For countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change—especially developing countries—the lack of urgency in the recently ended United Nations climate talks failed to reflect the reality back home. In many of these places, the effects of climate change are already taking their toll on social and economic development, not to mention human lives. So it’s no surprise that throughout the halls and meeting rooms of the 18th Conference of the Parties in Doha, Qatar, the most vulnerable countries made it abundantly clear that—for them—adaptation, not mitigation, is the number-one priority.
The impacts of climate change are mounting. Shifting rainfall patterns are already affecting Kenya’s agricultural sector, and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events are necessitating rebuilding in numerous Caribbean countries. But unfortunately, both adaptation and energy, a critical area for development, are consistently shortchanged in climate negotiations. Of the “fast-start financing” provided by Germany in 2010 and 2011, only 28 percent was allocated for adaptation projects, while mitigation received 48 percent of the funds (the rest went to REDD+ and multipurpose activities).
Meanwhile, the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and the emission reduction opportunities that the sector presents, hardly made it into the recent discussions. When renewable energy is brought up, it is most often in the context of mitigation, highlighting how a shift away from fossil fuel-fired power generation can reduce emissions and slow further climate change.
Yet for the most vulnerable countries, the focus is increasingly on how to continue social and economic development in the face of an already changing climate. And this is where renewable energy can contribute. Numerous synergies exist between distributed renewable energy systems and adaptation efforts, with renewable energy development providing both development benefits and adaptation services.
Recent events demonstrate the adaptation benefits of renewables. As Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the northeastern United States last month, it was the wind and solar power plants that weathered the storm and were back online quickly. Nuclear and fossil fuel plants, having been shut down for precautionary safety, took days or even weeks to resume operations. In countries with less-developed emergency response procedures than the United States (such as some of the Caribbean countries pounded by Sandy before she touched down in New Jersey), this rapid response time would be crucial for making sure that critical institutions like hospitals and water treatment facilities have power to continue operating.
In addition to adapting to the destructive power of hurricanes and severe storms, renewable energy can temper some of the impacts of prolonged, severe drought. In a 2009 analysis, the Energy, Environment, and Development Network for Africa (AFREPREN/FWD) examined the effects of ongoing drought on Kenya’s electricity sector, which relies on large hydropower (typically not considered a form of sustainable energy) for more than 60 percent of generation.
The drought caused a 25 percent reduction in hydropower capacity, prompting the government to turn to expensive thermal generation to cover the resulting power deficit—at the cost of US $442 million, or nearly 1.5 percent of Kenya’s GDP. AFREPREN calculated that this $442 million could have built 295 megawatts of renewable energy generation, or twice the generating capacity lost from reduced hydropower. In the face of more severe, prolonged droughts due to climate change, regions that invest in renewable energy systems today could avoid some of the more devastating economic and social effects of such catastrophes.
Renewable energy provides benefits for water-scarce regions as well. Fossil fuel generation consumes vastly more water than electricity from wind or solar photovoltaics—both in the extraction and refining processes for the fuels themselves and in the actual power plant operations. In the United States, thermoelectric power plants withdrew as much water as the entire agricultural sector in 2005. This water is needed mainly for cooling, and if it is unavailable, thermoelectric plants have little choice but to shut down. Wind and solar photovoltaic systems, in contrast, use negligible amounts of water in operation and have no fuel-extraction processes upstream.
It’s true that some renewable energy sources, such as biofuels and geothermal, are also water intensive, but these technologies can be implemented when and where it makes sense. The bottom line is that, given its high water demand, fossil fuel power may be a short-lived investment. In water-scarce regions, and with the prospect of increasing water scarcity, shifting to low-water-consuming renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuel power could be the difference between frequent blackouts and reliable energy access, while continuing to ensure the availability of adequate water resources.
The benefits of providing energy access to underserved populations have been well documented. But it is critical to remind ourselves that the way in which we provide energy will affect our future as well. In the face of a changing climate, renewable energy offers the prospects of both the energy access that everyone deserves and a stronger buffer against the global effects of climate change that many are already experiencing.
For the countries already dealing with the impacts of a changing climate, adaptation and development are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Smart investment in clean energy development can provide benefits toward both goals.
Reese Rogers is a MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow at Worldwatch Institute.