Energy Ethics 2020

Keynote Tuesday 10 November, 3 – 5pm GMT

Professor Tobias Haller, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Switzerland

‘Energy Ethics, Renewable Energy and Social Sustainability: Large-Scale Green Energy Projects, Commons Grabbing and Resilience.’

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In public, as well as in the media and sciences, it has become evident that humanity will need to get away from fossil fuel energy, or at least change the composition of its energy provisions. This paradigm shift is based on discourse related to climate change primarily, as well as to the dangers and problems of nuclear energy waste management for future generations. As an alternative – and as a strategy of diversification – renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, as well as biofuels to some extent, are not just proposed but also used increasingly. This requires a critical look at the ethical standards regarding the impacts of these forms of energy production. My presentation does not focus on the small scale-use of renewable energy such as solar energy in Europe in small and medium sized companies and households for their own consumption. It rather focuses on the commodification process of green energy at large-scale, which is increasingly proposed, legitimized and established in the energy business and governments. I will argue that these green energy strategies must pass the test of social as well as ecological sustainability, because green energy production requires large tracks of land mostly in the global south such as in Africa.

I will present three case studies from Sierra Leone, Morocco and Kenya that were done with my research team, who explored the processes of land and commons grabbing. This latter term refers to the fact that land removed for renewable energy investments – in this context for biofuel plantations, solar and wind parks – remove not just land. The investments by international companies, as well as national and parastatal enterprises, also destroy the common-pool resources such as pasture, water, fisheries, wildlife and veld products, which are vital for local communities for food and cash. These resources are also of central importance for local people during seasons and times of scarcity, and offer an economic and food buffer in times of crises. Thus, the commons enhance social and economic sustainability and resilience. Loss of ownership and access to common-pool resources challenge these fragile local economic systems.

If commons grabbing were replaced with real participatory development and job opportunities, it would be viewed less critically. However, the cases we have studied show that neither compensation from often unfair land deals nor projects from so called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) schemes replace the losses to land and land related common pool resources. Simultaneously, access to green energy for local people is often denied (i.e. access to electricity, to fuel etc.). Thus, a green development is promised but acts as a green anti-politics machine (see Ferguson 1994).

This leaves us with the following question: who has to pay the costs of green energy production – both in sustainable social AND ecological terms? The latter elicits further critical questions: Large-scale plantations for biofuels using monoculture and chemical inputs (fertilizers, pest and weed control) put a heavy burden on biodiversity and pollute water and entire ecosystems. But wind and solar parks at large scale destroy the immediate environment and create climate change on the micro level, which is a challenge for endemic wildlife and plants species, too.

And, finally, there is another twist not discussed: All these areas were cultural landscape ecosystems, shaped and maintained by local common property regimes and institutions. These enhanced the biodiversity, which is now lost. Is it acceptable to replace one problem and create multiple new ones in the process? Or should there be another way of dealing with the issue; one that involves more local common property ownership and participation? And what might decentralized green energy production that does not undermine social and ecological sustainability and resilience look like?