The 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) took place in Glasgow from 31st October to 13th November 2021. It is one of the most important climate summits in years which displayed the need to act against the forces contributing to climate change. Previous COPs have been criticized for not ‘listening to the science’, however, COP26 used science to demonstrate the critical situation the world is facing in terms of meeting goals from the Paris Agreement. COP26 also had important demonstrations from civil society and Indigenous peoples from around the world.
As part of the discussions among delegates, it was emphasized that countries need to “phasedown” coal and support developing economies to achieve this global goal. With the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), the transition to alternative energy was emphasized. The Carbon-Free economy pushes for a transition to renewable energy sources, requiring the removal of fossil fuels subsidies and increased investments in clean energy across all sectors of the economy.
A coalition of non-profit organizations that attended COP26 worked to emphasize that mega dams cannot be included in these or any other climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Indeed, a declaration was signed by 340 organizations from 78 countries of the world to reject the idea of funding hydroelectric projects (International Rivers, 2021). The declaration stated that the climate mitigation efforts must reject so-called “sustainable hydropower” as a solution to combat climate change. Thousands of demonstrators that attended COP26 implored that the attendees reject the hydropower industry’s push for new projects.
So why can’t dams be climate solutions?
Among a wide spectrum of impacts, dams destroy the habitat and damage the aquatic food web. Similarly, the flooding of the lands to construct the dams and reservoirs have displaced millions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, eliminating their ways of life and local food sources. This has led to interference with sustainable development goals (SDG) 6 (Clean water and sanitation) and SDG 15 (Life on Land) (Dorber et al., 2020).
Additionally, dams and reservoirs emit methane- which is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. However, a lack of accountability and reporting has led to underreporting of these emissions. Indeed, the U.N. has not accounted for these methane emissions while considering the worthwhile alternatives to fossil fuels, and therefore continues to promote dams as “clean” or “green”.
Funding hydropower projects would further contribute to the climate crisis by the increase of methane in those reservoirs (Dorber et al., 2020). The reservoirs can lead to increased anaerobic decomposition of organic matter thus affecting GHG emissions from methane (Dorber et al., 2020). Undammed rivers also help sequester carbon, but dams block the natural sequestration of the watershed (Dorber et al., 2020).
To represent concerns at COP26, the Megadam Resistance Action Team was formed from various non-profit organizations. DWI Advisory Council member, Roberta Frampton Benefiel, co-founder of the Grand Riverkeeper Labrador Inc, and University of Manitoba student Fiona Lebar joined this coalition at COP26, bringing into attention the greenwashing of large hydro projects and how the mega dams are not the solution to the climate crisis. (Fiona Lebar is a Metis student, and her perspective can be found in Dam Watch International’s community blogpost.)
Several of the organizations involved in the action team are also pushing a petition, “UnDam the U.N.” that calls for the UN to address and acknowledge methane emissions that have not been accounted for by the dams and reservoirs. “UnDam the U.N” aims to tell the U.N that “the dams must not qualify as offsets” and are not the climate solutions.
According to the United Nations Climate Change Conference UK, 2021, it is expected that there will be a tremendous number of investments in the alternative energy sectors. Roberta’s focus was to bring into attention the impacts of mega hydro dams in terms of ecological, social, and environmental impacts in front of the UN through “UnDam the UN”. Roberta shared that their emphasis was on: “No more subsidies for the hydro dams”. Their research and experience in this field has emphasized that hydroelectricity is not economically feasible without subsidies. So, if these projects are not highly subsidized by the government, their economic returns are negligible, meaning the dams are not economically feasible in the long run.
In our interview, Roberta explained how the Churchill Falls Hydroelectric complex- based in Labrador, Canada affected the ecosystem and communities of the Mista Shipu (Churchill River) river basin. The impacts of the methylmercury on the fishes have been documented even 250 km downstream of the Churchill reservoir (Calder et al., 2016). The reservoirs are located within the traditional territories of the Innu and Inuit, which exposes communities to this methylmercury through the contamination of water and food, through the bioaccumulation of the toxin throughout the ecosystem. The annual weighted mean methylmercury concentration in the Churchill River is estimated to have increased approximately 10-fold since the flooding of the subsequent Muskrat Falls reservoirs in 2016 (Calder et al., 2016).
The accumulation of debris impacts the marine ecosystem and nearby estuaries. Also, there are higher chances of erosion in the lower banks of the river. The accumulated debris rich in silica also impairs animal movement (Bajzak & Roberts, 2011). Roberta shared that the water is 8 to 10 degrees warmer due to water being stored in the reservoir which heavily impacted the life cycle of different species of animals. The larvae of some species can not hatch due to the different temperature which will then impact their abundance in the ecosystem.
Hydroelectricity accounts for approximately 17% of global energy generation and there are numerous plans underway to expand this capacity as countries seek to achieve carbon neutrality (Calder et at., 2016). Roberta believes that the UN needs to be convinced of the impacts of hydroelectricity on the community and the ecosystem. And, to reach the Paris Agreement, it is vital to account for the methane emissions from the reservoirs and dams
Similarly, she believes that no form of electricity is truly sustainable, but we should choose options with the least ecological impact and least social impact. Furthermore, she emphasized that there are other approaches to handling energy needs. For example, while in Scotland for COP26, Roberta witnessed a more conscious and organized effort to conserve energy, compared to Canada. She expressed other countries need to be more accountable and conserve electricity on a larger scale.
Debunking Myths about Hydroelectricity
I used to believe that hydroelectricity is the cleanest form of alternate energy. After working for DWI, and my interview with Roberta, I realized that it is not the case. The electricity that we perceive to be “clean”, “green” and “sustainable” is coming at the environmental and social costs. The forced relocation to build dams, flooding of the area and destruction of natural habitat raises a serious issue of environmental justice. Understanding the impacts of hydro dams on the environment and communities might require a paradigm shift. A lot of the hydro projects directly and indirectly affect Indigenous communities, so the remote location of those projects rarely impacts the lifestyle in the areas where the energy is used for instance. Thus, we often use “out of sight, out of mind” regarding these issues which is not the correct way to deal with them.
If the UN accounts for the methane emissions from the reservoirs, the world can see the true impacts of the hydro dams. And it is high time that the true emissions from the hydro projects are included in assessing the feasibility of the alternate source of energy like hydro. Carbon-Free economy is only possible when the government and hydro companies account for all the emissions from their reservoirs and provide a transparent report. Then, the users of the information, that is the consumers can decide if their source of energy is environmentally friendly. Roberta believes that we should focus more on conserving the electricity rather than spending millions on producing it. I agree with her in this respect as the minimal you consume, the minimal the impacts of producing the electricity.
Written by Eliza Maharjan, University of Manitoba undergraduate student
Bajzak, D., & Roberts, B. A. (2011). Environmental Impact of Flooding in the Main (Smallwood) Reservoir of the Churchill Falls Power Plant, Labrador, Canada. I. Background and descriptions of flooded conditions related to vegetation and land cover types. Journal of Water Resources and Protection, 3(3). https://doi:10.4236/jwarp.2011.33018
Dorber, M., Arvesen, A., Gernaat, D., & Verones, F. (2020). Controlling biodiversity impacts of future global hydropower reservoirs by strategic site selection. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 21777–21777. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-78444-6
Calder, Schartup, A. T., Li, M., Valberg, A. P., Balcom, P. H., & Sunderland, E. M. (2016). Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities. Environmental Science & Technology, 50(23), 13115–13122. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.6b04447
UnDam the UN. (2021). Petition to call on the U.N. and its member governments to stop incentivizing new dams and start measuring methane from existing dams. https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/undam-the-united-nations?fbclid=IwAR3B0YPpLErUjhVB_c5xcuTlTSXSTjde1Gb_Lig_oFFlILL96xfKDQ29M9o
United Nations Climate Change Conference UK. (2021). COP 26: The Negotiations Explained. https://ukcop26.org/cop26-negotiations-explained/
 At a former conference of the parties (COP21), delegates from 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement. They committed to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally limiting it to 1.5 degrees C.