Renewable energy and conflict: The unexplored links

This blog was originally published on the G7 Knowledge Platform's Resilience Compass Blog.

Labourer at a deisel powered crusher in front of a wind turbine, India, 2008. Courtesy of Land Rover Our Planet under Creative CommonsAt their June summit, G7 leaders pledged to develop long-term low-carbon strategies and phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. They agreed on a global target for limiting the rise in average global temperatures to a maximum of two degrees over pre-industrial levels.

The joint declaration read: "We commit to doing our part to achieve a low-carbon global economy in the long-term, including developing and deploying innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050 and invite all countries to join us in this endeavor."

This marks a major step in the battle against climate change. It is hoped that commitments from the G7 leaders will help build momentum before the major UN climate summit in Paris this December.

Moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy

Meeting these greenhouse gas reduction targets will necessarily entail a concerted shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

This will bring many co-benefits. The case for renewables benefiting the global economy, environment and energy security is well-established. The adoption of renewable energy technologies can help provide greater access to energy security. Renewable energy also offers decentralised energy solutions, particularly in areas without direct connection to electricity grids. Declining costs in light of investments in these technologies can provide a credible alternative to fossil-fuels and help deliver the steep decline in global greenhouse gas emissions that is imperative to avoiding accelerated climate change.

Renewable energy, however, has not been without its criticisms and must be implemented strategically, with an eye toward unintended consequences.

Renewable energy and biofuels in particular, have been under scrutiny for their potential negative impacts on food security, the environment and also their proclivity to inadvertently exacerbate conflict dynamics.

Biofuels and food security

Biofuel production from food crops such as maize (corn), soybeans, palm oil and sugarcane has increased in recent years. This has raised concerns that crop-based biofuel production will drive land grabbing and displace food production.

Bread line in Luxor, Egypt, 2007. Courtesy of Courtney Radsch under Creative CommonsEvidence is also emerging that using food crops to produce fuel rather than food has contributed to global food price rises. The switch to biofuels helped increase food prices anywhere from three to 30 percent during the 2008 and 2010 global food price crises.

During this period, food price volatility and higher prices led to protests, food riots, social and political unrest, and civil conflict in more than 40 countries. Higher food prices do not always lead to social and political unrest. Whilst unanticipated or higher-than-normal increases in food prices can be likely triggers for unrest; the potential for protests to become violent depends on other social, economic and political contextual factors.

The 2011 political crisis and bread riots in Egypt provide an interesting example of this. The fall of the 30-year-old Mubarak regime was a result of Egyptians taking to the streets to protest the regime's oppression, lack of freedom of speech, corruption, unemployment and low wages. Soaring food prices, however, became one catalyst for action and demonstrations. Egypt is the world’s biggest wheat importer and highly vulnerable to food price shocks.

Record high global food prices have intensified calls for changes in EU and US biofuel policies.

Renewable energy and natural resource conflicts

Long-term trends such as economic and population growth, environmental degradation and climate change affect the availability of renewable resources. Managing conflicts related to natural resources is therefore now more critical than ever before.

As pressures on natural resources increase, competition between user groups to sustain livelihoods can lead to tensions and instability, particularly in the absence of effective resource governance frameworks and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Kenya's Tana River Delta illustrates some of the challenges associated with accessing renewable natural resources. Agriculturalist Pokomas and traditionally pastoralist Orma have long fought over access to land in the Tana Delta. Against this context, private companies pursued land to grow water-thirsty sugarcane and jatropha for biofuels.

These biofuel projects ignited land and environmental disputes. They also threatened local community livelihoods by affecting the water flow into the Tana River Delta. The projects particularly threatened the Orma pastoralists by compromising their access to grazing lands and water sources. In response, villagers initiated two court cases to halt the development efforts.

Several factors will drive biofuel investors to increasingly focus on Africa and southeast Asia. These include the search for cheap land, wood and forests, and a suitable climate, as well as competitive transport costs. Many countries in these regions experience fragility risks, natural resource-based conflicts, food insecurity, and weak and ineffectual governance of land rights. Irresponsible resource use could further undermine people's livelihood security and exacerbate tensions related to local resource availability.

Need for conflict-sensitivity of renewable energy

The benefits from renewable energy investments are expected to materialise in the form of jobs and improved energy access. Nonetheless, particular considerations need to be taken into account to prevent renewable energy investments from igniting conflicts in local communities that are dependent on natural resources.

Sugarcane field, Brazil, 2008. Courtesy of Sweeter Alternative under Creative Commons.

For instance, where renewable energy is for export and improvements in local energy security do not materialise, appropriate and commensurate compensation packages to local communities whose resources are being extracted need to be ensured. Care needs to be taken that compensation for accessing natural resources for energy production is not perceived to be inadequate to restore local livelihoods or to be inequitable between different groups. New jobs through renewable energy production may help to partly offset adverse impacts.

The G7 pledge towards a low carbon energy system is important to ensure a sustainable low carbon future and to deal with climate change. The role of renewable energy in achieving this sustainable low-carbon future is unequivocal.

But renewable energy is not just an environmental and climate change issue. It has implications for conflict and peace.

For renewable energy to truly be effective while relying on resources, including those available in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, investment should be conflict-sensitive. Conflict-sensitivity of renewable energy would mean, at a minimum, doing no harm. It would require guarding against increasing grievances and inequalities among groups, and displacing poor and marginalised communities from land essential to their livelihoods.

Photos (top to bottom), all under Creative Commons: Labourer at a deisel powered crusher in front of a wind turbine, India, 2008. Courtesy of Land Rover Our Planet; Bread line in Luxor, Egypt, 2007. Courtesy of Courtney Radsch; Sugarcane field, Brazil, 2008. Courtesy of Sweeter Alternative.