A Climate-Safe “Green Economy” Protects Rivers, Rejects Destructive Dams

Zachary Hurwitz
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The twentieth anniversary of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, comes at a time when human-caused emissions have pushed our planet to the brink of a climate crisis. The effects of the global industrial economy brought planetary levels of carbon dioxide to a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011, according to a 2012 International Energy Agency (IEA) report – only 1 Gt below the level that the IEA considers necessary to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 2°C. In response, many governments, banks, and corporations are increasingly looking to large hydropower dams to reduce fossil fuel use. Proponents claim that large hydropower dams will help usher in a “green economy.” Rather than achieving greater protection of the planet's ecosystems from the demands of growing energy use, this policy direction will put an increasing burden on Earth's freshwater species and habitats.

Large hydropower dams have resulted in a crash in freshwater species, huge social costs, reductions in river flows for users and ecosystems downstream, and significant greenhouse gas emissions. These impacts make them the wrong choice for governments seeking to protect ecosystem services, eradicate poverty, increase energy access, and resolve food shortages in a time of growing climate uncertainty. Decentralized, off-grid solutions make the most sense for a real “green economy.”

Rio+20’s guiding concept of “green growth” focuses on environmental protections that sustain corporate growth, rather than prioritizing the protection of the earth's critical natural systems – a worrisome shift away from the original intention of the 1992 UN conference. A variety of multi-stakeholder initiatives are being promoted at Rio that aim to advance the goals of the “Green Economy.” Many of them heavily promote large hydropower dams.

One initiative, convened by the private World Water Council, is called the World Water Forum. The sixth World Water Forum met in March of this year in France, where the final declaration called for governments to make commitments in the water sector for Rio+20. One call is for governments to harmonize water, energy and food developments by investing in large multi-purpose hydropower dams. Another is to implement a non-binding auditing tool called the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) that will allow dam builders to assess and rank their projects as “sustainable.” Both initiatives threaten to greenwash business-as-usual approaches while allowing the private sector to capture more of the world's water resources.

Another initiative, convened by the United Nations, is called Sustainable Energy for All. It aims to double the global share in renewables, to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and to universalize energy access by the year 2030. The goals are excellent, but the group’s board is made up of heavy hitters in the global dam industry, including the CEOs of Eletrobras and Siemens, the Chairman of the China Development Bank, the President of the Brazilian National Development Bank, and the World Bank. Sustainable Energy for All has begun gathering government commitments, including one from Norway called Energy+, an offset investment program modeled after the Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. Energy+ seeks to pool opportunities for Norway (a key dam-building nation) and other high-income countries to invest in the energy sectors of low-income countries. Ethiopia and Kenya, two countries highly dependent on hydropower, have already indicated they will participate.

A third initiative, created at the UN’s 2011 climate meeting in Durban, South Africa, is called the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The GCF is supposed to be about raising finance to bring forth transformative changes to the global economy. One proposal from civil society, for example, is to end fossil fuel subsidies, redirecting them wholesale into the solar market to lower the price of the technology and create economies of scale. However, governments and the private sector have already positioned themselves to submit business-as-usual projects such as large hydro to the fund.

A final initiative, proposed by the Group of 20 (G20), is detailed in the group’s High-Level Report on Infrastructure. The report identifies 11 infrastructure projects to advance “green growth” as one possible way out of the global economic recession; four of them are related to the hydropower sector. One such project, the Grand Inga Complex in the Democratic Republic of Congo, would be the largest, most costly hydropower project ever built (it already has an $80 billion dollar price tag). Scientists believe that damming the Congo could alter the river's ability to transport sediment to the Atlantic Ocean, a system which is significant to reducing carbon in the global climate system. The G20 is a closed-door meeting of finance ministers of the world's wealthiest countries, and is not open to the scrutiny of civil society.

Proponents of large dams are ignoring the risks of climate-changed rivers when they tout them as being a panacea to climate change. The world's rivers are experiencing more radical swings in hydrological flow than ever before due to human-caused climate change. The Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon – still a free-flowing river – suffered two 100-year droughts in just five years, between 2005 and 2010. These troubling droughts were punctuated by two record-setting floods in 2009 and 2012, during which the river submerged parts of the city of Manaus, affecting 77,000 families. Such wild swings in hydrology have led some, including the Sustainability Unit of the World Bank, to call for an increase in large-storage multipurpose dams in order to hedge against the uncertainties of water availability. There is a fatal flaw in this approach: multi-purpose dams built on rivers already suffering from upstream drought will put multiple users in competition for decreasing water assets. Downstream users often bear the costs, as these dams reduce downstream ecological quality and water quantity, making livelihoods less resilient.

Finally, large hydropower dams can cancel out any intentions of developers to offset greenhouse gas emissions produced elsewhere. In the case of both traditional large-storage reservoirs and run-of-the-river reservoirs, large hydropower dams interrupt natural floodplain inundation cycles that feed much needed organic nutrients to areas of carbon sequestration, such as soils and oceans. What's more, the construction, implementation, and operation of large hydropower dams emit greenhouse gases – especially in the tropics, where decaying vegetation flooded by reservoirs can produce methane, the most potent greenhouse gas.

There are better options for meeting water and energy needs that do not require damaging rivers and the ecosystems they support. At Rio+20, governments, banks, and corporations, public and private sector alike, must listen to the multitude of voices calling for a return to the original mission of the 1992 UN Conference on Sustainable Development: to protect life on Earth. We can get there together if we change the focus to investing in true climate solutions for the water-energy-food nexus, rather than greenwashing business-as-usual projects such as large hydropower dams. The future of our freshwater systems, and life on Earth, depends on it.