Carpathian resistance: has the “green blessing” turned to a “green curse”?

In an attempt to gain energy independence from neighbouring Russia, Ukraine  has adopted dream-like tariffs and tax exemptions for green energy. The Ukrainian experience showcases that the “green economy”  is not just about taxes, tariffs, and technologies. But if we are, in fact, serious about building true democracy and addressing the climate crisis, we first need to change society and its attitude toward the world.

Among the post-USSR countries, Ukraine is a champion of green energy. In the last years, unprecedented efforts were made to stimulate small and green participants in the  energy market. A dream-like “green tariff” was introduced for several types of renewables that allowed the supplier to sell  “green energy” to the grid for a price much higher than the “regular” price. It especially stimulated small distributed generation, since the price of energy from very small  plants 0,2-1,0 MWt was sufficiently higher than for more powerful ones (1-10 MWt). Last but not least – some“green energy” producers were exempted for  10 years from  tax on their profits.

Theoretically,  the preferential treatment was generous enough to promote flourishing local generation benefiting locals, business, and the Ukrainian state, which now seek independence from Russian gas and oil. Instead, in  the Carpathians mountains in Western Ukraine, severe conflict between businessmen interested in the abundant hydro-power potential of the region, and environmentalists,  who are trying  to protect their beloved rivers and mountains in collaboration with locals, has been instigated.

“On June 17 2014, villagers of Goloshyno and Bila Rechka  established checkpoint and blocked the road leading towards Romania along the Bili Cheremosh river. This desperate move  of the highlanders was triggered by the administration’s inability to stop the construction of small hydropower plants in the Verkhovynsky area by Hydropower company” wrote Olexi Vasiliuk, an anti-hydropower activist

Even local city councils were not always ready to cheer the “pioneers” of the green energy: “A session of Chertkovsky Town Council (Ternopol District) second time refused to support the construction of small hydro plant at Seret River (Dniester’s left inflow)”. -

The fears of environmentalists and locals are easy to understand – it’s enough to look at the photos from the construction sites to see the damage to mountain landscape.

A small hydropower station in Carpathians – pryroda.in.ua

A scene near a mountain river – pryroda.in.ua

More tubes … – pryroda.in.ua

Locals are deeply dependant on tourism, and have all reason to be concerned:

“We understand that the increase in water outflow [to the hydroplant] will decrease the level of water in the river, and the level of the groundwater. We all live along the river, and our wells will be emptied. We have  an example of the Proboynovka river, where two hydro plants are in operation, and where we can see that the water at times disappears, is dirty, and contains oil” – a local resident Tamara Timofiychuk said. “Nobody asked the local community for permission. They explode rock, it will provoke landslides. When the river is blocked, trout will disappear. And what kind of tourism can we expect, if the river will flow inside giant rusty tubes along few kilometers? That’s why we are strongly against any hydro power plants, we need it [our land] to be a recreation zone,  with untouched nature as it must remain forever”

The construction workers have already been fined for damage to the river fish population – but looks like small fines can do nothing where potential profit is high.

Laughingly  the reaction of the “green businessmen” was stunningly similar to those of a fossil-fuel company like Gazprom – from ignoring results of public hearings or promoting massive PR-campaigns against  the environmentalists  - to even the use of paramilitary units to secure the construction from the locals.

Nevertheless, local activists got some success – the construction of at least four plants was recently cancelled, few more are still disputed. This outcome could be welcomed, but it was accompanied by really bad news – the “tax vacations” for green energy were cancelled by the Ukrainian Parliament.  Little doubt, the widespread opposition to the small hydropower plants played its role in taking this decision, and can further fuel public disbelief in a “green energy” – to the profit of the lobbyists of even worse decisions like shale gas or even coal . The question of how long the “green tariff” will survive remains unanswered.

What has gone wrong, and why has the “green energy” become the curse for both locals and the environment? It is extremely important to have an answer to this question, because the situation is very commonplace for the entire region. Recently, I witnessed a similar situation in Georgia – a small hydro power plant allegedly built by a Turkish company  without any environmental assessment near a protected area, without the consent from locals.  It is not a problem of hydropower only – any “green industry” is still considered industrial, and has thus the ability to inflict serious damage  to the environment. And, as we can see, sometimes its way to “solve” the problems doesn’t differ too much from that of any other  industry.

First of all, let’s take a look at how the projects in Carpathians were implemented. Nobody asked for the locals’ consent on whether they needed more electric power. Nobody was interested in their opinion about the type of a plant (hydro, solar, wind) or its placement they preferred. Often locals found out about the construction just after it had begun – a typical situation in the post-Soviet space. The same scenario was seen in the  Khimki forest scandal , and in many other dangerous projects. Often, governmental officials have proper “motivation” from businesses to openly support such projects or, at least,  turn a blind eye to multiple violations of the law. In the case of Carpathians, Ukrainian activists blame corruption rooted back to the Yanukowitch regime, which they seem to have ground for.  Thus, the lack of democracy  and abundance of corruption played a key role in turning the “green blessing” into a “green curse”. That’s why the first obvious and necessary condition to make the “green economy” benefit both society and environment  is a social transformation: implementing democracy and fighting corruption. Without public pressure – bureaucrats and business will always find the “common ground” at the expense of both the public and the environment. Hopefullly today Ukraine has enough will and power to move forward with democratic reforms and fighting corruption, despite all the external and internal problems.

But is it always enough to promote public participation and avoid open corruption to make the “green solutions” really green? Personally, I am not sure. We can see, for example, how fracking companies can lobby their interest in countries with old traditions of democracy, like USA  . And locals are not always the best allies for the environmentalists – especially if they are offered a share in the income from the destruction of nature.  I remember an American activist who told me about her fight for Amazon rainforests – after realizing that cutting down jungle trees allows locals to enlarge their crops to grow more profitable “green” biofuel – they turned into worst foes of  the environmentalists.

That’s why the second necessary condition for the true green progress is spread of conservation ideas in society, which entails an understanding of the fact that Nature has value incommensurable with all the income generated by its destruction. Only such feelings can successfully deter the lobbyists of dangerous projects – regardless of their embellished stories about “green energy” or “energy independence” they often like to share. We can see that the temptation to get  “quick solutions” regardless  of local people’s opinion or damage to the local environment has ultimately the opposite effect. The society ends up disappointed not only with the proposed solutions, but with the very idea of  a “green energy”, which has detrimental long-term consequences. That’s why listening to people and conservation of local nature are essential parts of the climate change fight.

Thus, the true “green economy” is not just about taxes, tariffs, or technologies, but rather about the transformation of society as a whole and its attitude vis-a-vis the world. This is a very complicated task – but it is essential.

A good example of a responsible approach to  the implementation of “green” solutions are the projects developed within climate workroom agenda. They are small yet, but they represent the right kind of relationship where local interests are  taking into account from the very beginning. Hope authorities and business will be able to turn to these kinds of projects – both in Ukraine and everywhere else.

You can support Ukrainian activists fighting for Carpathians rivers by signing their petition

 

 

 

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