Report of the CEDEJ Environment and Social Policies Seminar Series #7: Renewable energies & carbon-free transition
Simone Abram is a Professor of Anthropology at Durham University and a Center for Energy systems integration member. She also founded a European Network on energy anthropology within the European association of social anthropologists. Her books include ’Tourists and Tourism’ (1997) and ‘Green Ice: Tourism ecologies in the European High North’ (2016).
She has authored or edited ten books and over sixty journal articles and book chapters.
Valentin Karm is the Regional Coordinator for East and Southern Africa for the Barefoot College International (BCI), a global social enterprise based in India that addresses rural challenges around the world by training women from the local communities on several aspects, including on solar technologies and servicing. Through more than ten years of experience, BCI has seen the many impacts of renewable energy on areas as diverse as education, health, economic empowerment, etc. BCI has worked in 96 countries from Latin America to the Pacific Islands, with most of the governments and with stakeholders like UNDP and the International Solar Alliance (ISA).
Maged K. Mahmoud is the sustainable energy expert and the technical director of the Regional Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (RCREEE). He has multidisciplinary expertise and solid accomplishments in the fields of sustainable energy transition in the Egyptian, Arab and African arenas.
On the 26th of May, an event of the CEDEJ Environment and Social Policies Seminars series, moderated by researcher CEDEJ/CNRS Marie Vannetzel, took place online. The webinar thematized the debate of renewable energies and the carbon-free transition. For instance, renewable energies are now competitive with fossil fuel costs; however, the transition raises many social, political, and economic challenges. Therefore, the guiding questions of the discussion are the following: what are the social, political, and economic conditions for a just and successful transition to renewable energies? How could renewable energies be a vector for social transformation and set up these conditions for a transition?
After a short introduction on the topic, Simone Abram introduced her presentation on “Just Transition towards socially inclusive decarbonization”, an article co-written with several British scholars. The article stresses the inevitable structural changes that come with the technological changes of the transition (e.g. balance of power and supply chains). During the seminar, S.Abram outlined seven main points from this article: (1) that a just transition to net-zero carbon emissions comes from a combination of environmental and social justice and (2) that the current contemporary global politics context illustrates variable costs and benefits of climate policies across time, space, and social context. In addition, (3) a just transition will look different in developing countries context because there are other infrastructures, sources of emissions and visions of the future. Hence, some countries need different types of support to implement just decarbonization policies. Abram also stated that (4) job creation, often used as a response for a just transition, does not guarantee satisfying outcomes because the job security or the academic skills required might be different from the original positions. Abram stresses that (5) there is a danger of social backlash if the transition is not perceived to be just. (6) There is already a range of policy tools to address these concerns – assemblies, citizens’ budgets, etc. Finally, (7) governments will have to think about incorporating just transition provisions into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which is now a requirement of the COP.
Second speaker Valentin Karm addressed the aims and ends of the programs created by Barefoot College International (BCI) in the East and Southern Africa region especially. Karm explains that one of their programs gives rural communities access to solar energy and trains them to take care of it. Valentin Karm then stressed key aspects of their project. The voluntary organization is both community-based and women-focused since their training is only for women from rural communities. The workshops provide a demystification of technology through which women achieve the training with success. Moreover, Karm highlighted that the knowledge taught is also transferred from the trainees to the rest of the community when they return. Afterwards, the organization’s building project is meant to be owned and managed by the local communities. BCI impacts health by giving a better quality of life, allowing more efficient economic activities, and improving education by enabling children to do their homework thanks to the electricity. It has been mentioned that solar energy constitutes a long-term solution that results in savings for households and decreases in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. Finally, Karm pointed out that the Indian ministry of foreign affairs is funding all the training centers. Related to the previous presentation, the BCI achieves a small scale “just” transition inside societies where significant energy inequalities exist.
Finally, Doctor Maged K. Mahmoud tackled the subject of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Renewable Energy sector in the Arab/MENA region. Following a short description of data from the Arab/MENA region that highlighted the increasing energy demand, Dr Maged Mahmoud reflected on the region’s energy and electricity consumption heterogeneity. In fact, there are disparities within the Arab region, and each country’s consumption often mirrors its GDP per capita. The region is highly subsidies in energy; nevertheless, the quality of services – in countries like Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen – are not reliable (e.g. several hours of electricity cut). Therefore, Arab countries recently undertook various reform actions and energy subsidies reduction. The Arab region’s electricity services have reached close to 90% of the population, which still leaves out 56 million people without access to electricity in 2019. Despite this context, renewable energy is used extensively, and there is an Arab sustainable energy strategy for 2030 established in 2018 illustrating the Arab commitment to embrace a clean energy transition. This commitment is exemplified by sustainable energy finance and investments in worldwide flagship solar and wind projects (with very competitive electricity prices) or public funding to support the private sector engagement. Dr Maged Mahmoud highlights the opportunities and promising future targets of the Arab region in renewable energy business opportunities, which would positively impact the job market. However, Dr Maged Mahmoud pointed out that the renewable energy transition in the Arab countries is not reflected in their National Determinant Contributions (NDCs) and advocates for a revision of the latter.
The seminar ended with series of questions from the audience. It shed light on the active role of non-state organizations and the transnational climate movement in the renewable energy transition. In fact, according to professor Abram, they are driving the agenda of the transition not only by raising public awareness but also with highly effective campaigns that are influencing bank investments as well as the political arena. Hence, the emphasis on civil society is essential for a just transition. Our panelist also stressed the challenges of the multi-dimensions justice required for the transition to take place. The main problem is the cost that has to be paid for an environmentally friendly transition (in terms of jobs for example as she mentioned in her presentation). Furthermore, Valentin Karm clarified that the BCI’s focus on women was due to their knowledge transmission in their rural communities. Ultimately, Dr Maged Mahmoud listed solutions for improving the electricity efficiency in the residential sector such as implementing labels and standards, led lighting, and creating awareness among the population in the Arab countries. The event ended after all the speakers answered the audience’s questions.
 Abram, S., Atkins, E., Dietzel, A., Hammond, M., Jenkins, K., Kiamba, L., Kirshner, J., Kreienkamp, J., Pegram, T. and Vining, B. (2020). Just Transition: Pathways to Socially Inclusive Decarbonisation. COP26 Universities Network Briefing.