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A just transition: the move to a low carbon energy future

Global economies have been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK economy, for example, has experienced its deepest recession on record, with significant job losses expected when the coronavirus job retention scheme ends later in the year (2021). As governments from the G7 countries move to build back their economies, they need to adopt measures that deliver a better result for the environment, such as accelerated investment in the low carbon renewable energy transition.

A global transition to a green economy is estimated to create 18 million jobs. Green infrastructure projects that boost a low carbon renewable energy future do not only create more jobs relative to traditional stimulus measures, but they also deliver higher short-term returns and lead to increased long-term cost savings. Such measures would create jobs to help global economies recover and advance our climate goals. A recent study led by a scientist in the King’s Climate hub, King’s College London published in Nature predicts that sea level rise from the melting of ice could be halved this century if countries meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Facing the renewable challenge

There are downsides to adopting a low carbon renewable energy transition, particularly the significant impacts created by the construction, operation and decommissioning of large-scale renewable energy infrastructure. Some of these impacts are economic and environmental, and some are more social, spatial and psychological, having to do with place attachment and displacement. Place attachment zeroes in on the ties that bind people and places together and give meaning to people’s lives and their identity. We have seen, through the coronavirus pandemic for example, the effects of relocalization, the connection people have to local places and the sense of identity that can come from those connections. On the other hand, displacement defines the ways in which place attachment can be threatened, changed and disrupted, and weakened by rapid extensive changes that people don't feel any sense of control over, and it usually leads to a sense of threat, uncertainty, anxiety and pushback. To transition in a way that is fair and not just quick and cheap, it is necessary to appreciate and take into account the connections people have with landscapes and marine seascapes, in addition to environmental impacts, when assessing the roll out of renewable energy technologies. A ‘levelling up’ agenda cannot afford to sacrifice places, either to job creation or climate goals, if it is to secure social acceptance for a rapid and extensive energy transition.

Careful siting of large-scale renewable energy infrastructures is critical to achieving a fair outcome, particularly for offshore wind installations and marine renewable energy infrastructures. The UK currently has a target of around 40 GW of offshore wind energy including 1 GW of floating offshore windfarms. This will help on its pathway to achieving its ambition for becoming net zero by 2050 and potentially create around 2000 construction jobs, while indirectly supporting around 60,000 additional jobs. To meet these targets, it is estimated that around one turbine would need to be erected every week over a five-year period. Siting has to be done so that no stakeholder and community that will be impacted bears a disproportionate burden of negative social and psychological impacts. In Guernsey, Channel Island, place-technology fit has recently been used as a way of understanding the interactions between a given renewable energy technology infrastructure and locations on the Island where the technology might go – How do they work together? Do they fit, or does the technology seem to be out of place or in the wrong place? This allows policymakers to inform their decision-making using guidance rather than waiting for a developer to make a decision about which location they think is easiest from a technical point of view and steaming on regardless of concerns from the host community.

A global goal, locally led

In the UK, the advisory guidance from policymakers has set the bar way too low in terms of what developers need to do at the preplanning stage to engage with all stakeholders, particularly host communities that would be impacted when they are proposing large-scale renewable energy infrastructures. In most cases currently, the first-time host communities hear about a specific large-scale renewable energy infrastructure proposal is when a multinational company turns up in the community and says, ‘Here is our plan: we want to build the renewable energy infrastructure in a particular location’. The advisory guidance for developers is full of terms about early engagement and fairness. However, most developers mainly engage in and promote information provision (90 per cent), a bit of consultation and very little participation from host communities. All stakeholders, particularly less influential actors, are not empowered and are not given equal access to effective consultation and meaningful participation. To ensure a just low carbon renewable energy future, we need to offer opportunities for all stakeholders, including host communities, to have a say in the wholesale, large and significant changes that are happening to the landscapes and marine seascapes around them and to participate in decisions on low carbon renewable energy futures. The consultation processes have to be transparent and provide early information to all stakeholders. The public values an open and fair participation process. Lack of trust and transparency, and decreasing credibility, along with poor communication and an imbalance of power, are factors which contribute to the diminishment of stakeholder engagement.

On a global scale, the time for a just renewable energy transition is now, as countries are currently submitting enhanced climate commitments under the Paris Agreement in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit later in the year and as economic stimulus packages are planned to help reboot economies globally. This moment presents a unique window of opportunity to rebuild economies in such a way that benefits everyone and takes into account the true value of the environment.

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About the author

Dr Margaret Kadiri is lecturer in Physical Geography, Department of Geography, King’s College London.

In this story

Margaret Kadiri

Margaret Kadiri

Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography

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