ARE RENEWABLES SUSTAINABLE? REN21’S KEY ROLE AS KNOWLEDGE BROKER
Compared to fossil-based energy systems, renewables are clearly the better option when it comes to protecting our climate and the planet overall. We urgently need to phase out fossil fuels to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and to achieve global development goals. Decades of experience have shown us that the triple-approach of energy savings, energy efficiency and renewable energy works.
But mainstreaming renewables requires ensuring that this deployment is as sustainable as possible. While a massive uptake of renewable energy brings clear benefits, like any technology or infrastructure it creates pressures on both the environment and human well-being. Addressing these pressures is crucial to ensure that the transition to a renewables-based energy system fulfills its objectives of a more inclusive, fair, and clean economy and society.
This is especially critical in communities that are on the front lines of the energy transition, whether they’re located near wind turbine factories, downstream of hydropower dams, or next door to recycling or waste facilities. Increasingly, critics are using the perceived lack of sustainability associated with renewable energy as an argument to push back against projects. Better understanding of the impacts and opportunities is needed to dispel myths, assuage fears and reinforce societal support for renewables.
What’s needed: a comprehensive approach
To ensure the large-scale development of renewables, sustainability needs to be assessed along the entire value chain, from materials extraction, to deployment and use, to disposal at the end of life. Strategies need to be defined and shared that cut across communications, regulatory frameworks and industrial developments – and that bridge the renewable energy and sustainability communities. Using a comprehensive approach and creating space for discussion will help address perceived tensions and challenges in shifting to renewable-based energy systems.
REN21 is contributing to this discussion in a powerful way through our new project on “Renewable Energy and Sustainability”, which includes a comprehensive status report as well as expert interviews and workshops to discuss critical topics and good practices. Our goal is to have a holistic debate and to build a shared understanding of what needs to be done to ensure the sustainable development of renewables as a whole, over time and at the local and global scales.
Our upcoming report
REN21’s Renewable Energy and Sustainability report, scheduled for release in July 2023, will identify the benefits and pressures that the deployment of renewables may trigger on the environment and human well-being. The report is based on our signature collaborative approach – bringing together diverse voices engaged in the current debate – and relies on crowd-sourced data collection through the REN21 community and on expert peer review.
The report targets three interlinked aspects of sustainability. Section 1 explores the benefits and pressures of renewables on ecosystems, including land and water uses, biodiversity and health, and resource competition (the water–food–energy nexus). Section 2 examines issues related to materials of renewable energy, including non-renewable materials such as metals and rare earths, as well as industrial ecology possibilities, technological alternatives and circularity. Section 3 addresses social and economic questions related to the energy transition through the lens of energy justice, including the distribution of costs and benefits (e.g., access/affordability, finance/revenues, jobs/working conditions), the inclusiveness of decision making, and human rights concerns (e.g., gender and indigenous aspects).
In each section, REN21 highlights the latest thinking from both science and key stakeholders, backed by facts and numbers. We also point to solutions, featuring case studies, good practices and examples of collaboration. Interspersed are short boxes on cross-cutting topics ranging from business models and policies, to climate change adaptation, to concepts such as “sufficiency”, the precautionary principle and the rights of nature. The report concludes with a summary of the key findings and questions raised.
Shaping the debate and inspiring action
By gathering this “wealth of knowledge”, we aim to shed light on workable solutions to the challenge of renewables and sustainability. Rather than create a new industry standard, the project seeks to provide insights into good practices of policy, regulations, and responses from industry and civil society. The overarching objective is to inform decision makers and accelerate support for a quick transition towards a renewable-based energy system that is more inclusive, fair and clean.
This project is funded with the generous support from the Government of Austria.