Plastics in water – a looming threat to energy transition


…highlighting the potential of renewable green energy

The race to net zero continues unabated as countries all over the world are striving to increase their renewable energy component and contribute to decarbonisation. The global energy transition has received global recognition, countries are currently undergoing a crucial energy transition toward sustainable and renewable sources – aiming to combat climate change and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

However, amid this transition there is a growing threat that often goes unnoticed: plastics in water. Plastics, particularly those in our oceans and freshwater systems, pose a significant threat to the energy transition; thus to renewable energy generated through water – i.e. mini-hydro, geothermal and hydrothermal energy. These renewable energy sources depend on the availability of water-bodies such as dams, rivers, streams, lakes and the mighty ocean.

Plastics in water crisis

Plastics have become an integral part of our daily lives, but their improper disposal and inadequate waste management have led to a global crisis. Every year, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans, causing severe harm to marine life, ecosystems and human health. The United Nations Environment Programme observes approximately 300 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is generated globally every year; this waste often finds its way into water sources including lakes, dams, rivers and the oceans.

An estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are in the world’s oceans, as stated by National Geographic. The pollution of water-bodies poses significant threats to marine and ocean life – over 800 marine species are affected by plastic pollution, with devastating consequences such as entanglement, ingestion and habitat destruction.

Plastic pollution disrupts the balance and functioning of ecosystems, affecting water quality, biodiversity and ecosystem services. It can harm fish populations, alter nutrient cycles and degrade habitats. The economic cost of marine pollution is significant to the global economy, the World Bank indicates it to be around US$13billion per year, including the damage caused to fisheries, tourism and maritime activities.

Plastics and the energy transition

The presence of plastics in water presents a direct threat to the energy transition on multiple fronts. The different activities in the use of plastics go on to affect the global ambitions of decarbonisation.

Firstly, the production of plastics is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the petrochemical sector – which includes plastic production – accounts for approximately 14 percent of global energy use. Countries continuous dependence on plastics indicates an indirect support to the fossil fuel industry, contradicting the global determined contributions pledge toward a sustainable energy future. In addition, the impact of plastics on marine ecosystems disrupts biodiversity and ecosystem services critical for supporting renewable energy infrastructure. For instance, plastics in the ocean can damage marine turbines used in offshore wind-farms, affecting their efficiency and reliability.

The potential of renewable energy generation depending on water

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the total renewable energy capacity reached 2,799 GW in 2020, accounting for 29.7 percent of the world’s total power capacity. Solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity alone exceeded 773 GW, while wind-power capacity surpassed 733 GW.

Additionally, hydropower accounted for approximately 1,211 GW of installed capacity. Amid the challenges posed by plastics in water, renewable energy generation emerges as a viable alternative – offering a sustainable and clean source of power. Renewable energy sources dependent on water, hydropower, Wind, Geothermal and Mini Hydrothermal have the potential to provide a significant portion of our energy needs while mitigating reliance on plastics and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydropower potential

Hydropower has long been a significant contributor to renewable energy generation. According to IRENA, hydropower accounted for approximately 1,211 GW of installed capacity in 2020, making it the largest renewable energy source. Hydropower’s capacity for energy generation, storage and grid stability continues to make it a reliable option. However, it is essential to balance hydropower development with sustainability and environmental considerations, so as to minimise potential negative impacts on ecosystems and local communities.

Wind power potential

Wind-power is another key player in the renewable energy sector, demonstrating tremendous growth and potential. The Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) reports that global wind-power capacity reached 743 GW by the end of 2020. Offshore wind-power in particular has seen significant advancements, with total global installed capacity exceeding 35 GW. The offshore wind sector is projected to expand further, with GWEC estimating a potential capacity of 234 GW by 2030. Wind-energy offers a reliable and clean source of electricity, with onshore and offshore wind-farms contributing to energy generation across the globe.

Geothermal power potential

Geothermal power has significant potential as a renewable energy source, offering a reliable and sustainable option for electricity generation. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the total installed capacity of geothermal power reached approximately 14 GW by the end of 2020. Unlike intermittent renewable sources like wind or solar, geothermal power plants provide a constant and uninterrupted power supply, making them ideal for baseload electricity generation.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), geothermal energy could supply up to 14 percent of the world’s electricity demand. Investing in geothermal energy not only reduces reliance on plastics but also fosters a cleaner and more resilient energy future. This represents a vast untapped potential for geothermal energy development. Geothermal resources are found in various regions across the world, making it possible to have more global appeal than other renewable energy sources.

Collaboration and action

To effectively address the threat of plastics in water to the energy transition, collaborative efforts and international cooperation are imperative. Governments, industries and civil society must work together to develop innovative solutions for plastic waste management and promoting sustainable practices.

The Ocean Plastics Charter, adopted by the G7 countries, is an example of a collective commitment to address marine plastic pollution. Simultaneously, multilateral partnerships and initiatives can facilitate knowledge-exchange, technological advancements and financial support for geothermal energy projects.


As the world continues to push for a sustainable energy future through energy transitions, the detrimental impact of plastics in water on the energy transition should not be ignored. To realise Net Zero by 2030, the world needs to adopt a holistic view to energy transition that encapsulates all other environmental resources affected including water, mineral resources and others.

This will ensure we achieve multiple goals among the SDGs and see us mitigate the reliance on plastics, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and foster a cleaner and more resilient world. With concerted efforts, supportive policies and international collaboration, we can overcome challenges and unlock the immense potential of geothermal energy, ensuring a sustainable path forward for generations to come.

>>>the writer is research, policy and programmes officer at the Institute for Energy Security (IES). He holds a certificate in Climate Change from Oxford Climate Society, a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce (Finance) from the University for Development Studies, and is currently a final-year student in Energy and Sustainability Management at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Yakubu has worked on different NGO projects focused on Agriculture and Food Security, Climate Change, Gender, Youth Development and is currently leading the IES project on New and Rare minerals and energy transition focused on Lithium Discovery in Ghana. He leads IES advocacy and media campaigns, and is widely listened to on issues of energy, energy management, policies and financing, and its impact for Development. Adam Yakubu is passionate about energy, natural resources and finance, and how these resources can be leveraged to impact the lives of vulnerable and excluded populations for accelerated growth and development.

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