Can Renewable Energy Create a Fairer Future?

Being one of the most talked about issues of our time, it is easy to see why climate change is seen as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the present and future. Often not  given the same amount of attention in discussions, journalism and activism is global inequality, an issue which goes hand in hand with environmental change. Given even less focus is how current technology, especially renewable energy, is a vital way in which to combat both these massive challenges

Whilst largely concerned with the uneven distribution of wealth, ‘inequality’ as term can be applied to education, healthcare, sanitary water, nutritious food and any other resource or service denied to one group and granted in abundance to another. How as a global society we ended up in a state of vast economic, social and political inequality could be explained by countless reasons too vast and controversial to get into in this article, yet one fact is clear: looking towards the near future, climate change will intensify these issues massively.

Regardless of the changes in atmospheric, ecological and other environmental processes climate change causes in the next decades, the impacts will be felt unequally across the world to a great extent. Vulnerability as shown in the map below will be felt mostly keenly in areas of Africa, Asia and the Americas where projections of climate change are set on a collision course with socioeconomic development trajectories.

Whilst the wealthiest of nations will have the resources to cope with rising temperatures and more unpredictable weather, the intersection of increasingly unpredictable environmental conditions with urbanisation, population growth and relatively poor living conditions many lower income countries will see in the coming years will likely mean disaster.

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Take India, an economic and population powerhouse with a population set to reach 1.68 billion in the 2050s yet with a GDP per capita of only $2104 in 2019. India saw the highest number of deaths due to extreme weather in 2018 of 2,081, and as the map highlights is likely to be one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change, with this vulnerability coming in the form of sub-tropical climate dominated by high temperatures and intense rainfall events in combination with the immense pressures that rapid economic development brings.

Perhaps the greatest injustice of climate change is the fact those who are least accountable will likely suffer the most. Carbon dioxide emissions in metric tonnes per capita stands at 1.8 in India compared to 15.5 in the USA, let alone the least developed countries of all (as classified by the UN) with an average of 0.3 between them. It is for this reason why climate justice is amongst the most important goals of our current global society.

A movement which  ‘acknowledges climate change can have differing social, economic, public health, and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations’, climate justice is key to ensuring our response to climate change is not only impactful yet is impactful everywhere and for everyone. Perhaps one of the greatest solutions to inequality induced by climate change but also the deeper imbalances which run through our global society is renewable energy.

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Take a scheme in Lagos, Nigeria, which brought solar power to 50,000 homes, business, schools and other buildings, benefitting 250,000 and creating 450 jobs. Not only does this bring a substantial source of clean energy to a nation on the cusp of rapid industrialisation, but by providing local, small-scale sources of energy, promotes community empowerment. Cheap, easy to install and easily implementable on a small scale, solar energy is the most promising renewable for large areas of the developing world.

Beyond even its primary purpose, the very nature of solar energy helps create a more equal society. Providing solar energy to developing communities is a force for the promotion of women’s rights, freeing time from gathering firewood for example which can be given towards education and providing reliable sources of electricity to allow for studying beyond daylight hours.

Reducing pollution on a local scale improves the health and environmental conditions of communities, especially those in crowded informal housing which becomes increasingly common as nations industrialise and urbanise. The establishment of ‘micro-grids’ in which power sources from solar panels to hydroelectric dams can be used to power single towns and villages, bringing ownership of energy into the hands of communities, combatting the dominance of profit-seeking corporations in such vital services.

These are amongst many examples of the positive impacts of small-scale renewable energy projects in the developing world. Whilst implementing renewable energy across developing nations does come with it’s drawbacks: conflict over increasingly limited resources like water for hydroelectricity, a lack of expertise on a local scale to preserve renewable energy installations and sometimes difficult bureaucracy apathetic to maintaining and promoting these projects, an increasing awareness of environmental issues and interest by wealthier nations in investing in the economic potential of these communities is promising for a greener, fairer future.

Renewable energy does not simply need to be seen as a fix to avoid climate catastrophe but can also combat the inequalities we face in the present and will no doubt face to a greater extent in a future of a warmer climate. By empowering communities to take control of where it comes from, we can foster an attitude to our energy in which we appreciate our role towards both the Earth and each other, making changes to not just source energy through the easiest methods yet source it through those which have social and climate justice at their heart.

About the Author: Tom Bartles-Smith is an undergraduate studying Geography at the University of Oxford.

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