Land, a missing yet vital battle front for scaling up clean energy and climate action on the ground

FLEUVE project of Great Green Wall West Africa
  • Power capacity from renewables increased by 9% from 2015 to 2016
  • 3 billion people will be using unsustainably produced biomass energy by 2030
  • Recovering the more than 500 million hectares of degraded land to meet growing demand for renewables is urgently need and possible

Bonn, 17/11/2017 - Newly installed renewable power capacity set new records in 2016, with 161 gigawatts (GW) or 9% of total energy added for the year, according to the Renewables 2017 Global Status Report. However, the use of clean renewable energy supply is lagging in cooling, heating and transportation. And by 2030, three billion people will still be using unsustainably produced biomass energy for cooling and heating.

Clean and environmentally friendly renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, hydropower, wind and solar energy can help to mitigate climate change. But they come with environmental and social costs because they rely on healthy and functioning land ecosystems.

"For instance, 2 to 5 hectares of land are needed to produce one megawatt of power which means, a country or region would need between 200,000 to 500,000 hectares of land to reach an ambitious target of 100,000 MW from solar energy. Some of the 500 million hectares of agricultural land that are degraded could be recovered and used to support sustainable agriculture and promote renewables," says Dr. Pradeep Monga, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

An effective approach that can, at once, promote sustainable land policies and scale up renewable energy markets around the world, especially in the developing countries, is urgently needed. It must be integrated, multidisciplinary and consider four critical aspects.

First, understanding how land can bring convergence to the energy, food security, water conservation and ecosystem restoration issues. Second, adopting land policies that support sustainable energy and energy policies that support sustainable land use and management. Third, promoting land use and land management that is based on a landscape approach. Fourth, building partnerships that will ensure these changes happen on the ground.

These were the conclusions of energy experts at the Global Renewable Energy Forum (GREF) 2017 titled, "Towards a Low Carbon, Green Energy Future.” The Forum was a Special Event held during the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) underway in Bonn, Germany.

GREF is a forum for dialogue that focuses on the best ways to manage renewable energy sources for transport and integrated systems.

Pointing to the high demand for land to produce renewable energy, Dr. Monga, said a missing area in the global debate on renewable energy development is how sustainable land use could facilitate clean energy solutions and climate action. He said the concept of land degradation neutrality was introduced in Sustainable Development Goal 15.3 to ensure the 12 million hectares of land degraded every year are renewed and put back to life.

“Productive land would act as a soil carbon sink as well as produce clean energy. Land matters for clean energy and climate action,” Monga added.

Ms. Laura Williamson of Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN 21) said policies determine how friendly an environment is for innovation and change. She reported that 168 countries have policies for the transport sector, 126 have policies in place for the power sector, but only 21 countries have policies targeting the cooling and heating sectors.

“Energy and land have had a tortuous relationship, whether it was oil drilling or coal mining or hydro-energy. They have scarred the land and the future development of renewables must take into account the rights, incomes and livelihoods of those adversely affected,” said Dr. Ajay Mathur, Director General, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India.

Mathur explained that the fierce competition over land for different uses can be managed if laws existed that permit land uses for multiple purposes to generate multiple benefits.

“Land can contribute to sustainable energy but sustainable energy should also contribute to sustainable land use because land is a finite resource,” said Dr. Martin Hiller, Director General, Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP).

Hiller said the development of land use planning tools to improve the efficiency of the 500 million small-scale farms and family farms supporting more than 2 billion livelihoods will strengthen the land’s and, in turn, the farmers’ resilience. He said resilience should be as significant as mitigation in the Climate Change debates.

Farmers will prosper if they have efficient and sufficient renewable energy supply because they can apply new technologies, which would keep the younger generation on the land, and curb their forced migration, he added.

Hiller said REEEP provides access to microfinance to support the development and testing of instruments that can stimulate renewable energy models that seem viable and market-friendly, even if the security needed to guarantee a loan is lacking.

Participants at GREF 2017, drawn from around the world, discussed the status of global renewable energy development and the role it will play in a sustainable energy future.

Some of the knotty policy and practical issues affecting the development and distribution of clean energy identified are: internalization of social costs and gender issues; involvement of local communities and groups in locally adapted and innovative solutions; efficiency and sufficiency in energy and capital usage; energy justice; the density of energy, particularly the provision of energy for small urbanized countries with little land to spare; and the feasibility of energy models designed for developing countries in least developed and under-developed countries.

Drawing on a study of tenders issued in the wind sector, Williamson said community empowerment is vital and can be provided for by ensuring a specific portion of the tender is earmarked for implementation by local communities.

TERI’s Mathur emphasized that renewable energy development should not be built on the idea of a “one-size-fits-all”. Instead, what is needed are design adaptable policy systems that can respond to change, and decentralized policies for each energy market.

Underscoring the importance of an integrated approach to energy development, more specifically a landscape and ecosystems approach, he said the abyss of communication between energy planers and water experts has led to the failure of many energy projects.

Hiller said policy makers view social impacts as barriers, whereas social impacts are opportunities for the markets. He said with data, not anecdotal evidence, markets can act on social costs and gender constraints.

GREF 2017 was held to contribute to COP 23 policy discussions by showcasing related energy transition applications and policies and by highlighting the links between land, renewable energy and climate change. It will also seek to contribute to enabling policies and technologies for energy access in the Global South.

GREF 2017, held on 12 November 2017, was hosted by the Bonn Office of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Germany, in cooperation with UNFCCC, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Innovation, Digitalization and Energy of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Read more: Fuel for Life: Securing the Land-Energy Nexus

For more information contact: Lorena Santamaria,