The Boundary of the Energy System Transformation: A Review of the REEI 2016 Energy System Transformation Workshop

Climate change is tightly connected with energy system transformation, and low carbon transformation of energy is the fundamental way of dealing with climate change.Since the international climate change talks in Paris in 2015, these two topics have become an important part of the agenda of public policy discussion in every country. However, the way in which we fulfil the energy system transformation is a complicated public decision. On October 20-21, 2016, more than ten experts from China, America, England, India and Thailand in the fields of energy, environment and public health had a two-day discussion about the best way to reach a transformation from fossil fuels to a sustainable and low carbon energy system in Beijing. More than 20 colleagues from the media, research institutes, environmental protection NGOs, and foundations present at the discussion.

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(Workshop Group Photo, by REEI)

The central topic of this workshop was how to use policy impact assessment tools to delineate boundaries for the energy transformation. The tools included Environmental Impact Assessments, Social Impact Assessments, and Health Impact Assessments. The delineation of the energy transformation refers to how these policy impact assessment tools can lead to more forward looking and practical energy transformation decisions. Without the support of the three assessment tools above, the discussions on energy transformation, which concerns every aspect of our lives, cannot properly be analyzed systematically or measured comprehensively. During the two-day conference, the speeches of experts from different fields shows the complexity of the energy transformation, and the necessity of using policy impact assessment tools.

Energy transformation is not such a difficult problem simply in terms of technique and economy. Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford, who virtually attended our discussion, gave his analysis of the feasibility of China’s ability to achieve 100% sustainable energy in 2050, and his optimistic estimation was, to an extent, supported by two other energy policy scholars. Professor Joanna Lewis, an energy policy expert from Georgetown University, compared renewable energy technology development and cooperation between China and the United States, and was generally optimistic about China’s future development in the field of renewables. Jiang Kejun, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, predicted that Chinese energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions would peak ahead of schedule. He also had a positive outlook on China’s ability to achieve the energy transformation.

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(Panel Discussion on Day 1: Left to Right, Zhao Ang, Joanna Lewis, Jiang Kejun, by REEI)

However, technical and economic scenario analyses are faced with many challenges when being carried out in policy development. These challenges include social equity, legal frameworks, and industry reform, which all have an impact on the roadmap for transformation. Regarding social equality, Lin Jiaqiao of REEI discussed the gradual withdrawal of traditional energy sources’ impact on employment and regional economic restructuring, and how these questions cannot be solved over a short time.

Regarding legal frameworks, the ten-year-old renewable energy subsidy policy faces the challenge of a public funding shortage with China’s slowdown in economic growth. Dr. Christoph Stefes, from the Ecological Research Institute of Berlin, Germany, and the University of Colorado, introduced the different pathways and effects of renewable energy development between Germany and America, while also explaining the key role legal framework and policy mechanisms play in sustainable energy development.

In the field of industrial reform, China is currently experiencing new power reforms, hoping to improve institutional mechanisms to enhance competition and efficiency, which will be an irreplaceable precondition for the energy transformation sector. In order to do this, China must learn from American and European experiences. Professor Tim Brennan from the University of Maryland and Dr. Dan Shawhan, a researcher at Resources for the Future, shared the mechanism design and important challenges of the power market reform. It is estimated that competitive power pricing will be the main objective of these reforms for quite some time, and the ability to achieve this objective will directly impact the energy transformation process. Regarding the economic, environmental and societal factors of the transformation, Aditya Ramji from India’s Council on Energy, Environment and Water outlined the opportunities and difficulties of India’s energy transformation. Despite the fact that India and China are at different stages of their transformations, China can learn a lot from India’s previous challenges, especially in terms of energy security and social equality.

International renewable energy policy sharing, using environment, society, and health to evaluate the transition’s constraints and boundaries

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(Panel Discussion on Day 2: Left to Right, Zhao Ang, Linda Rudolph, Yu Xiaogang, Lin Jiaqiao, by REEI)

When analyzing traditional fields of energy policy, knowledge from different scientific fields must be used to affect decision making in order to really find the constraints of the energy transformation. Three experts on health from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Thailand presented interesting research and case studies on this point. Suphakij Nuntavorakarn of Thailand’s Healthy Public Policy Foundation introduced Thailand’s legislation on incorporating health effects into the national energy policy, which served as an inspiration for the Chinese colleagues attending. Dr. Michael Holland, an expert in public health at Ecometrics Research and Consulting in the UK, gave a history of air pollution governance in the UK. He discussed how the government supports air pollution control through the Governmental Regulatory Impact Assessment, and suggested the wide implementation of Health Impact Assessments in public policies. This viewpoint was supported by Dr. Linda Rudolph, of the Public Health Institute in the US. She discussed the importance of Health Impact Assessments becoming a core part of public policy, and that there should be a movement towards a Health in All Policies practice. She also introduced the difficulties that California is having in implementing this Health in All Policies. Dr. Rudolph explained that Health Impact Assessments have only really been used in developed countries for about ten years, and they still need some time before they can play an important role in public policy making. Overall, it is clear from these speakers that any energy policy should not ignore the consideration of health impacts.

In addition to Health Impact assessments, Environmental and Social Impact Assessments were also an important point of conversation. Zhao Ang of REEI used a framework based on democratic policy making to discuss the influence that impact assessment tools have on the quality of public policy decisions. Afterwards he briefly discussed how policy level Environmental Impact Assessments can help us achieve better sustainable energy policy decisions. Social Impact Assessments have a unique role in helping the energy transformation decision making, and this is because they play a role in determining whether or not transition policies are partial. Dr. Yu Xiaogang of Green Watershed shared his years of experience on the case of the Nu River Hydropower Project Development, sharing years of practical experience in watershed conservation and reasoning for using Social Impact Assessments in his practice, pointing out that how policy makers in a region can use transparent Social Impact Assessment tools and public participation to help improve energy policy decisions. Dr. Yu’s presentation also touched on an important question regarding the energy transformation: how the transformation of a country’s energy system combined with a region’s energy selection strategy can respect local interests and development.

Energy transformation is a comprehensive public policy decision, involving all aspects of socio-economic development. Within the energy system, how to adjust the composition of different energy resources, such as the full reduction of fossil energy consumption and faster increase in renewable energy power generation capacity, which is only part of the complex decision-making process. To depict a roadmap in a few decades’ time to achieve low-carbon energy system and healthy transformation is bound to take into account the energy-related issues such as climate change, environmental pollution control, social equity, public health and among others. REEI’s workshop provides an opportunity for Chinese energy professionals to think about the boundaries of energy transformation. We believe that the introduction of various impact assessment tools, especially health impact assessment to help us define a reasonable and pragmatic roadmap trajectory for energy transformation efforts is still at an initial stage, we will continue to work in the future with our colleagues in this field to promote more rational thinking and communication.

Categories: 2016, Blog, Energy Transition

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