Coping with new values in the energy transition

Technologies and values

Ethicists tend to view values as enduring or long-lasting beliefs about what is good or desirable. Examples of values are sustainability, affordability, and fairness. Technologies are considered to be value-laden; they shape the actions and decisions of people and can therefore never be truly dissociated from the values that they infringe or help to realize. Approaches such as Value-Sensitive Design help evaluate the impact of technologies on values. Technological designs can be adjusted, or new technologies can be invented to ensure better consideration of values. This is the basis of technological innovation; the smart meter was introduced to decrease the tension between supply security (i.e., maintaining the electricity grid’s reliability) and sustainability (i.e., increasing the share of intermitted renewables).

New values in the energy transition

Ideally, we would want to design technologies that consider all relevant values from the start. However, this is more the exception than the rule. Next to the fact that the realization of some values might be in conflict (sustainable products often tend to be less affordable), we often only discover the true impact of technologies after they are deployed in society. Case and point are justice and fairness issues caused by energy transition technologies and policies. The yellow vest movement in France emerged as a result of new green taxes imposed by the government. The burden of increased fuel prices is heavier for the working classes and households living in rural areas. Similarly, the deployment of electric cars could reduce the number of gas stations, making refueling more difficult for households that do not have the means to purchase EVs.

How new values are picked up in science

Science has a crucial role in picking up new values and translating them into new, improved technologies. At the Energy Transition Lab and the ERC project ‘Design for Value Change,’ we are developing a text-mining tool entitled ValueMonitor that helps trace values in text corpora. We have created a dataset consisting of energy transition-related research in a number of scientific fields, including philosophy of sustainability, environmental biology, and environmental economics. Next, we have explored how frequently the values economic viability and justice & fairness have been named in the different scientific fields over time.

Figure 1 shows the frequency of economic viability and justice & fairness in the entire dataset. The figure shows that, while economic viability is a value considered since the beginning of energy transition-related research, justice & fairness seem to be a value that was only discussed later in time. The fact that economic viability is mentioned much more frequently also raises questions about the adequate prioritization of both values in research.

Figure 1: Value change in energy transition-related literature.

Focusing on specific fields can help understand how new values are picked-up in science. Figure 2 to 4 show values change in three distinct fields: philosophy of technology, environmental biology, and environmental economics. In philosophy of technology, economic viability and justice & fairness appear at the same moment in time in this literature, already in the 1990’s. In environmental biology, both values seem to have integrated the field over time, although discussions about justice & fairness are still fairly new. Justice & fairness issues seem to be still relatively absent from the environmental economics literature, although there has been a slight increase starting from 2020.

Observations of value change in the three fields seem to suggest a certain temporal order in the way ethical issues are addressed in the different fields. Philosophy and ethics of technology research have a essential role in discovering new ethical issues caused by technologies. A substantial number of articles in this dataset are indeed about tensions economics and fairness aspects of the energy transition. Moral concerns are then progressively integrated into other fields, who potentially provide new regulatory and technical solutions to these concerns. This perceived temporal order however has to be somehow nuanced. Some justice and fairness issues already seem to have been discussed in environmental economics before they were addressed in journals of philosophy of sustainability. On the other side, philosophy of sustainability journals are also more recent.

The need for interdisciplinary research to timely address new values

A concept central to the Energy Transition Lab is the one of interdisciplinary research. While multidisciplinary research limits itself to collaboration between scientific fields, interdisciplinary research goes a step beyond by trying to integrate knowledge and methods from different disciplines. Clearly, anticipating all values relevant to new technologies seem utopic. Therefore, it is crucial that science responds to unforeseen societal challenges in a timely manner, some fields uncovering new moral problems, others providing technological and regulatory solutions. Similarly, there is also a need for tools that can help us evaluate and support the scientific community’s response to these new challenges. A prototype and more information about the ValueMonitor tool used to perform this analysis can be found on the following website:

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