Corporate power blocks global energy transition

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A new report shows why an energy revolution is needed, and identifies the powerful forces that stand in the way.

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The world’s current energy system is unsustainable and unjust. It harms communities, workers, the environment and the climate. A new report from Friends of the Earth International shows why an energy revolution is needed, and identifies the powerful forces that stand in the way.

The following is the Summary of Good Energy, Bad Energy? Transforming our energy system for people and the planet (pdf 17MB), published November 7 for distribution at the UN climate talks in Warsaw.

What’s wrong with the current energy system?

The world’s current energy system — the way we produce, distribute and consume energy — is unsustainable, unjust and harming communities, workers, the environment and the climate. This is fundamentally an issue of power: of corporate and elite power and interests outweighing the power of ordinary citizens and communities. Key problems include:

  • Climate change: Climate change is already happening — wreaking devastation on communities and ecosystems around the world. Yet without urgent action to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we face a far worse situation of runaway climate change, with impacts which would dramatically overshadow anything that we are seeing today. In total, a vast 57 per cent of global GHG emissions have resulted from CO2 released by fossil fuel use.
  • Energy access and energy poverty: Nearly 1.3 billion people — or one fifth of the world’s population — do not have access to electricity, and 2.6 billion people — close to two fifths of the people on the planet — do not have access to clean cooking facilities. There are also major inequalities in energy consumption globally. In 2008, the US used on average 7,503 kg of oil-equivalent per person per year, Britain 3,395, China 1,598, Uruguay 1,254, Vietnam 698 and Bangladesh only 192.
  • Energy waste: The way we produce and consume energy is extremely wasteful, especially in industrialized countries where the vast majority of energy and energy-intensive products are consumed. Centralized energy generation systems are believed to waste more than two thirds of their original energy input, and large amounts of energy are wasted on short-life and disposable consumer products.
  • Destructive impacts of energy sources: The main energy sources on which the world is currently reliant (oil, gas and coal), and other energy sources that are misleadingly put forward as ‘clean’ alternatives (nuclear power, industrial agrofuels and biomass, mega hydroelectric dams and waste-to-energy incineration) all have major destructive consequences for people, communities and the environment.

Summary of impacts of destructive energy sources
(Coal, oil, gas, nuclear power, industrial agrofuels and biomass, mega hydroelectric dams, waste-to-energy incineration)

  • climate change and the growing risk of runaway climate breakdown
  • land grabbing and displacement and impoverishment of small-scale farmers, fisherpeople and rural and indigenous communities
  • air pollution and water pollution, water shortages, inadequate clean water and sanitation
  • deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the destruction of landscapes and sensitive ecosystems
  • rupture or collapse of local economies
  • badly paid, unsafe, insecure jobs far away from people’s homes and families
  • health problems and premature deaths in people living close to harmful energy projects and infrastructure or exposed to toxic waste
  • human rights abuses of community members, activists and investigative journalists including surveillance, arbitrary detention, violence, torture and murder
  • loss of traditional medicines, livelihoods, cultures, traditions and important sites of ancestor worship
  • social upheaval and community breakdown

Drivers of the current energy system

  • Energy and neocolonialism, neoliberalism and extractivism: Our energy system cannot be understood without reference to the global political economy that drives and sustains it. The system is totally reliant on the continued extraction and exploitation of natural resources. Extractivism is an economic model that has its roots in the large-scale exploitation and expropriation of the natural resource wealth of developing countries that began under colonialism. Its impacts have been exacerbated by neoliberalism — a political approach which prioritizes the profit-making activities of private enterprise above social and environmental concerns, and individual freedoms over collective, public goods.
  • Profits from energy exploitation backed by law: Multinational energy corporations and their state backers use profit-sharing agreements and government-to-government treaties to guarantee continued access to energy resources and the maximization of profits from these resources. These agreements are fundamentally undemocratic and serve to undermine environmental and social protections and lock in extractivism.
  • Export-oriented economic growth: Today’s dirty energy sources and their harmful impacts are inextricably bound up with a model of export-orientated economics which prioritizes the production of goods for export. This comes at a very high environmental and social cost to the people living in exporting countries, as a result of both the destructive energy sources needed to fuel these industries and the energy-intensive industries themselves.
  • Energy-intensive lifestyles: Modern life in advanced industrial economies is highly energy dependent. The industrialized world’s high levels of energy consumption are predicated on the ready availability of energy, and on the environmental and social costs of the production of this energy being borne mostly by people and communities outside of their borders, mostly people and communities in the global South.
  • Energy market liberalization and energy exclusion: Energy poverty and lack of energy access is a direct result of governments’ policies and legislative choices in favour of energy market privatization and liberalization, involving the sell-off and deregulation of energy infrastructure and services so that energy provision and investment becomes guided primarily by the objective of profit maximization.
  • Corporate power blocking the energy transition: The financial benefits extracted from energy production and use are a source of considerable economic power, which in many circumstances translates directly into political power — power that is exercised over and over again to maintain access to the profit-making opportunities that the destructive global energy system provides. In many places, politicians and policy makers have direct connections with and financial interests in destructive and unsustainable energy, and senior executives connected with energy industries are given powerful positions on government committees and regulatory bodies, all with obvious impacts on the energy policy choices of governments.

Winners and losers

The global energy system has clear winners and losers. Destructive energy and the wider system disproportionately affects some groups in society, while other groups reap significant benefits. Overall the vast majority of people are harmed, exploited or excluded by the system, while a small minority take all the benefits.

Avoiding the climate trap

Stopping climate change and averting its worst impacts requires an urgent and dramatic reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions emitted from our energy system. This in turn necessitates a rapid transition away from high-carbon energy sources like fossil fuels, nuclear power, agrofuels and industrial biomass and the rapid expansion of renewable energy. This transition carries significant risks and pitfalls, some of which are in fact already being realized.

  • Risk 1: Corporations will try to define what constitutes ‘renewable energy’.
  • Risk 2: Construction of renewable energy infrastructure could drive land grabbing, enclosures, human rights abuses and environmental destruction.
  • Risk 3: Environmental destruction and human rights abuses result from raw material extraction for renewable energy infrastructure.
  • Risk 4: Greenhouse gas emissions from renewable technology roll-out are more than the climate can handle.
  • Risk 5: Poor environmental and labour standards in renewable technology manufacturing.
  • Risk 6: Renewables transition becomes a Trojan horse for energy privatization.
  • Risk 7: Lack of public consent for renewable energy.

Towards a vision for a just, sustainable, climate-safe energy system

Friends of the Earth International believes that it is possible to transform our current corporate-controlled, unsustainable and unjust global energy system into one that is climate-safe, just and sustainable, that respects the rights and different ways of life of communities around the world, and that meets the basic right to energy for everyone, without the extensive destructive impacts of current energy sources.

In this report we attempt to lay out what we consider to be the main features of a just, sustainable, climate-safe energy system. This vision is guided by the principle of energy sovereignty, which is the right of people to have access to energy, and to choose sustainable energy sources and sustainable consumption patterns that will lead them towards sustainable societies.

Key features of a just, sustainable, climate-safe energy system:

  1. Provides energy access for all as a basic human right
  2. Climate-safe and based on locally appropriate, low-impact technologies
  3. Under direct democratic control and governed in the public interest
  4. Ensures the rights of energy sector workers, and their influence over how their workplaces are run
  5. Ensures the right to free, prior and informed consent and rights of redress for affected communities
  6. As small-scale and decentralized as possible
  7. Ensures fair and balanced energy use and minimum energy waste

Some changes to help drive this transformation

  • Invest in locally appropriate, climate-safe, affordable and low-impact energy for all
  • Reduce energy dependence
  • End new destructive energy projects and facilitate a managed phase out of all destructive energy sources
  • Ensure a just transition and compensation and support for affected workers and their communities
  • Ensure the protection of free, prior, informed consent and rights of redress for affected communities
  • Tackle the international trade and investment rules that prevent the transition to a just, sustainable and climate safe energy system
  • Facilitate the sharing, transfer, development and local adaptation of low-impact, renewable energy technologies
  • End perverse incentives for destructive energy.

How to create the change?

Transforming the current energy system is one of the most difficult challenges of all and needs the most discussion among those communities, activists, campaigners and organizations whose aim is to bring about this change. Around the world, many communities are fighting for a just and sustainable energy system through local campaigns and struggles. All of these struggles are about living, building and embodying the world we want to see. As civil society, it is critical that we seek to support and strengthen these struggles, but we also need to go further.

Unless we can outweigh the power of vested interests and exert real democratic control over national governments’ decisions about the energy system then it is likely that grassroots struggles that do succeed will remain lone islands in the context of an overall energy system that remains unsustainable, exploitative and unjust. We need to build a common vision with all those who have an interest in transforming the energy system and whose skills are needed to make it happen, and a common strategy for how to get there. This process must include affected communities, communities without energy, energy users, energy sector workers, campaigners, academics and technical specialists amongst others.