Energy Justice in a World in Flux

At the recent COP26 in Glasgow, Kadri Simons, European Commissioner for energy, said the following:

When we talk about the energy transition, we are talking about radically changing our way of life – for the better […] This will be a transition of hearts and minds.

We can’t forget that some people, some communities, will face greater challenges than others.

If the only livelihood you or generations of your family have ever had is based on fossil fuels, then the transition could be a rather frightening prospect.

We believe that the just transition is a key issue of the climate fight: we must leave no one behind.

This is why the EU has made just transition a key pillar of the European Green Deal – our energy and climate strategy.

This speech illustrates that the question of justice is gaining prominence in the domain of energy policy. And it should be, because after all the goal of the energy transition is to make the world a better place to live in.

Also in academic research, the topic of energy justice is given more and more attention. Especially the tenet-based approach is popular. This approach provides a framework by which energy policies can be evaluated on: the way they distribute benefits and ills; the fairness by which decision-makers engage with the people who are affected by these policies are executed; and the remediation of the section of society that are ignored or underrepresented.

To engage with this emerging topic, the TPM Energy Transition Lab has set up a series of seminars in which the researchers from the faculty have shown their take on energy justice. The following themes have been addressed so far:

  • Reflections on the tenet-approach to energy justice
  • Energy justice in countries from the Global South
  • The role that modelling methods can play in normative issues
  • The inclusion of marginalised groups in the European transition policy

These themes most certainly deserve more extensive and in-depth investigation. Moreover, there are other themes that are still waiting to be explored, but what can be inferred at this moment is that our research reveals that the tenet-based approach works well as an evaluative framework for given policies, but it is also a framework that is very much static. This can be problematic given the fact that the energy transition is not so much the transformation of the economy, it is the transformation of the sociotechnical systems that underlie the economy. This implies that we are dealing with a situation that is fundamentally dynamic, and justice frameworks should account for these dynamics. We should consider justice for a world in flux. I think that at TPM, we are the designated group to take on this challenge, as I will explain below.

However, I will first introduce a number of deeply interrelated factors that are subjected to change in the energy transition that will have an impact on justice issues:

  • An obvious point is that technologies New energy systems will bring about new practices and routines. What these new practices and routines will exactly lead up to is highly uncertain, but they will surely have an impact on the distribution between ills and benefits. The changes in technology have an effect on many factors as well, as can be seen below.
  • The concepts with which we understand reality and measure progress change. For instance, think about the way that the energy transition is predominantly understood in terms of the decarbonisation of the economy. The speech of Kadri Simons already hints that this understanding has now come to include socio-economic issues as well. As the transition proceeds, we may expect more attention for material flows and the exhaustion of scarce metals. Other concepts that may change is our conception of climate change itself. Now the climate is seen is ‘nature’ that is being polluted by mankind, but for instance due to geo-engineering we may come to see the climate as a ‘manmade’ thing.
  • Values that we cherish today, may be replaced by values we do not have ‘discovered’ yet. Related to the energy transition, we now emphasise energy security, affordability and sustainability as key values. It was not that long ago that we did not know the value of sustainability was added. In fact, sustainability and ecological awareness are new values to start with, conquering nature by technical dominance has been a driving force to measure progress until at least the 1950s. Also energy security and affordability may change: black-outs may become obsolete or regularities; energy poverty a relic of the past, or accepted as a fact of life.
  • Not only values, but also the moral principles by which we asses justice may prove to be volatile. Currently most attention goes out to groups and communities who suffer from the energy transition in terms of recognition and well-being. Justice means that ‘everyone gets what’s due’, what that means however can be understood differently and will also be applied differently in different contexts.
  • Indeed, the people that are affected by the energy transition may change over time. In other words, those who are the winners and losers of the transition today, may not be the winners and losers in the longer run. In this respect it is interesting to see how fossil fuel companies increasingly picture themselves as the victims of the energy transition, while these are always seen as the epitaph of incumbency. For instance, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, felt it was unfair to the company that the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the oil company has to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% in 2030.
  • This volatility of moral issues has to do with the fact that energy transition policies form wicked problems. These are problems about which there is no agreement on the problem definition and the solution. Such wicked problems are dealt with in society in moral terms. Policies are not right or wrong, they are good or bad. And as society is characterised by moral pluralism, there will always be section who become angry with any policy.
  • If the distributive and procedural effects of policies are perceived to be unjust or if groups of people feel ignored they will not accept these policies and projects. They will come to protest the legitimacy of the energy transition, creating delay or even the termination of the decarbonisation policies. However, these feelings of injustice emerge as a reaction to proposed policies, from these societal reactions new values and concerns emerge that need to be taken into account if one aspires a transition that accounts for all relevant values.
  • Related to this issue is that policies and projects are usually seen as discrete events that can be evaluated as isolated processes, while energy controversies are characterised by spill-overs ­– they are inspired by conflicts that have taken place elsewhere. For instance, the discussion about shale gas exploration in the Netherlands has been motivated by debates taking place in the US and in the UK. It cannot be predicted whether and which type spill-overs will take place, meaning that decision-makers cannot anticipate the way in which society will assess a certain energy policy.
  • A just energy transition is not a mere European matter. History has a long tail and the injustices caused by colonialism tend to persist. On the one hand, this is manifested in transition that take place within former colonies which are too often still characterised by failing institutions, socio-economic inequality and corruption. On the other hand, and this is not often realised, the renewable energy system reproduces colonial patterns of the fossil-based energy system. One may only think of the materials that are mined under bad labour conditions in the global South, while rich countries enjoy the clean energy at the other end of the supply chain.

This tentative list of justice-related issues that are in flux means that a static framework does not suffice. So, what is so special about TPM that it is precisely our faculty can contribute to our further command of energy justice? I think this is because we are not afraid to break down silos between different disciplines, but we are ready align the attention for values, governance and systems’ engineering. Just to mention some strengths, there is expertise on participatory methods, controversy research, dealing with empirical and normative uncertainties, value change, energy democracy, and institutional economics. Bringing these strengths together will allow TPM to develop a unique approach to energy justice in a world that is in flux ­– and make the world a bit better.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • LinkedIn