The great greenwashing debate: how hydropower can separate fact from fiction

In a world in which heated debates about 'greenwashing’ have taken centre stage, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what is truly green from what is not. Alain Kilajian, Senior Sustainability Specialist at the International Hydropower Association, looks at criticisms the hydropower sector has faced and what progressive companies are doing to overcome them.

The term greenwashing floated around the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) like a pervasive cold at a dinner party. Many of the governments, organisations and initiatives emerging at Glasgow were subject to the criticism, some more justly than others.

For many climate advocates, the global climate summit has certainly left a sour taste. Filled with big, bold statements, the event has, unnervingly, brought more of the same: a lack of urgency towards the climate emergency. Despite modest progress, this COP has largely failed to bring about the systemic changes required to limit global warming to the 1.5°C target.

The greenwashing gap: fact vs fiction

At the heart of the greenwashing debate is an increasingly obvious gap between reality and policy, or what I like to call fact and fiction. The two narratives twirl by one another, like enthused tango dancers fighting for centre stage for what might be the greatest show on Earth. The public is not amused. “This is not a show. This is our lives,” cry activists, looking to distinguish the clowns from the heroes in the Circus of Politicians (COP).

Greenwashing is the attempt to make people believe that individuals, organisations or governments are doing more to protect the environment than they really are. The first well-known cases were exposed in the 1990s when environmentalists raised concerns about the claims being made by the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations.

A term that used to find its home only in the conversations of environmentalists has now hit centre stage. It is all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. From the underground symposiums of activists to the most mainstream social media platforms, the term has travelled across landscapes and cultures, slowly nipping at the heels of increasingly wary politicians, CEOs and entrepreneurs.

For the climate agenda, greenwashing represents the gap between stated intentions and reality on issues such as decarbonisation and sustainability, and at COP, the gap was at times ubiquitous. “Greenwashing alert!” were the words tweeted by youth climate activist Greta Thunberg after she attended a session on carbon markets. She’s right that people need to be alert to false promises.

The United Nations Climate Conference (COP26)

Hydropower: greenwashing or trustworthy?

Tackling this subject head on, Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), addressed a crowd at the Nordic Pavilion during COP26. He was flanked by ex-Prime Minister of Australia Malcom Turnbull, Iceland’s Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir and The Nature Conservancy Europe’s Regional Managing Director Marianne Kleiberg. The panellists discussed how the San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower, a set of fundamental principles agreed at the 2021 World Hydropower Congress, aims to define a new decade for hydropower.

“The San José Declaration at its heart has two key elements. Firstly, sustainable hydropower is a clean, green, modern and affordable solution to climate change. Secondly, going forward, the only acceptable hydropower is sustainable hydropower,” he asserted. “This concept of sustainability is underpinned by a demonstrable test, an assessment, the Hydropower Sustainability Standard.”

The same day, members of four Indigenous tribes from the Amazon came together at the Water Pavilion to share perspectives about the impacts of hydropower projects on their lives. It was an opportunity to hear directly from some project affected communities. Their descriptions were vivid and visceral, covering concerns about human rights violations, biodiversity destruction and ecocide. The event painted a much less rosy image of hydropower.

Two days prior, the Central Asian country Tajikistan had offered a more positive vision of hydropower. Jamshed Shoimzoda, First Deputy Minister of Energy and Water Resources, speaking at a Water Climate Coalition side event, stressed the important role hydropower has and continues to play in meeting his country’s energy needs. Without reliable and constant access to electricity, many regions of Tajikistan, most notably the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, are literally left in the dark. Blackouts are common, impacting industry and economic development, and many Tajiks travel abroad searching for work. In this land marked by steep slopes and barren valleys, hydropower is regarded as the best option for generating renewable, low-carbon energy at scale. Shoimzoda identified a future in which hydropower could help Tajikistan become a regional energy superpower, providing clear benefits for local communities.

For some, reconciling these two different realities may seem impossible and the gap between them is a clear example of fact vs fiction. These activists have long been sceptical of hydropower’s claims to sustainability. But the example of Tajikistan shows the benefits sustainable hydropower can bring to a country and its people.

IHA Chief Executive Eddie Rich (left) speaking at COP26's Nordic Pavilion

Bridging the gap between fact and fiction

Earlier this year, Pamir Energy, a public-private partnership by the Government of Tajikistan and the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, demonstrated its commitment to sustainability by commissioning an independent sustainability assessment of their newest hydropower project, the 11 MW Sebzor power plant on the Shokhdara river. Accredited assessors visited the project and assessed its sustainability performance using the Hydropower Sustainability ESG Gap Analysis Tool, one of a suite of internationally recognised guidelines and tools used to achieve certification under the recently launched Hydropower Sustainability Standard.

The assessment requires meeting 12 strict performance criteria including on biodiversity management, resettlement and the free, prior and informed consent of project-affected Indigenous Peoples. The assessment is made based on evidence, using first-hand information and data obtained from site visits, a review of project documents and interviews with the developer and stakeholders, including local communities. The results are published online for all to see.

Without this type of rigorous assessment, most industries would find it difficult to navigate between fact and fiction, and distinguish what is truly green from what is not. For hydropower, we have the tools available to find clarity between the claims and the counterclaims. The Hydropower Sustainability Standard, governed by a council represented by NGOs, governments, banks and industry and supported by robust assurance systems, provides the most comprehensive and transparent framework for responsible developers to demonstrate their sustainability credentials and disprove accusations of greenwashing.

Through the Standard, the hydropower sector is working directly with NGOs to establish its credibility on the back of a legacy of some high-profile bad projects. The testimonials of the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon clearly show how heart-breaking and destructive poor hydropower development can be. But we must not let the mistakes of the past prevent the positive potential of hydropower. The case of Sebzor in Tajikistan shows the promise hydropower can bring when it is sited and designed with sustainability at its core.

Going forward, there is truly no excuse for unsustainable projects.

For the hydropower sector, The San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower is the intent and the Hydropower Sustainability Standard is the means to demonstrate this intent. The ground has been set. It is now up to the industry to embrace these tools and separate fact from fiction.

About the author

Alain Kilajian is Senior Sustainability Specialist at the International Hydropower Association (IHA). He is responsible for the development of the Hydropower Sustainability Standard, a global sustainability standard for hydropower. His work focuses on implementing the standard across the globe, supporting governments to embed it into their regulations, working with private sector to apply it on their projects and partnering with NGOs/civil society to make sure it continues raising the sustainability bar for industry.

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