on and you are dealing with tweaking the details of a potentially inherently unsustainable project.

Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) are used to assess the impacts of plans and policies in order to guide decision-making processes. If countries are serious about making changes to their environmental policies and promoting the development of sustainable energy, an SEA is an important tool that could be used to give an all-encompassing picture of the status of energy resources nationally. This information would in turn be used to inform project choice and implementation, as well as the EIA process of projects. As Hugé et al state [7], “the appeal of impact assessments lies in their systematic, stepwise approach and in their contribution to generate ‘order out of chaos,’” (p. 6247). I particularly like this notion of EIA, and think that it encompasses the principle that we must lay everything out on the table in order to make clear guidelines on environmental policy. While it is true that investment from the private sector is immensely important in the move towards sustainable development, SEA is an important tool to help countries put in place policies that will act as a catalyst for this change.

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References

[1] Goldenberg, S. 2013, Jan 14. “Why We Need to Triple Clean Energy Investment.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/01/un-climate-chief-christiana-figueres-triple-clean-energy-investment

[2] McDonnell, T. 2013, Apr. 22. “Charts: The Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels

[3] IPCC. 2011. PRESS RELEASE: Potential of Renewable Energy Outlined in Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from: http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/press/content/srren-press-release-updated-version.pdf

[4] Klare, M. T. 2013, Aug. 8. “The Third Carbon Age.” The Nation. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.thenation.com/article/175659/third-carbon-age#.

[5] IEA. 2012. World Energy Outlook 2012: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/English.pdf

[6] Pope, J., Annandale, D., Morrison-Saunders, A. 2004. Conceptualising sustainability Assessment. EIA Review. 24: 595-616.

[7] Hugé, J., Waas, T., Eggermont, G., Verbruggen, A. 2011. Impact assessment for a sustainable energy future—Reflections and practical experiences. Energy Policy. 39: 6243-6253.

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