COP26: Countries look to hydropower as alternative to fossil fuels

IHA delegation led by Malcolm Turnbull and Eddie Rich made case for sustainable hydropower at global summit

By the conclusion of the United Nations COP26 climate conference, the number of countries pledging to reach a target of achieving net zero emissions had reached 140, covering four-fifths of the world.

Achieving net zero by “around mid-century”, as is called for by the Glasgow Climate Pact, is underpinned by an expansion of clean energy produced by renewables such as hydropower, wind and solar power.

The pact recognises that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”. It also calls for a “phasedown” of unabated coal, along with financial support to the poorest and most vulnerable countries.  

IHA delegation at COP26

Members of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) were represented at COP26 by a delegation led by former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and IHA Chief Executive Eddie Rich.  

During the global summit, multiple governments made clear that investments in new hydropower capacity form a central plank of their renewable energy and decarbonisation plans.  

The ‘locomotive of carbon-free policy’

China and the USA, the world’s two biggest CO2 emitters, were among those which previously announced plans to invest in hydropower capacity. Many other countries also outlined the importance they placed on hydro as a clean generation and storage technology.

“Renewable energy sources, especially hydropower, will be the locomotive of carbon-free policy,” explained Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who said his country intends to be carbon-free by 2050, by moving away from coal to hydropower.  

“We have launched projects to build small and medium-sized hydropower plants to eliminate the use of carbon energy sources, primarily coal and fuel oil, and to fully convert it into electricity, without harming the environment,” he said.

Múte Bourup Egede, Prime Minister of Greenland, said he hoped to boost domestic generation and become a major exporter of the clean energy source. “In the next 5-6 years we have a goal that up to 90 per cent of our energy will come from hydropower,” he said.

“We have one of the world’s largest deposits of oil and gas, but we have stopped [exploration] because we have a lot of water we can use for green energy. I hope that big countries, who have a lot of responsibility, will be ready to invest like that.”

Towards net zero

Many developing countries at COP26 noted they are further along the path to reducing net zero thanks to hydropower’s contribution. Costa Rica, which co-hosted the World Hydropower Congress in September, produces more than two-thirds of its electricity from hydropower.

Addressing the opening of COP26, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada said: “We have made investments to ensure that our electricity remains produced 99 per cent from renewable sources for seven years in a row now.”

“But we are like a small hummingbird flying in the middle of a storm. We are trying to do our part, but we need the big emitters to contribute with their share, to take bold actions, enhance their NDCs and transform their commitments into real action.”

Meanwhile, Bhutan’s Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Yeshey Penjor, reflected that thanks mainly due to hydropower “today we are not only carbon neutral, we are carbon negative and have already realised the goal of the Paris Agreement.”

‘The next decade is the decisive decade’

Despite the commitments given in Glasgow, many poorer and developing countries however expressed disappointment that the climate pact did not go further. Delegates warned that, without greater decarbonisation, the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees remains at peril.

“The next decade is the decisive decade,” said Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan’s climate envoy, in a BBC interview. “We are at 1.1 degrees already and look at what is happening around the world. Just imagine doubling this, and that’s what the numbers are adding up to.”

In response, Mr Aslam said that Pakistan is looking to hydropower to help the country reduce its emissions. “Hydro for us is a real option,” he stressed. “We have huge water flowing through the country and we need to tap it, making sure we can generate energy out of this.”

IHA’s delegation spoke at a number of side-events and met with leading organisations, government representatives and multilateral institutions to make the case for countries backing sustainable hydropower.

Mr Rich warned that, without hydropower, countries may not have sufficient flexibility and clean storage to support growing variables renewables. “This is the crisis within the crisis. Where’s the back-up? What happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, as well as when there’s too much excess energy from those sources. We need to wake the policymakers up to this ignored crisis.”

Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower

Along with the Government of Costa Rica, IHA presented the San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower, the historic agreement from September’s World Hydropower Congress.

The declaration puts forward a new set of fundamental principles and recommendations to shape the sector’s contribution to global climate goals. In addition, it encourages developers and operators to seek certification through the newly established Hydropower Sustainability Standard.

On receiving the San José Declaration, COP26 President Alok Sharma said: “This declaration is a first vital step in increasing the global deployment of hydropower, with solid principles to guide the developments of projects, and sound recommendations for governments and policy-makers developed in consultation with businesses, financial institutions and civil society.  

“This exemplifies the collaborative approach we need to make the clean energy transition a reality,” he added.

During the course of the COP26 conference, major global companies, including some IHA members, also pledged to support a global campaign for organisations to use renewable energy sources 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"EDP is thrilled to join the Global Compact for 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy. We are proud to be at the forefront of the development of new technologies to accelerate the decarbonisation of electricity systems and promote the globalisation of access to clean energy," said EDP Chief Executive Officer Miguel Stilwell Andrade.

Learn more about sustainable hydropower’s role in achieving net zero:  

Pictured: IHA’s Delegation at COP26

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