Resistance movements highlight need for a just energy transition

A new study of 649 social resistance movements to energy projects around the world has found that place-based resistance is succeeding in curbing both fossil-fuel and low-carbon energy projects: more than a quarter of projects encountering resistance were cancelled, suspended or delayed.

However the research — which was jointly undertaken by scientists at McGill, Concordia and York Universities and University of British Columbia in Canada, and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain — also found that low carbon, renewable energy and mitigation projects bring as much conflict as do fossil fuel projects. Both types of energy project disproportionately impact vulnerable groups such as rural communities and indigenous peoples. Displacement, ecological damage, repression and violence against protesters and land defenders were rife in almost all activities. Ten per cent of all cases analysed involved the assassination of activists.

The results, say the authors, caution that decarbonisation of the economy is “by no means inherently environmentally innocuous or socially inclusive.”

Conflicts and collective action, they discovered, are driven by multiple concerns including “claims for localisation, democratic participation, shorter energy chains, anti-racism, climate-justice-focused governance, and indigenous leadership.”

The researchers conclude that climate and energy policymakers need to pay closer attention to the demands and preferences of these collective movements in order to illuminate more transformative pathways to just decarbonisation.

Violence was particularly common in relation to hydropower, biomass, pipelines and coal extraction, while wind, solar and other renewables were the least conflictive and entailed lower levels of repression than other projects.

In response to the findings, Environmental Justice — which publishes the Global Atlas of Environment Justice, from which much of the research data were taken, tweeted that the implications of the research show that “moving toward a low carbon energy future needs to coincide with social and environmental justice approaches and not at the back of vulnerable groups.”

Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist and lecturer at the London School of Economics, UK, commented: “There’s a strong argument for degrowth here: the less energy high-income countries use, the less destructive their energy transition will be.”

The research is published in the December 2020 issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters, and is available on an open access basis.

Photo: Kandi Mossett on the frontlines at Standing Rock, (c) Rob Wilson Photography

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