Achieving a Just Transition_Rewa solar project

As demand grows for clean energy, we explore the questions of why and how to scale-up renewables in a fair way. The necessary shift away from fossil fuels must not be ‘just a transition’, but a system change, which puts people and justice at the forefront: a true ‘just transition’.

Urgency of the Just Transition

Ongoing fires across Canada are devastating wildlife and choking cities around North America in smog. These fires are another reminder that climate change is here, for everyone, and we need to act now. 

Earlier this year, climate scientists confirmed the urgent need to transition away from dirty energy systems. That means: halting new exploitation of oil, gas and coal; cutting fossil fuel emissions at source; and transitioning to sustainable and renewable alternatives. 

But to not leave anyone behind, the transition must be centred on principles of justice and fairness. The developed countries who caused the climate crisis must act first to address it, and provide the finance and technology for less developed countries to move away from fossil fuels. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency in 2021 highlighted that newly installed renewables in the form of wind and solar are now cheaper than their coal-based counterparts. Yet, more affordable hasn’t meant more accessible: 775 million people globally still live without access to electricity. 

Some communities are leading the way in decentralised renewable projects – from women’s groups in Palestine, to villages in Bangladesh and indigenous people in the Philippines. But the scale and speed of the unfolding climate crisis means the transition to renewables also needs to happen on a grand scale. This raises huge challenges.

In our recent Renewable energy and land use report, we explored the barriers to scaling-up renewable energy projects in the global South, based on real experiences. The stories of people affected by India’s mega solar project and Argentina’s lithium mines raise questions of who the energy transition is for, and how to avoid the risk of replicating an extractivist, neocolonial energy system through the transition to renewables.

Mega solar in India

In India, while the Rewa Ultra Mega Solar project has added significant energy generation capacity for the country, it has left local communities desperate:

“The Project has neither given us any power, nor any source of employment. People are forced to migrate elsewhere in search of jobs. The situation is alarming here.” 

Fully operational from 2020, the Rewa project involves huge installations of solar panels, some of which entirely surround villages. This has cut local communities off from the land, disrupting their lives and livelihoods. Nor have they experienced the benefits of employment or energy access as the project developers promised: 

“The government and the solar park developers overlooked the land patterns and communities’ connection and dependence on the land while acquiring it.”

Grazing cows whose access to the village has been cut off by the solar plant. © Arun Mohan, The Media Collective
Achieving a just transition blog_woman carrying firewood by the mega solar project in India
A woman is now forced to take the National Highway to carry heavy firewood gathered from the forest to her home, since her fast route was cut off by the Rewa site. © Arun Mohan, The Media Collective

For a truly just transition to occur, local communities must be involved in planning, implementation, and ownership of solar projects, so that they too can reap the economic benefits of the transition to renewable energy. 

Lithium extraction in Argentina

Argentina is part of the ‘Lithium triangle’, an area of South America which holds 68% of the world’s reserves of lithium. This increasingly sought after metal is an essential component of alternatives to fossil fuels, used in batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage systems.

Currently, most of Argentina’s lithium reserves leave the country as raw materials, to supply places in the global North, like the US and Europe, as they press ahead with transition agendas. This is a neocolonialist form of energy extraction, which leaves little to no benefit for communities on the frontlines:

“Lithium goes abroad and we don’t have lithium here.”

Achieving a just transition blog_salt flats in Catamarca
Lithium brine is extracted from high-altitude salt flats in Catamarca, Argentina. © Friends of the Earth Argentina/Tierra Nativa

In the Catamarca province, the Tres Quebradas (3Q) lithium project has led to water scarcity, wildlife deaths, income losses, community conflicts, and – ironically – unreliable energy supply. The new jobs available to nearby villagers clash with the typical occupations in the area – agriculture and tourism – which are also affected by new infrastructures: 

“They destroy the landscape. What worries me most is the place where they are going to go… no one will be able to see what they are doing.” 

Achieving a just transition blog_mining machinery for lithium in Argentina
Mining roads are opened by heavy machinery in Fiambalá, Catamarca, near 3Q lithium mine. © Friends of the Earth Argentina/Tierra Nativa

Presently in Catamarca, local people have to compete with transnational corporations for access to the land and water they have relied on for generations. They have received no compensation. Robust local environmental regulations, coming from participatory decision-making with communities and shared respect for their rights, are needed to ensure that extraction of resources doesn’t harm local communities.

Upholding peoples’ rights in the Just Transition

Ultimately, renewable energy systems must not be built on a system that reproduces inequality and extracts resources from vulnerable communities, for the benefit of wealthy nations and corporations.

An energy transition based on justice is one that upholds human rights and includes communities on the basis of free prior and informed consent, and inclusive and participatory democracy. It is one that puts the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, workers and women at the forefront. 

“To address the climate crisis with a rollout of renewables that meets the challenges of energy access in the Global South, peoples’ rights must not be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ and the mistakes of the existing extractive fossil fuel energy system must not be repeated.” – Renewable energy and land use report