Saturday December 12th marked the end of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, where the leaders of nearly 200 nations, committing to a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions to remedy climate warming, signed up to end of fossil fuel era. In its place are ambitious national plans for solutions including energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment. But is renewable energy really a feasible climate change solution? Let’s takes a look at Norway for example.
Norway’s geography is ideal for hydropower and in 1970, the Norwegian government announced its plan to build the Alta River Hydro Power Plant, to increase energy security. This caused the Alta Controversy, a decade long conflict between the indigenous Sami people – a reindeer herding community – and the non-indigenous population, concerning land rights. What had long been considered as worthless and unusable land could potentially become a gold mine for the state and industry, thanks to its natural resources. But the land has vital social, economic, and cultural functions for the Sami community.
Sami have a strong reliance on reindeer and the natural resources needed to herd them as survival in extreme arctic environmental conditions rule out many other forms of livelihood. The reindeer aren’t just substantial as food and income from trade, but they serve important traditional and cultural purposes, with reindeer herding having been carried by Sami for thousands of years. Herding is a way of life.
The government of Norway did not include the Sami in the decision-making process for the dam, disregarding local knowledge of the environment and the potential negative impacts. In a way, ethnic discrimination occurred. The conflict lasted more than a decade with protests, hunger strikes, blockades and attempts to blow up the dam by the Sami delaying the construction of the dam for three years. Eventually, a modified version of the dam was built.
Unfortunately, to this day, the dam is having negative impacts on the environment and on the local Sami communities’ livelihoods. Displacement and a loss of land have pushed Sami people into ever more fragmented areas, making reindeer herding more difficult. Socioeconomically, this causes loss of livelihood and traditional knowledge and practices, whilst increasing social problems such as drug use. It is a struggle for the Sami to continuously fight for their rights to land and water.
The hydropower facility and equipment are also having ecological impacts. Potential direct environmental impacts include floods, loss of biodiversity and soil erosion. In fact worldwide, dam building and other factors have caused freshwater ecosystems to lose approximately76% of their populations since 1970. Moreover, while it’s true that the actual production of electricity from hydropower doesn’t release any greenhouse gases, the production of them undoubtedly does.
Whilst affecting the domesticated reindeer owned by Sam
i, wild reindeers are also impacted by the hydropower. The Renewable Reindeer Project has started quantifying the cumulative impact caused by infrastructures on wild reindeers. Hydropower has resulted in a 40% redu
ction in the habitat of reindeers, causing the population to split into 26 detached and mainly non-interchanging sub-populations s the reindeer tend to avoid areas with infrastructure by between 2.5-5km. Research by UNEP indicates that
further hydropower development will put wild reindeer at great risk, as further loss of habitat and fragmentation will leave stretches of land that are too small to viably hold the populations.
Decrease of wilderness areas in Norway from 1900-1998
This is worrying as reindeers are important in efforts tackling global warming. Research by the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland indicates that reindeer grazing is an important determinant in counteracting climate warming, as the amount of reindeer grazing determines how much greenhouse gases will be released into the climate, directly effecting temperature rises. Long-term light grazing causes less gas to be released, but long-term over-grazing has no effect and will therefore not be beneficial in combatting global warming. Long-term over-grazing will continuously occur as more land is out of use for domestic and wild reindeer.
It is quite clear that renewable energy will not solve the climate crisis. Restoring biodiversity and natural systems through methods such as reforestation, grassland restoration, regenerative agriculture should really have been the main priority of the 2015 Climate Change Conference. Lastly, as Global Justice Now stated,
“what is needed is system change, not climate change. This change will not be made by corporations or world leaders. Rather it will be made by us as a global movement of citizens.” How is this possible when the communities which are affected aren’t invited [to the talks] and are evicted by the French police?