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Decarbonizing the South. Space, justice and politics at the renewable energy frontiers – Doctoral Thesis

Date: February 2021

By Avila Calero, Sofía

Martínez Alier, Joan, dir.
Sorman, Alevgul H., dir.
Gamboa Jiménez, Gonzalo, dir.
Kallis, Giorgos, dir.


Renewable energies are expanding globally due to the increasing concerns over anthropogenic climate change and concomitant calls to decarbonize the world economy. In this process, international agencies, developing banks, and private investors are progressively shifting attention towards the “developing world,” promoting a rapid deployment of large-scale projects. This momentum, however, brings a paradox to the fore. The idea of “slowing-down” climate change while “speeding-up” green development encounters increasing resistance at local scales. These processes bring new questions for Political Ecology and Environmental Justice studies: How is the expansion of renewable energies envisioned? Under which assumptions? How is this process taking place (where, by whom, and for whom)? How are local territories being rearranged for such purposes, and how are communities involved, actively or passively, in such processes?

This dissertation studies the ongoing expansion of mega wind and solar power projects across the Global South and the local contestations emerging in response. The work starts from a biophysical perspective, highlighting that the required phase out from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies implies spatial reconfigurations at different scales. This process, it shows, involves deep social rearrangements, shifting attention to how renewable energies might reinforce or revert existing power structures. In positioning the study of environmental conflicts as the central subject of analysis, the dissertation sheds light on the emerging voices of dissent that challenge dominant approaches to renewable energy implementation stemming from the Ecological Modernization Paradigm and its growth-based development formulas. The work rests on the Environmental Justice Atlas and other critical-cartography exercises, providing a multi-scalar analysis of renewable energy investments and conflicts. It presents different case-studies from Mexico and other contexts of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. The thesis provides insights on common patterns and diverse narratives of communities claiming their rights for recognition, democratic participation, and redistribution in envisioning a low-carbon future.

Six transversal findings shed light on how space, justice, and politics intersect in the study, planning, and imagination of (just) energy transitions:

1. Renewable energies’ biophysical nature, more dispersed and less productive than fossil ones, combined with the imperative of sustaining the growing industrial metabolism, translates into new forms of environmental change and conflict.

2. -The expansion of renewables under a growth-based development paradigm produces new energy frontiers. These frontiers shift attention to its “horizontal” character: vast tracts of land are required to harness the flows of solar radiation and wind currents at an industrial scale.

3. Neoliberal policies are playing a central role in “breaking the barriers” for these frontiers to expand. The deregulation of land transactions and the “liberalization” of electricity markets facilitate the implementation of large-scale, centralized, and corporate facilities, commonly supplying electricity to extractive activities, industries, and cities.

4. Shifts in land tenure, land uses, and land cover are favoring private energy corporations while disproportionally affecting peasant, indigenous, and other rural communities across the Global South. In this process, public and communal approaches for an energy transition seem to be foreclosed.

5. Land becomes the central political subject of emerging conflicts. Local communities mobilize concerns, claims, and discourses around the lack of recognition, participation, and distribution in changes over access, control, and valuation of their territories. At larger scales, conflicts unveil how mega-renewable projects reinforce the center-periphery, rural-urban, north-south dynamics that have characterized the fossil energy system.

6. -As a framework for analysis and as a discourse of political action, Environmental Justice reveals new insights and sets important political questions in the energy transition. Rather than only negotiating the benefits of low-carbon development, popular environmental struggles are increasingly opening spaces to configure alternative approaches to more sufficient, egalitarian, and commons-based metabolic transformations.

Read the full Doctoral thesis here.

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