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Rio+20 in the Rear View: Why We Need to Connect the Grassroots to the Grasstops

Sarah Martin and Gayatri Gadag also contributed to this blog post.

Rio+20 may have ended more than three weeks ago, but the environmental and development communities are still feeling the disappointment. One of the biggest shortcomings was the lack of collaboration between citizen groups (the “grassroots”) and the policy research organizations that influence policymakers (the “grasstops”).

As WRI’s Manish Bapna points out, “A gap and lack of coordination between grassroots and grasstops institutions was evident during the Rio+20 summit. Advancing sustainable development in a meaningful way hinges on bridging this gap.” In other words, creating political will and building the constituency necessary to support the policy changes being advocated for requires collaboration between different segments of civil society.

Expanding Clean Energy Access

Bridging the grassroots-grasstops divide is especially necessary when it comes to clean energy access, an issue that received much attention at Rio+20 as a result of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4A) initiative. SE4A is a global initiative that aims to mobilize action from all sectors of society to support universal access to modern energy services, improve energy efficiency, and increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. However, actually expanding clean energy access will require cooperation between think tanks, institutions, governments, and the citizens who are most in need of sustainable energy access.

WRI’s Electricity Governance Initiative Aims to Connect the Grassroots to the Grasstops

In order to expand clean energy access, WRI’s Electricity Governance Initiative (EGI) seeks to foster collaboration between the grassroots and the grasstops. In preparation for Rio+20, we engaged with both the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), an influential grasstops organization, and the BASIC South Initiative (BSI), a consortium of civil society organizations in the global South. With SEI, we co-authored a multi-think tank report, Energy for Shared Development Agenda: Global Scenarios and Governance Implications, which was presented at the Rio+20 summit. The report explores the implications of providing electricity access to all by 2050 while reducing global greenhouse gas emissions through methods that offer a 60 percent chance of keeping global temperature increases below 2°C. The report offers two scenarios for achieving this goal: The first assumes that average incomes in poorest countries don’t change, and only basic energy services are provided, such as cooking and lighting. The other assumes that all countries will achieve at least middle income levels and will require more than basic services, including energy for productive commercial uses and a broader range of modern appliances. While the report concludes that meeting this climate mitigation objective is challenging, it highlights several case studies that present an optimistic picture of what can be achieved when bottom-up as well as top-down approaches are employed.

Two of the report’s case studies feature EGI’s partners’ efforts in South Africa (Idasa, Green Connection,, South African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute and Project 90x2030) and Thailand (Sustainable Energy Network Thailand, Healthy Public Policy Foundation, Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, and Palang Thai). These groups have been pushing to include a greater variety of stakeholders in the electricity planning process in their respective countries.

By using approaches that connect the grassroots’ concerns to energy decision-makers, both countries have included energy efficiency and renewable energy in electricity planning. They have also helped make the planning process more sophisticated. In South Africa, civil society organizations and renewable energy businesses convinced planners to distinguish between renewable energy technologies so that the costs and trends of each technology could be more precisely understood and planned. This helped increase the share of renewable energy in South Africa’s long-term electricity plan by almost 50 percent.

In Thailand, civil society organizations used WRI’s Electricity Governance Toolkit to demonstrate how incentives for energy companies must be realigned to promote accountability for electricity investments. Moreover, partners also developed an alternative power development plan that emphasized the role of non-technical stakeholders while also using more technical forecasting methodologies, thus integrating both top-down and bottom-up approaches into Thailand’s energy planning process

The integration of the role of grassroots organizations in pressing for change made the case studies attractive to BSI. BSI adapted them for their own report presented at Rio, "An Endless Wait with an Uncertain Future." In other words, even the promotion of these top-down and bottom-up approaches involved the grassroots and grasstops.

Moving Forward

Overall, Rio+20 failed to involve all stakeholders in development discussions. But as EGI’s work and the case studies from South Africa and Thailand showcase, bottom-up pressure is an important and effective driver for shifting towards a more sustainable energy future. Providing opportunities for grassroots organizations to engage with the grasstops and participate in decision-making can also lead to more transparent and inclusive governance processes. We have a long way to go to strengthen the connection between the grassroots and grasstops, but it’s a strategy that’s needed in order to ensure that long-term energy planning is an open-door decision that represents the interests of multiple stakeholders.

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