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What is energy justice?

Energy underpins nearly everything we do – and energy policy is responsible for addressing how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed around the globe, whether at community, organisational or governmental level. And this doesn’t come without its challenges.

Heated debates, activism and protests often emerge from core challenges at the heart of the energy sector, with movements such as Extinction Rebellion protesting at large across the world since the group’s establishment in 2018, calling for radical change to our global energy system. Extinction Rebellion aim to compel government action in order to avoid tipping points in the climate system. Similarly, in 2016, the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline protest became a uniting cry for indigenous rights and climate change in the US and beyond. Providing affordable, reliable, sustainable and clean energy is a priority for us all (UN SDG 7), but this is particularly pressing for the millions of people who have no access to electricity or rely on biomass for cooking today.

While the energy sector has revolutionised the world for the better in many ways, it is a double-edged sword that continues to raise a host of economic, political, and social issues across the globe. With so much inequality in the energy system, policymakers have started to recognise that such systems need to be designed in a way that combats injustices and promotes fairer energy for all.


Defining energy justice

Energy justice is a multi-layered, human-centric theoretical approach that challenges injustice and inequality in the energy sector. It does this by recognising who should have a say when energy systems are being designed and deployed, and what the implications of such systems are and to whom. It aims to achieve equality between social, economic, and political participation in the energy system and, ultimately, make the whole system more ethical.

Energy justice adds a human dimension to the energy system, which has been traditionally considered from a more technological and economic perspective. Energy justice therefore poses a central question: how can justice theory help people make meaningful decisions about the production, delivery, use, and impacts of energy? In answering this question, energy and technology must be assessed with long-standing notions of virtue, utility, happiness, welfare, freedom, distributive justice, and procedural justice.


Combating injustices within the global energy system

Unfortunately, there are many injustices associated with the global energy system and energy justice strives to address these. Our leading academics explore 8 of these injustices on our Energy Policy MSc (online) Energy Justice module:

1. Energy inefficiencies
2. Energy externalities
3. Human rights and social conflict
4. Energy and due process
5. Energy poverty, access and welfare
6. Energy subsidies
7. Energy resources and future generations
8. Climate change

In recent years, policymakers have started to focus on how we can transition from a fossil fuel based energy system to a low-carbon energy system, which poses challenges related to the loss of fossil fuel industry jobs, the decline of industrial communities, and impacts on personal identities and family histories, in old industries like coal or oil. To address this multitude of challenges, energy justice can be used also as a policy tool to identify issues and solutions for those who are being harmed or disadvantaged by the energy transition.

There are big debates happening around how energy justice policies can help remediate those communities harmed by the energy system in the past. One approach is to consider the global supply chain and tracing various impacts on communities throughout the whole energy system, from production to distribution. These learnings can then be applied to the whole supply chain, with global policies and agreements, such as the Responsible Minerals Initiative, designed to alleviate injustices across global resource supply chains. Others argue that the focus should be on local action, since we have the power and resources to make more of an impact locally than globally. Both global and local solutions need to work together, however, in order to bring about transformational change.

The materiality of decarbonisation and renewable energy development is another example of energy injustice that warrants critical reflection. The rare earth elements and metals used in making solar photovoltaic or lithium batteries are finite resources. And the current method of extraction carries vast negative environmental and social impacts in countries where these minerals are extracted, and the local people involved in this process bear the unaccounted costs of externalities (Sovacool et al 2020).

Ultimately, energy justice aims to create an inclusive model for the energy transition, allowing everyone to engage with the energy sector instead of being dominated by those with wealth and power. However, energy justice cannot fix politics – and governments remain responsible for ensuring that the principles of procedural justice, openness and inclusivity, are taken into consideration in policy making processes. Energy justice recognises that ensuring lots of voices are heard is needed more than ever, and exercises such as the Climate Assembly UK are important in bringing together people from different walks of life to tackle urgent problems like climate change.


Initiatives bringing about real change

Meet Repowering – an organisation empowering some of London’s most deprived communities to fund, install and manage their own clean, local energy through solar PV deployment on local rooftops and social housing. Repowering’s projects generate locally-owned, clean energy through a business model that both educates and puts money back into the community.

In Spain, where green energy suppliers are scarce and community-owned solar parks are not widespread, Som Energia are providing a democratic alternative to the Spanish energy oligopoly. Founded by staff and students of University in Catalonia, Som Energia aims to promote to promote a renewable energy model that’s both efficient and in the hands of the citizens, while also encouraging the growth of a more social and supportive economy.

New York based start-up LO3 Energy has teamed up with Siemens to create a pilot microgrid using blockchain technology. Residents in Brooklyn with solar panels can sell excess energy back to their neighbours. These microgrids also minimise the amount of energy lost through transmission, offer an economical boost to the local community, and allow the community to choose green energy.


How can we help?

Achieving energy justice requires an approach that asks governments, industry and practitioners to make changes to unequal policy structures and implement new policy to tackle injustices, instead of placing the burden on individuals and communities. However, at a citizen-level, we can mobilise to promote energy justice by:

  • Reducing our ecological and carbon footprint
  • Switching to sustainable energy, organisations, diets, and transport
  • Making sustainable consumer choices to encourage change to markets
  • Joining volunteer community energy groups and local sustainability forums that focus on sustainability at a neighbourhood scale
  • Collective switching, where a group negotiate a group deal with a utility service
  • Make our voices heard and question injustice with energy suppliers and organisations
  • Asking questions like who made this decision, who was listened to in the process, and what impact does it have?


Dive deeper into energy policy and justice theory

Want to find out more? Explore justice theory and examine policy mechanisms that promote energy justice by analysing case studies from around the world as part of the Energy Justice module on our online Energy Policy Masters course.

Develop your understanding and gain the critical and systemic thinking needed to steer the shift towards sustainable energy in the public, private and third sectors. Building on the influential research of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), you’ll be taught by leading academics who are developing new interdisciplinary thinking in energy policy and applying this to contemporary challenges around the world.

Visit the energy policy course page to find out more.