What no one tells us about energy transition
At the end of March 2023, I was in Amapá for work for the first time. The round-trip to Macapá, the capital known for being the only one in Brazil located exactly on the equator, lasted only two days. But I came back with the feeling that I would need more days, maybe weeks, to unravel the possibilities of that state. I returned with the reflection that there are several Amazons within the Amazon – both in biodiversity and biomes, as well as in identities, ethnicities, races and conflicting perceptions of the Amazonians in relation to the region itself.
When I asked Hannah Balieiro, an Amazonian biologist and executive director of the Mapinguari Institute, about the main socio-environmental obstacles of Macapá, she needed only milliseconds to promptly answer me: light and water. In other words, energy and water justice are two emergencies in a forgotten capital, politically neglected and surrounded by the abundance of the Amazon region. Water scarcity is a present reality, and the instability of the electrical system has already resulted in deaths of residents who tried to restore power.
“The energy crisis in Amapá opens up the face of Brazil’s colonialism in relation to the Amazon, we export energy and we are in the dark. The 2020 blackout was an episode in a long history of neglect. We have four hydroelectric dams impacting communities, people who risk their lives to maintain the grid, causing deaths in the community and over 25,000 people are without access to power in Amapá”, she explains.
What no one tells us is that while there are reports of Amapaenses who died from a fatal shock in an attempt to improvise a spot of energy, representatives of different countries are in Berlin, the capital of Germany, discussing the energy transition. Officially known as the 2023 Berlin Energy Transition Dialogues (BETD), the conference brings together civil society leaders, governments, businesses and a minority of young activists to discuss ways to reduce our global dependence on fossil fuels through renewable and sustainable sources. This happens through the implementation of policies and technologies that promote more energy efficiency and, consequently, reduce energy consumption.
I write directly from the conference at this time. And at every panel I see or interview I follow, I wonder who the energy transition is for? And what are the limits of justice as a cornerstone to address the multiple challenges spread around the world, especially in Brazil?
The energy transition experiment in Germany, also known as the Energiewende, is a national project that aims to transition the country’s economy from fossil to renewable energy sources. The Energiewende started in 2011 and believes it can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The fact is that the country is one of the main world references in the subject and many countries are following the German example to promote a more sustainable and low-emission economy.
Before listing the consequences of – a just – energy transition in Brazil, it is worth rescuing the complexity of the electricity sector of our country. Responsible for being one of the key pillars of the Brazilian economy, it has the power to play against or in favor of reducing greenhouse gases. The equation is theoretically uncomplicated: if it is in favor, the marathon runs towards reducing the use of fuel and diesel oil, coal and natural gas. If it is against it, we will go to the direction of the so-called “clean” energies, such as wind and solar, in addition to hydroelectric ones.
However, not every process is so simple that complexity does not cost at least a life. Energy justice is a concept that refers to ensuring access to clean and affordable energy for all people, regardless of their geographic location, income or ethnicity. It is a social movement that seeks to balance the distribution of the benefits and costs of the energy system, ensuring that the most vulnerable people do not have their rights violated by the negative impacts of energy production and its use.
In this sense, energy justice defends that energy is a social right of the Constitution and reinforces that all people must have access to clean and renewable sources, in addition to being protected from negative impacts such as pollution, health risks and real estate devaluation. In addition, the movement also seeks to intentionally expand the participation of local communities in the decision-making process on energy production and distribution, making them partners in the development of more sustainable and fair solutions. And what if this doesn’t happen?
As for climate and socio-environmental justice, there is a crucial principle for equality, equity and reparation and the nature of violations of territories is very similar. Socio-territorial inequality is revealed at the root of colonization and exploitation of resources, the same under which Brazil was built.
“The Caatinga is distinguished as an exponent of a renewable energy country. What was the technology used? Dams. The dams built to produce renewable energy continued the genocide process of indigenous and quilombola lands. It killed people, it buried ancestral memories under the earth and into the waters. To have renewable energy in Brazil, the project of extinction of the lands of the Tumbaioá, Siriri, Pucará, Tuxá peoples was renewed; the energy of the genocide of indigenous peoples has been renewed,” explains Diosmar Filho, geographer and senior researcher at the Yaleta Confluence, in the interview for the study “Who Needs Climate Justice in Brazil?“.
The lands mentioned belong to different indigenous peoples of Brazil. While Tumbaioá is an indigenous ethnic group living in the state of Amazonas, in the region of the Tumbao River, an affluent of the Japurá River, Siriri is an indigenous community living in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in the Pantanal region. The Pucará people live in the state of Maranhão, near the Pindaré River, while the Tuxá ethnic group can be located in the state of Bahia, in the region of the São Francisco River.
“Wind power was only possible by violating the territorial rights of these communities. So, from this point of view, it is not a renewable source. These technologies require ores. And where do we find these ores? In the so-called poor places of the world. Where there are blacks, indigenous peoples, Africans, Bolivians…”, denounces the researcher.
While the renewable energy debate gains the world’s attention and makes even more sense for certain regions of Brazil, favelas and peripheries of the Southeast are waging other confrontations in the struggle for access to electricity, a recent survey conducted by 30 young people and 15 community leaders portrayed the challenges of access, quality and efficiency in Rio de Janeiro. Entitled Water and Energy Justice in the Favelas, the study raised data that demonstrated the multiple inequalities when it comes to water and energy – interdependent resources.
Among the results, the survey showed that, in the denial of basic rights, the absence of light and the risks of fire due to the lack of service of the providers to certain locations are critical. In addition, the absence of enforcement in favelas and within urban, political, strategic and environmental planning spaces has also been identified as a symbolic and intentional neglect of environmental racism. In numbers, 42% of the households surveyed have already been left without water for basic hygiene during the pandemic, or have struggled to buy a pole and all the electrical wiring to simply have access to a power source.
The portrait of Brazil in the energy transition mosaic still presents contradictions that reinforce inequalities and oppressions. Although it undoubtedly has the potential to contribute to the Brazilian economy – and other economic sectors – while there are families without light, citizens losing their lives attempting to fix the light, and hydroelectric dams impacting communities in a negative and fatal way. One of the mottos most reproduced during BETD was the United Nations classic: “No One Can Be Left Behind.” The cliché that, today, does not make sense in our country, nor in the debate of energy transition. And as long as there is territoriality in access to constitutional rights, there is apartheid. And no one tells us that.
Andréia Coutinho Louback is a journalist from PUC-Rio, with a Master’s degree in Ethnic-Racial Relations from CEFET/RJ and a Fulbright Alumni from the University of California, Davis. She is an expert in climate justice and recognized as one of the exponent voices in the debate of race, gender and class in the climate agenda in Brazil. She is an advisor to Casa Fluminense, Climate HUB (Columbia Global Centers | Rio de Janeiro), Rio de Janeiro City Hall and ActionAid. As part of the Humphrey Fellowship, she did a professional residency at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), located in New York, as an expert on climate justice. Instagram: @andreiacoutinho.l