Blog: Sustainable hydropower to advance climate action

Sustainable hydropower can help governments to limit the impacts of climate change, provided policy-makers and planners adopt the right tools. A blog by Amina Kadyrzhanova, Sustainability Specialist at IHA.

The year 2020 was supposed to be a milestone for climate action. It’s the five-year landmark of the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the first test in countries’ willingness to strengthen their targets for climate action.

Governments were expected to put forward more ambitious short-term plans for 2030, and long-term targets for 2050, to decarbonise economies and keep global temperatures below 2°C.    

As the world reels from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems many vital climate initiatives have been put on hold. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) and the negotiation sessions leading up to it have been postponed to 2021. While governments have justifiably focused their efforts to address the current health crisis, the climate crisis has not gone away. Decades of largely unabated carbon emissions continue to warm the atmosphere and increase surface temperatures. The events of the year should not be seen as an excuse to scale back climate ambition, but instead as an opportunity to accelerate the green economy transition.

The Paris Agreement and hydropower

In line with the Paris Agreement targets, governments should design environmentally sustainable recovery packages promoting cleaner and lower-carbon technologies. As the world’s largest source of renewable generation capacity, hydropower has a key role to play in this transition. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s recently released Global Renewables Outlook, an additional 850 GW of newly installed hydropower capacity is required by 2050 to support the carbon reduction commitments of the Agreement.

Hydropower provides a double benefit in the fight against climate change. The first benefit is its contribution to climate change mitigation. Hydropower not only provides clean energy with significantly lower lifetime greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than most other technologies, it also supports the increased integration of variable renewable sources through its flexibility services. It therefore reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, avoiding four billion tonnes of additional GHG emissions per year versus coal fired generation, according to IHA’s 2020 Hydropower Status Report.

The second benefit is hydropower’s ability to provide water services and act as a storage buffer against climate change, or in other words, its contribution to climate adaptation. Hydropower provides water storage capacity that can be used for irrigation, drinking water supply, flood control, navigation and other services. Increasing water storage capacities is imperative to adapting to a warmer world and meeting growing water demand.

Although hydropower plants help tackle climate change, like other forms of infrastructure they can be vulnerable to variations in climatic conditions. Changes in regional rainfall, fluctuations in temperature, increasing frequency of droughts and extreme weather events all significantly impact river discharge. Increased or reduced river discharge affects water availability and regularity, and in turn, hydropower generation. Such uncertainty in future hydrological conditions pose conceptual challenges to hydropower managers.  

Assessing hydropower’s climate mitigation benefits and resilience

To support hydropower developers in coping with climate change, the internationally recognised Hydropower Sustainability Tools were updated in 2018. These now include a dedicated assessment topic on climate change mitigation and resilience, to bring greater clarity and guidance to the industry. The Tools were developed by a multi-stakeholder group of governments, companies, social and environmental NGOs and international financial institutions. The climate change topic defines international good and best practice and helps developers assess a project’s ability to deliver climate mitigation benefits, its resilience to climate change and overall contribution to climate adaptation.

For climate mitigation, the Tools require hydropower projects to assess their GHG emissions intensity. To meet good practice, the emissions intensity needs to be below 100 gCO2e/kWh over the lifetime of the asset. GHG emissions from a reservoir can be estimated using the G-res Tool – a web-based tool developed by IHA, UNESCO and the Université du Québec à Montréal for hydropower companies and researchers to estimate and report net emissions from a reservoir.

For climate resilience, good practice requires projects to assess climate change risks and implement structural and operational measures. Hydropower infrastructure must be designed, developed and operated to be resilient to a range of climate futures. Guidance on how to incorporate climate resilience into hydropower project planning, design and operations can be found in the Hydropower Sector Climate Resilience Guide.

Unleashing hydropower’s potential

Despite recognising the benefits of hydropower deployment, policy-makers and developers sometimes struggle to utilise the full potential of hydropower in climate action. In fact, much of the world’s hydropower potential remains untapped, especially in developing countries where reliable and affordable clean energy is in short supply. So what is hindering the development of hydropower where it is most needed?

One of the biggest challenges is related to hydropower’s high initial capital costs and long payback periods. Obtaining financing for hydropower projects is challenging, particularly at the vital early planning phase.

However, the rapid emergence of the green bond market offers hydropower an additional avenue for financing. In 2016, the Climate Bonds Initative established the Hydropower Technical Working Group, to develop a rigorous screening process for hydropower projects that provide climate mitigation and adaptation benefits in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, to be eligible for green bonds. A key plank of the proposed hydropower-specific qualification criteria is the Hydropower Sustainability ESG Gap Analysis Tool.

The tool, which is governed by the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Council, is used to check for gaps against good practice on relevant environmental, social and governance topics. It includes a gap management plan to improve processes and, in the context of climate change, enables project proponents to consider and address many of the challenges facing hydropower development.

When developed responsibly and following international good practice, as demonstrated by the Hydropower Sustainability Tools, hydropower is an important technology for limiting the impacts of climate change. Regardless of the setbacks of 2020, governments should aim to accelerate their climate action efforts while taking into account the benefits of hydropower development. The contribution of hydropower in achieving the Paris Agreement needs to be considered not only in terms of avoiding GHG emissions, but also in promoting climate-resilient infrastructure that can provide a range of climate adaptation services.

A sense of urgency

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported, we have 10 years left before we reach an irreversible tipping point. The time window for effective climate action was always going to be tight; perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to accelerate decarbonisation efforts to ensure that emissions begin to fall. The coming 15 months ending with COP 26 in Glasgow will be critical in mobilising the coordinated action needed in the fight against climate change. There isn’t much time left to do the right thing, so let’s start now. Sustainable hydropower is ready to play its part.

About the author

Amina joined IHA Sustainability in March 2020. Her work focuses on developing and implementing a suite of sustainability tools which provide guidance to the hydropower sector as well as a means for assessing a project’s performance. She supports the delivery of trainings and coordination of capacity building projects to drive sustainable hydropower development worldwide, especially in Russia and Central Asia.

She has experience conducting research on hydropower modernisation, green financing mechanisms, climate policies and disaster risk reduction measures. Prior to joining IHA, she supported knowledge sharing on energy efficiency and climate change financing at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. She has worked in Germany, Hungary, Thailand and the United Kingdom. She is fluent in Russian and Slovak.

Amina holds an MPhil in Environmental Policy from the University of Cambridge and BSc in Environmental Geography and Climate Change from the University of East Anglia.

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