Who’s got the power? Ensuring energy justice in the transition to net zero

Rachel Bray and Rebecca Ford

Artwork: Dr Cécile Girardin

As our planet gets increasingly warmer due to human-induced temperature rises, climate change poses the biggest threat to our planet, its biodiversity and humanity. However, whilst many people globally are aware of climate change and that many things need to change, not many comprehend how transformational that change needs to be if we are to halt global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius this century. A key factor in this transformation will be placing people at the heart of policy and decision-making. Our new report sets out ways in which decision-makers can ensure this happens.

Opportunities and challenges of transition to clean energy

Our own area of research, the energy sector, is a key area for action, and the transition to clean energy is one of the UK’s five priority areas for COP26. This transition has the potential to impact a wide range of stakeholders– government, industry, business, communities, workers and members of the public. Alongside the potential benefits from creating green energy jobs, the transition to net-zero brings opportunities for beneficial social, political, and economic outcomes.

However, we are also faced with an era of unprecedented social and economic inequality, which are often amplified under the socio-economic disruptions associated with transitions. Without careful planning and policy making, the potential benefits and burdens of the net-zero transition are unlikely to be fairly distributed across society, with negative impacts disproportionately affecting those in lower socio-economic and minority groups.

Delivering a socially inclusive and equitable net zero transition

Against this backdrop there has been increasing recognition for the need to deliver a socially inclusive and equitable net-zero transition. There is a moral imperative to embed justice in the energy transition and underpin international agreements. Equally important, the transition to net-zero simply won’t happen at the pace and scale commensurate with the commitments being made by national, sub-state, and non-state actors if the values, needs, perspectives, and rights of the energy workforce and wider society are not accounted for.

The Covid crisis has shown us a glimpse of the inequalities faced by communities globally, which will only become greater as climate change worsens. It teaches us that those communities who have suffered most from the crisis could ultimately be those who also suffer most from climate change. It is important that we take action during the short window of opportunity we have to be prepared and proactive in how we tackle the climate crisis and deliver a just energy transition.

Why energy justice is important

Energy justice is important because for us, a large element is the moral imperative, bringing our attention to the very real human dimension of the energy transition, which can often be neglected by policies that focus primarily on cost or carbon. It’s essential that communities are resilient in the face of the massive changes to come, disruption is minimised and managed, and people have access to a clean energy future and the economic resources they need — to not just survive, but to thrive. And this requires action — not just from those communities at the sharp end of transition — but from a diversity of stakeholders across all levels of society.

This includes national policy makers and devolved governments — ensuring legislative change and polices that enable people to make adaptive change. This includes local governments — instilling energy justice principles into strategies and planning practices. This includes industry and business — incorporating ethical standards and being accountable (no more ‘greenwashing’). This includes communities — working together to support and educate each other on the scale of transformation needed. This includes us all making those lifestyle changes necessary to cause a ripple effect — and letting those above us in the decision-making hierarchy know that this matters to us.

Decision-makers in policy, business, and community organisations can ensure justice principles are embedded into their policies and strategies — at any level of decision-making- and we have provided a framework for considering how to put people into the heart of policy and decision-making, alongside the more traditional focus on economic, climate, and environmental impact.

The Energy Justice POINTs framework and associated questions can help decision-makers explore the wide-reaching energy justice implications of their net-zero visions, strategies, and policies. This could have benefits for a wide range of stakeholders, for instance, reducing regional economic disparities through targeted provision of jobs and training initiatives. It’s therefore important to design policies not just for the current system, but proactively for the future system that reflect on the questions of who wins/loses, how, why, and when, across time, geography, supply chains, and decision-making hierarchies.

For more information, please download our report here or follow up with us directly if you want to get involved in our ongoing work.

Catch up with Rebecca Ford’s presentations at Climate Exp0 via https://www.climateexp0.org

Climate Exp0 is the first virtual conference from the COP26 Universities Network and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS), sponsored by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Cambridge University Press, the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI), and the 2021 UN Climate Change Summit (COP26).

Running from 17–21 May 2021, it takes place at a critical juncture in the COP26 pre-meetings and negotiations, and is part of the All4Climate Italy 2021 official pre-COP26 initiatives. Learn more and register your place via https://www.climateexp0.org.

Climate Exp0 was the first virtual conference from the COP26 Universities Network and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS).