Energy justice: bringing people back to the heart of energy decisions

This blog is based on conversations with Dr Kirsten Jenkins, who worked on Energy Justice and Transitions with Prof Benjamin Sovacool while at CIED. She has now moved on to a new role at the University of Brighton.

Energy issues are often treated as technical problems with technical fixes. In this context, scientists, economists and engineers are the people expected to deliver solutions to our climate crisis and policy makers rely on them to make decisions.

However, energy provision and use has a human side and a strong social justice dimension. Without a fair energy system for all, we can’t achieve truly sustainable development, which is underpinned by notions of equity and rights. Policy decisions regarding energy production and consumption, like all societal processes, have winners and losers. We need to understand where in the energy system injustices lie, to be able to achieve a fair and sustainable energy future, but how can we do so?

Energy justice: a new research agenda

Energy justice has emerged as a research agenda that seeks to apply justice principles in the areas of energy policy, energy production and systems, energy consumption, energy activism, energy security, the energy trilemma€, and the political economy of energy and climate change.

Policy makers grapple day to day with the challenge of creating a sustainable, secure and equitable energy system. They need to deliver policies on energy production and consumption that support economic growth while not leaving anyone behind. Is this possible?

Justice concerns should be at the heart of these decisions but they often end up being treated as technical problems: in the case of fuel poverty, the fuel poor need better insulated homes and support with their energy bills. That is how far considerations of fairness usually extend. As Kirsten pointed out in a 2017 paper, there is a tendency to split our energy systems into small, understandable pieces, but this negated the system-wide nature of the challenge. Furthermore, there is a tendency to not recognise the human side of the problem. Engagement with people who might be adversely affected by energy decisions is lacking.

Energy justice is introduced as an approach that could help policy makers take a more ‘whole systems’ view of the energy system, embedding justice considerations throughout the supply chain. It emphasizes the need to stop treating production and consumption as distinct outcomes and the need to recognise that fairness should be a factor when making decisions on what energy sources to use, not only when talking about energy services.

The three tenets of energy justice

Energy justice begins with questioning the ways benefits and ills are distributed, remedied and victims are recognised. To help with this process it relies on three tenets that help identify the concern, who is affected, and what strategies we require for remediation:

  1. Distributional justice
  2. Recognition-based justice
  3. Procedural justice

To explain the three tenets, I’d like to illustrate them with examples from CIED’s work.

Distributional justice

Distributional justice highlights the ways benefits, risks and responsibilities are divided unequally throughout the energy system. Energy decisions can affect people unequally, starting from where nuclear power plants or wind farms are located to who shoulders the burden of rising energy prices. Furthermore, energy choices can have global implications, which are often ignored.

Our colleague Dr Lucy Baker guest edited a special issue in Energy Research and Social Science, published this month, to which she contributed an article on embodied emissions. This article argues for accounting for emissions on the production side as well as that of consumption, to share the burdens fairly. Distributional justice can help identify these inequalities on a global level and embed a consideration for an equal distribution of the impacts of energy decisions.

Recognition-based justice

Who is justice for? Who enacts energy justice?

When talking about energy issues (including fuel poverty as an example) the language used is often very technical, with very little recognition of the human beings affected. Energy efficiency improvements are often funded through energy bills, which hits those we want to help the hardest. Recognition-based justice calls us to acknowledge who is being affected by energy decision-making and who is responsible for this.

energy cafeRecognising the validity of experiences of vulnerable individuals, or of communities affected by policy choices are key to achieving a fair energy system. One way to do so would be to offer more personalised, face-to-face help to those living in fuel poverty, for example. Listening to their experience and offering advice in a supportive setting, would make people feel valued and their problems recognised. At CIED we have looked at the phenomenon of energy cafes – community-run energy advice centres – and found that they need more stable funding models to function. These spaces, if properly funded and staffed with appropriately trained people, could provide face-to-face advice in a welcoming setting on a more permanent basis, aiding energy justice goals.

Procedural justice

Finally, procedural justice is strongly tied to the second pillar of recognition. It represents a call to involve all stakeholders in decision making in a non-discriminatory way. This could mean mobilising local knowledge for energy projects, disclosing information about energy consumption to facilitate more ethical and sustainable practices or achieving equal representation in institutions, for instance.

An interesting example that combines procedural and recognition-based justice is Dr Nicolette Fox’s project ‘Here comes the sun’ (Youtube video). Dr Fox studied the effectiveness of solar panels in reducing energy consumption and fuel poverty, working with families in Brighton and Hove. The solar panels led to these families changing their routines and reducing their consumption, becoming empowered through ‘pro-suming’, producing their own energy. This is a great example of people being recognised and engaged in the energy system.

Justice beyond energy justice?

Energy justice is a relative new concept in academia, with the primary body of policy-oriented literature dating back to 2013 (although similar notions existed long before then). As Kirsten pointed out, authors in this field welcome criticism and reflection in order to to refine the concept and make it more empirically applicable. Thinking about poverty, about the interconnectedness of the world’s problems, I asked her: why isolate energy? Shouldn’t energy justice be part of a wider social justice agenda? Can we have a fair energy system when our economic system is leaving so many behind?

Energy justice is an avenue in. It is a way to start tackling injustices across the energy system and hopefully it will affect the rest. Bringing the human aspect back into energy decisions is certainly welcome. After all, justice is at the heart of a sustainable future.


Further reading:

Baker, L. (2018) Of embodied emissions and inequality: Rethinking energy consumption. Energy Research and Social Science 36 pp.52-60.

Heffron, R. and McCauley, D. (2014) Achieving Sustainable Supply Chains through Energy Justice. Applied Energy 123 pp.435-437.

Jenkins, K., Sovacool, B. and McCauley, D. (2018) Humanizing sociotechnical transitions through energy justice: An ethical framework for global transformative change. Energy Policy. (Accepted)

Jenkins, K., McCauley, D.,Heffron, R., Stephan, H., Rehner, R. (2016) Energy justice: A conceptual review. Energy Research and Social Science Vol.11 pp. 174—182.

Martiskainen, M., Speciale, G., Bird, J. (2017) Alleviating fuel poverty: the role of the energy cafe. CIED Policy Brief.