Benefits and Impacts of a Green Future; An Interview With Rana Adib of REN21

Change has consequences. But when it comes to certain goals – saving the world, and with it, the human race, being one of them – it’s important to put the potential negative impacts of rapidly scaled up solutions in the proper perspective.Such is the premise behind the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Report, a groundbreaking analysis recently published by REN21, a think tank and “coalition of the willing” that came together 20 years ago to support and accelerate the development of renewable energy.
Benefits and Impacts of a Green Future; An Interview With Rana Adib of REN21
Rana Adib of REN21

As described in the 190-page report’s forward, the goal in creating it was to give proponents of renewables the world-over a reference document outlining the benefits and adverse impacts of a global shift away from fossil fuels and the embrace of a clean, green future.

In doing so, it takes stock of the wealth of existing solutions and best practices intended to make the transition as painless as possible, while also suggesting benchmarks the group believes will be the cornerstone to building trust in the new global energy regime and the societal support to make it happen.

Among the key findings in the report are:

In 2021, fossil fuel extraction amounted to more than 8 billion tons of coal, 4 billion tons of oil and the equivalent of 2.6 billion ton of fossil gas;

By comparison, materials extracted for renewables included only 21 million tons of copper, 2.6 million tons of nickel, 0.17 million tons of cobalt and 0.11 million tons of lithium;

The average median emissions of all renewable energy technologies, from a life-cycle perspective, are proven to be much lower than those of fossil gas and coal;

While fossil fuel operations and their extraction sites leave land polluted, degraded and depleted long after the facilities are decommissioned, renewables do not have the same long-term impacts on land and water;

In addition, most renewable energy installations can co-exist with other uses like agriculture or fishing;

Renewables can also be deployed on degraded or former industrial, contaminated and marginal land and can leverage existing infrastructure such as rooftops, railways, highways and parking lots to reduce their impact on land;

Scaling up energy efficiency, and implementing sustainable mobility practices such as walking, cycling, and public transport, can further minimize the use of non-renewable materials (such as critical minerals); and

Technology advancements, design choices and implementation of circularity principles will also minimize critical material uses.

Recently, Renewable Energy Magazine had the opportunity to speak with REN21’s executive director, Rana Adib, about the report.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the organization, REN21 is essentially a multi-stakeholder network born of the International Conference for Renewable Energies held in Bonn, Germany in 2004.

As part of the political declaration coming out of the summit, participants agreed to work together to advance the cause of renewable energy.

Prior to becoming executive director of the organization, which is headquartered at the United Nations Environment Program in Paris, Adib was REN21’s research coordinator.

Before that, she worked in private industry and applied research in the areas of renewable energy, energy access and waste management.  She was also responsible for coordinating the biogas-to-energy research program of Veolia Environment, a component of Veolia, the French waste-and-water management and energy company.

Adib holds a master's degree in industrial engineering from the University of Wedel in Germany.  All told, she has over 20 years’ experience in the energy sector.

REM: First, thank you for doing this interview. I guess we should start by providing our readers with a bit of an overview of what REN21 is.

Adib: Of course. It’s probably easiest to think of REN21 as a large community of players, including governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, industry – as represented by industry associations – as well as people from the science and academic communities.

And we are all working together to make the shift to renewable energy happen.

As you can imagine, any process that includes so many different stakeholders is bound to be messy, but I think the messiness of a multi stakeholder effort is also its strength, but what it allows us to do is really tap into the wide-ranging network of information.

Structurally we have 110 members, but we also have a community of more than 4,000 expats globally. That’s important because obviously, when we speak about the energy transition, it’s not only about a fuel switch, it’s about the transformation of the economy and society – and that requires a lot of players to engage and be involved.

This is where the diversity of players and perspectives is very, very important.

And what we do is actually crowdsource data and information first, to inform, and obviously advocate for renewable energy, but also to create a space for difficult discussion, where the approaches advocated and the perspectives offered might be quite different, actually.

REM: One of the things that so interesting about this report is that while it obviously is very pro-renewable energy, it acknowledges arguments from what we might call “the other side,” those who say, "Yes, we need this energy shift, but there are repercussions we need to be mindful of as well."

In other words, I felt in reading this, that you were kind of breaking the debate out of the mental silos that people so often build around themselves.

Adib: I would agree. And I think our approach has always been that we’re happy to have evidence-based discussions and advocacy and dialogues no matter what someone’s perspective is … and so, for instance, as we worked on this report, we had discussions about natural gas versus renewable energy … about what the role of hydrogen will be on the African continent – will it be used for local value creation or to provide fuel to the global economy?

And these discussions are obviously difficult discussions because people often look at the same things from different perspectives. But to really allow for an energy transition to happen, we need to build support among the market players, whether it is energy providers, energy consumers, the finance sector, or society as a whole.

One thing that we recognize and that shapes our approach to promoting renewable energy is that we need to have societal debates, on a global scale, to build support for this transition.

Obviously, policy and regulation can help enormously by ensuring that, for instance, the economic benefit of moving to renewable energy will be redistributed to all of the players …  that the local community that is confronted with having new infrastructure built in the area will economically benefit from it, etc.

So policy and regulation has a key role to play, but really providing data and information and providing a space for having those debates is fundamental.

REM: Here in the U.S .we’ve seen a tremendous scaling up of activity around renewable energy thanks to things like the Infrastructure Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, both cornerstones of the Biden administration's energy policy. There’s tremendous investment going on, but what are some of the impacts we might have to address along the way?

Adib: Well, I think it’s all a matter of sustainability, which is a very, very large topic all by itself.

So basically, as we looked at this, we identified three key topic areas. One is the environmental impacts – as we move forward with the transition, what does the land footprint of these projects look like? What is their impact on water? And other users of the land and water? What about the impact on local biodiversity?

Another key topic area is everything linked to minerals and material use. Here, of course, is where you’ll have discussions about critical minerals, but there are also questions to be raised about mining and the impact of mining.

The third topic is energy justice, looking at the societal and social impact of renewable energy.

Now, as you discuss these three areas the first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that infrastructure does have an impact. When you build a road or redevelop a piece of agricultural land, that’s going to have an impact on people and the biodiversity of the area and how natural processes function, like the movement of water, etc.

Now, this is true of any infrastructure you create of course. So then, and this is really important to underline, the next thing we need to do is compare the potential impact of renewable energy infrastructure with the impact of the existing energy infrastructure that is already in place.

What was very clear from our analysis of these topics – which take you way beyond concerns over CO2 emissions – is that renewable energy time and again proved to be the most sustainable route forward.

REM: One of the discussions we have here in the United States is that the switch to a renewable energy-based economy is going to leave a whole class of American workers out in the cold. And those who feel this way say it’s going to be hardest on older workers and to people employed in industries like mining. What do you say to this?

Adib: This is a very needed discussion. If you look at the scenarios compiled by the International Energy Agency, you’ll see that there is a marked difference between the magnitude of mining activity associated with coal, and that say, of copper, which is an essential element in the grid, in electric vehicles, etc.

We’re talking about going from billions of tons of mining activity to something closer to 21 million tons of activity, in this specific case. In our view, that’s just another argument for why renewable energy is more sustainable. But the job aspect is obviously a very important aspect.

Now, I don’t recall the source, but there was a report that recently looked at energy industry skillsets and compared the renewable energy and fossil fuel sectors. What it found – and this was a U.S. study, I believe – was that 70% of fossil fuel-related jobs could be directly transferred to the renewable energy sector, even without retraining.

When it comes to mining, for instance, one area where you can directly transfer the skills these workers already have is geothermal.

There is another aspect of this discussion, of course, and it's that we can’t just talk about jobs in the abstract, as a transfer from one energy sector to another.

 We also have to look at jobs as “local jobs,” and here we need to acknowledge that when we look at the global transition to renewable energy, the transformation in one local area is going to be different from the transformation in another area and it's going to require that different steps be taken in regard to the local workforce.

REM: It has occurred to me as we’ve been talking that while a lot of the discussions we have around renewable energy, specific energy sources like wind and solar, etc., and jobs, are fairly concrete, there’s a point where these discussions or the advocacy gets a little more … I’m not sure of the right word … “abstract” maybe.

Adib: Wishy washy …

REM: Now, I wasn’t going to say that … but I mean, when you start talking about concepts like “sustainability” … That can mean very different things to different people and in different contexts.

Adib: Well, to be honest, this is where I think REN21 is indeed very unique. As we discussed early on, we are advocating for renewable energy. But at the same time, we’re also alerting people to things around this subject.  So there’s a huge educational component to this.

When it comes to sustainability, I’m no sustainability expert, but I have access to them through the team we’ve assembled. What our sustainability experts have shown us is that the best way to approach sustainability is by adopting a systems approach.

The only problem with that is the human brain is not well designed for thinking in systems. So the first thing you have to do is educate people to the fact that sustainability is systemic.

Then you have to go a step further and get them to understand that your interpretation of a system will be very much influenced by the boundaries you set for your analysis. By that I mean, your conclusions could vary substantially depending on whether you are looking at a small piece of the system or a larger piece.

Another approach, of course is to use examples where you illustrate that sustainability is not just something that’s part of the renewable energy discussion, it’s about our every day lives.

So, for instance you might point to buying a t-shirt at H&M or Zara or the GAP and say, “You know, it makes a difference whether this t-shirt was produced in Bangladesh or the U.S. or Europe because the social and environmental impacts are different, based on the vastly different standards in those places.”

That’s something any consumer understands. And I think over time, we’ve really gained a lot of awareness of the power of these kinds of examples.

Where things remain tricky is when the discussion gets into the statistics and the data.

On the one hand, you have older data and newer data, newer trends in data collection, and at the same time you have a complex subject – sustainability – for which we try to have data that is valid globally.

So looking at renewable energy … on a global scale, it’s obviously the most sustainable source of energy, based on the data. But what happens when you start looking at local impacts?

Say, for instance, that you’re talking about a huge hydroelectric plant. A massive facility like that is going to have a local impact that’s much higher in the areas around it compared to areas that might receive its power but where no dam physically exists.

Now, this takes us back to the need to acknowledge the potential impacts of these projects.

But the really good news is there are lots of solution and mitigation strategies to reduce those impacts whether it's through the active participation of the different stakeholders, the redistribution of benefits, the adoption of sustainability standards on material use, bans on landfilling, etc.

So there are policy answers that can reduce the negative impacts.

The other part of the story is there are a lot of positive impacts to dramatically scaling up the use of renewable energy.

When you look at countries that don’t currently have a resilient energy supply, renewable energy has proven to be the cheapest and quickest way to achieve that goal. So it’s fundamental for economic development. And that’s just one way the positive impacts of transitioning to renewable energy far outweigh the more local negative impacts.

I guess all of this is a long way of saying that when we talk about something as complex as sustainability, we need to adopt a nuanced approach to communication. And we, as a society, are not very good at this.

Our approach at REN21 is to provide the data to lend a different perspective to the discussion. In compiling this report we had, probably, 80 different players who very actively contributed to the final product, all from different backgrounds, and there were some difficult discussions along the way.

In the end, however, the report clearly sends a message that we need to have the courage and leadership to have these discussions; otherwise, especially in a very polarized election year, we might actually look back in five years and realize that we missed an important opportunity.

REM: Okay, but we’re talking about all this, I think, with the idea in the back of our minds that all people are reasonable and that we’re going to be able to sit down and have an honest discussion about renewable energy or sustainability, whatever … the truth is, there are a lot of people out there, some in very powerful position, that continue to espouse myths about all this.

Adib: You’re right. There are myths still being circulated out there. And there is misinformation and disinformation.

Take, for example, the subject of cost. It is very clear when you look at the cost, that renewable energy is the least costly option available globally.

What is a problem is that with the increases in interest rates, there are regions of the world where the financial cost associated with all projects has increased a lot. And this has had a big impact on renewable energy projects.

At the same time, what gets forgotten is that, in Europe, we’re pumping something like 15 million euros per minute into fossil fuel subsidies. And the result is a vastly distorted playing field when it comes to renewable energy.

This is a fact that seems to always be ignored when it comes to current conversations about the transition to a cleaner energy future.

Another fact that is constantly ignored is that many of the negative impacts of fossil fuel are not reflected in the cost.

The other thing that’s going on is we have the International Energy Agency sending very clear signals that the demand for natural gas is going to peak this decade. But the fossil fuel players don’t want to hear this and they are doing a lot of work to try to maintain that market for as long as they possibly can. Now, that’s their business; One can understand their position. The problem is, they are strategically using misinformation to achieve their goals.

There has been a lot of mobilization to create narratives in the mass media to question the sustainability of renewable energy … and we cannot ignore this. We have to continue to educate the public at every opportunity, to bring the evidence forward to refute the false narratives that are out there.

REM: I agree with you, but I think there’s also another challenge here. And its that people tend to fall in love with some new technology or some new idea, and they put blinders on and stop seeing the larger picture. I mean, 15 years ago, most people I spoke to were talking about wind and solar. Then the only thing people wanted to talk about was EVs. Lately, it’s hydrogen. To me, it seems like these … let’s call them “obsessions” … must make it harder to get the broader argument for renewable energy across.

Adib: I completely agree with you. And to that end, at REN21, we deliberately strive not to have that tunnel vision. We look at the energy system as a system and we look at energy as part of the economy and society.

Having a systems approach allows us to pinpoint our blind spots. For instance, when we talk about renewables, the reality is, only 20% of what we’re talking about is energy creation for energy consumption. There’s another 80% that’s about heating and cooling and heat transfer.

The thing about talking about the overall system, from an evidence-based perspective, is that it always requires you to look at the broader issues.

For instance, you mentioned hydrogen. The reality is, you can not produce renewable-based hydrogen without building up your other renewable energy capacities. Our message has always been, yes, hydrogen can be a good thing, but there are solutions that need to be deployed today so that we can build a renewable energy-based base for the hydrogen supply chain.

I mean, when you build a house, you don’t start with the roof.

REM: One last question. Now that the report is out there, who do you think is actually going to pick it up and put its findings into action?

Adib: I think this report has a lot of different functions. First of all, as a crowdsourced document it sends the message to the stakeholders who were involved that their points of view and concerns have been taken seriously – and that’s a very strong point.

The other thing that’s very important about this report is that it send a clear message that when it comes to negative impacts that can be associated with renewable energy projects that solutions do exist and that the sector is very open to finding solutions.

I also think this report has and will serve a reference function. It’s about spreading the knowledge that’s been accumulated and putting it easily within arm’s reach as we move forward with implementing current and future renewable energy targets.

Baterías con premio en la gran feria europea del almacenamiento de energía
El jurado de la feria ees (la gran feria europea de las baterías y los sistemas acumuladores de energía) ya ha seleccionado los productos y soluciones innovadoras que aspiran, como finalistas, al gran premio ees 2021. Independientemente de cuál o cuáles sean las candidaturas ganadoras, la sola inclusión en este exquisito grupo VIP constituye todo un éxito para las empresas. A continuación, los diez finalistas 2021 de los ees Award (ees es una de las cuatro ferias que integran el gran evento anual europeo del sector de la energía, The smarter E).