Expert Voices

Can Rich Forests Survive as Energy Booms? (Op-Ed)

A forest along a Colorado Stream where pine beetles have been
A CU-led team has found that pine beetle devastation along Colorado streams causes remaining understory trees and other vegetation to take up nitrate, a common disturbance-related pollutant. (Image credit: Courtesy University of Colorado.)

Sean McKaughan has more than 20 years of experience in sustainable development and is Chairman of the Board for Fundación Avina, a Latin American philanthropic foundation that works on sustainability in 18 countries. This article is adapted from an article for the Skoll World Forum. This piece is written in advance of the 2014 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship to be held April 9-11 in Oxford, UK. Skoll contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The effects of climate change are now apparent, driving a global move toward greater efficiency and adoption of renewable energy sources. Approximately two- thirds of global emissions currently come from the burning of fossil fuels. That trend, if unchecked, virtually guarantees a global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius during the next fifty years.

But energy generation also impacts the environment in terms of biodiversity, since drilling, dam and energy-transmission projects are responsible for significant encroachment on wildlife habitat. Perhaps most visibly, nations' energy generation decisions affect the quality of water and air, as the residents of Delhi, Beijing and "fracked " rural districts of the United States will attest. Of course, the environment also is a source of energy, providing renewable alternatives to fossil fuels in the form of wind, water and sunshine.

As a Latin American foundation, Avina has twenty years of experience working alongside our partners in sustainability challenges, which often interact with the region's incredible natural-resource wealth. South America, alone, is home to half of the world's biodiversity, one-quarter of its tropical forests, and one-third of its freshwater resources. Add to that the incredible concentration of flora and fauna in Central America, and the extensive marine resources which stretch from the Colorado River estuary in Mexico down to the Beagle Channel in Patagonia, and it's a global environmental powerhouse.

Latin America's energy grid is diverse, and on the whole, it incorporates fossil-fuel alternatives such as hydrological power and sugarcane ethanol on a much greater scale than other regions. Of course, Latin America also is home to important fossil-fuel stocks. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, with Mexico, Brazil and Ecuador also making the list of key international oil exporters.

Although changes in land use (primarily deforestation) long have produced the greatest emissions, fossil-fuel use for energy and transportation has been the fastest growing source of emissions during the past decade. While governments have been successful in moving citizens out of poverty, those changes have sparked increasing demand for energy, which is leading to recurring conflict as national governments scramble to meet the energy needs of their populations.

In the past few years, there have been disputes in Ecuador between indigenous communities and the oil companies who degraded their forests, as well as massive protests in Chile and Brazil against dam projects in the Aysen and Xingú regions, respectively. These conflicts highlight the very real tradeoffs that energy generation implies. The energy sector is a clear example of the complexity of sustainable development, which seeks balance among different tensions: short-term and long-term, environment and economy, community interests and national interests, protest and compromise. In the midst of conflict and complexity, how can a society establish an effective platform for making energy decisions that will affect this and coming generations?

For Avina, the way in which Latin America is responding to these energy conflicts could offer interesting models for other parts of the world dealing with similar challenges.

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For example, a key lesson has emerged from the protests in the Aysen region of Chile: Make energy decision-making transparent and participatory. Avina and its Chilean partners convened an open energy dialogue at the national level, inviting utilities, the government and environmental organizations to use the same data and projections to propose different scenarios for meeting Chile's energy needs to 2030. The public debate brought the question of energy security to the forefront, eventually involving presidential candidates in a televised discussion of the country's energy future. This participatory approach allowed a group of civic organizations to influence government energy policy leading to a landmark national long-term energy plan for Chile, released in 2013, which includes ambitious targets for efficiency gains and renewables.

As the energy matrix changes, it also becomes increasingly important to update the regulatory framework governing the energy grid. Unfortunately, in Latin America, like much of the world, regulations not only fail to provide incentives to efficiency and renewables, but often offer disincentives. In Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Avina has worked with different civil society organizations to penetrate the labyrinth of government regulatory decision-making in order to influence the formulation of new regulatory policy. As a result of the efforts of many different leaders and organizations, Brazil recently passed new codes for admitting small generators onto the grid who can now sell energy to suppliers. Similar regulations have been implemented in Uruguay and studies are underway in Argentina.

These are just two examples among many, but as experience mounts, some key success factors become clear. First, a diversity of interest groups representing different points of view must actively participate in energy decision-making. Too often, these decisions take place behind closed doors. Effective dialogued requires all participants to use objective technical data and engage transparently in the process. The platform for public dialogue should be visible, balanced and respect all legitimate points of view. Brokering organizations like Avina contribute by convening, offering credibility, and ensuring a fair process.

In the end, the challenges of balancing energy needs and the environment require a change in attitude. Environmentalists must become technically informed, networked into coalitions and prepared to negotiate on a level playing field. Governments and utilities must recognize that effective energy policy now depends on opening up the decision-making process, incorporating diversity in participation, and being open to novel alternatives and innovation.

Whether at the local level or the national level, getting the policy formulation process right is one of the keys to a sustainable energy future.

This article originally appeared as "Why Energy is Inextricably Linked to Environment" on the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, a premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world's most pressing social issues. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Chairman of the Board