The energy transition is urgently essential – but will raise a series of justice questions

A conversation with Anthony Bebbington, Ford Foundation's International Director of Natural Resources and Climate Change, ahead of his appearance in the Kapuscinski Development Lectures series

September 8, 2021

In his upcoming Kapuscinski lecture, Ford Foundation's Anthony Bebbington will discuss how COVID-19 intersects with other environmental, social, political and economic processes.

Tom Fiske

You will be giving the first Kapuscinski Development Lecture of the season on 10 September. What will you be talking about?

Economic and political elites have used COVID as a vehicle for pursuing other goals - around access to natural resources, the further downgrading of environmental and social standards that govern investment, and the constraining of civic space. I will speak to the implications of this for socio-environmental justice and about the importance of recognizing that COVID has intersected with other social, political and economic processes in ways that do not necessarily foster more sustainable, inclusive forms of development and social change.

For instance, as we look at reactivation policies, the risk is that they will continue to put pressure on natural resources and on the lands and territories of people who live and have lived for a long time in areas where those resources are. This raises a series of justice questions and challenges that are not going to go away anytime soon.

These processes are intersecting, and will continue to intersect, with climate change discussions, particularly about the energy transition. In certain contexts, there is actually an intensification of efforts to extract fossil fuels as part of this reactivation narrative. Another potential intersection will hinge around extracting critical minerals for the clean energy transition, which raises questions about territorial rights, rights to consultation and free prior and informed consent, and environmental impacts in the areas in which these minerals will be extracted.

The energy transition is urgently essential - a necessary component of any response to climate change and any strategy for mitigating future climate change. But we have to recognize that it will raise a series of justice questions and that the umbrella context of reactivation policies post-COVID may aggravate some of those pressures.

As you said, the energy transition is necessary to combat climate change. But you also noted that there are some not-so-positive aspects of the energy transition that we have to take into account. Can you expand on that?

The energy transition will be many things, but one thing it will definitely be is mineral intensive. And it's not just the critical minerals like lithium and cobalt needed for the transition. Minerals like copper and iron will also be required in large quantities. A recent estimate is that in the first half of this century, assuming all the copper required for the transition is extracted, the volume of tailings produced in order to extract that copper will be nine times what it was in the entire previous century. That’s a big footprint.

That gives us a sense not just of the mineral intensity of the transition, but the ways in which that will manifest itself in the landscape. In landscapes that are already occupied or used by other interests and communities that actually live on that land, and in urban areas, downstream of those landscapes, that depend upon them for water sources and more general ecosystem services.

I don’t want to say it’s the ‘dark side’ of the transition. It's just to recognize that there are no simple solutions or magic bullets. And that the energy transition will raise many social justice and human rights issues that do not necessarily receive the degree of attention that they ought to in contemporary discussions of the transition in the public sphere.

There's also the question of what happens to those regional economies where coal mines, for instance, are closed quickly? What happens to the workers, or the economic linkages that have emerged around coal mines? What happens to ecological restoration of these areas? These are critical parts of the transition discussion.

When we talk about resource extraction, we think mainly about fossil fuels, but we’re actually talking about all resource extraction, right?

We’re talking about fossil fuels, yes, but also mining more generally. We might also be talking about timber and forest resources. Additionally, while we might not use the framing of resource extraction for, say, the expansion of oil palm plantations, this can often involve the clearing of primary forest or the burning of peatlands. The heavy promotion of biofuels as part of the transition narrative often understates the implications of their expanding production for forest cover. So, in the context of this talk, I’m looking at resource extraction across these different domains. It's most obviously about fossil fuels and minerals, but also the extraction of forest resources and the clearance of forest for large scale agro-industrial investments.

You’ve talked about environmental defenders, and how they're often on the front lines in between the environments that they're protecting and the capital, the corporate interests that want access to that place. What are some of the challenges they were facing before COVID, and how did COVID exacerbate things?

The Global Witness reports that document the killings of environmental defenders show that these killings were already intense pre-COVID, averaging about four defenders murdered every week. But this is just the most extreme violence against defenders. In addition are intimidation, threats, or the use of litigation to try and silence or otherwise distract environmental defenders from the defense work because of the necessary time and resources spent defending themselves or in a courtroom. This intimidation is directly related to the desire of interests to gain access to land and natural resources: not just multinationals or corporates, but also national and sub-national elites involved in land acquisition, land trafficking and land displacement who then pass on those lands to interests that aggregate them, making them available for large scale investment. The context of COVID will put more pressure on those lands, and thus increasing pressures on environmental defenders as well. We’re seeing this in our work.

Let's talk about data and its impact. You worked in academia for a long time, and you did a lot of research. Were there instances where you feel like this kind of data collection, this research has actually led to policy change or significant shifts in feeling on the ground?

There are many examples that one can point to in which data collection and its analysis has been a central component of shifting narratives. The climate change discussion is a case in point. Take the IPCC process: while the political gains in terms of changing policies have not been nearly what the scientists involved would have hoped for, there's no question that it's changed narratives around climate change. And that is a change grounded entirely, I think, in the rigorous analysis of not just climate scientists, but all the scientists contributing work to the IPCC reports.

So yes, there is a direct relationship between careful analytical work and change in policies and narratives. These initiatives aggregate existing academic work from universities and specialized research centers, and then craft the narrative or scientific synthesis. That's the basis of a public narrative that changes public debate.

Let me give a particular example of research contributing to change that has been important for our work at the Ford Foundation, and which I’ll be talking about more. This example involves a combination of research that shows 1) the importance of standing forest (and peatlands) for climate change mitigation and the role they play as carbon sinks and sources of carbon storage and 2) other work that shows that forests are much more likely to stay standing when Indigenous and traditional communities, who have historically exercised rights over occupation of those forests, have their formal rights to territory recognized. When these rights are recognized and protected, the likelihood of those forests remaining standing increases significantly. So there you have different parts of research - some on tenure and forests, some on forest, peat, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions – and the stitching of those bits of research together helps build the narrative, but one that is firmly grounded in rigorous analysis. This narrative shows clearly that the large-scale titling of indigenous, traditional and local communities’ territories is a central component to any climate change mitigation strategy. This will be a theme present in the COP discussions, for instance, and that would not have happened had not the analytical basis been built for that argument.

To learn more about the interplay between energy, governance, land ownership, human rights and the environment, join the Kapuscinski Development Lecture on natural resource extraction after COVID on 10 September.

For more info, visit Register here.