Energy Justice - what is it, and why does it matter?

Energy Justice - what is it, and why does it matter?

So, when environmentalists mention "energy justice", what is it they're really talking about, and why can't they give you a simple answer? If you look up Energy Justice, you get something filled with jargon that reads something along the lines of, “a multi-layered, human-centric theoretical approach that challenges injustice and inequality in the energy sector”. Yet, in the vocabulary of climate campaigning, this term crops up more and more. Why is that? Well you’ve probably heard the phrase, “a just and fair transition”, which is about looking after people and communities in industries that are destined to suffer major disruption as a result of a transition to a carbon neutral or carbon negative economy. Fundamentally that’s about not leaving people behind.

Putting aside the jargon, international energy justice is the same thing, but on a global scale. Developed nations have had access to fossil-fuelled energy and the many products and impacts of that for decades before the need to adapt to climate change reared its head. Everything from our household gadgets, to our building codes, to our roads, healthcare, education, and dietary habits are all influenced by the long access that we have had to this energy resource.

Today,  billions of people live in countries which are only barely beginning to realise these same benefits that we have, and we’re telling them they can’t do it the easy way - the way we did it - they have to use cleaner energy sources. This forces communities into adopting systems which are novel technologies, despite those technologies still leaving modern nations grappling with the challenges. For example, India is the fastest growing consumer of solar power, which means they must grapple with the need to build a grid designed for distributed solar power input and storage. They must do this despite conventional understanding and standards being structured for more centralised grids, and despite countries like Germany currently struggling with building a solution even though they have vastly greater resources and education per capita to put towards the problem.

This, then, is where the justice part of energy justice comes in. We have lived with the benefits of energy for multiple generations. The amount of inherited societal advantage that developed nations have is significant, and currently developing nations are clamouring to realise those benefits for themselves.

But Is It Necessary?

Detractors might say that poorer nations have had plenty of opportunity to use energy and create wealth, so how does it hurt to keep them waiting a little longer? 

But the simple reality is that whether they realise those benefits through clean energy or dirty energy; or whether they take those benefits by force out of desperation, we cannot deny nearly half of all of humanity from attempting to gain what others have had for decades. Millions of people have, and are, willing to throw their lives at the problem via military conflict to achieve these benefits. History shows they will get them one way or another, or they will die trying. 

Our choices then are between facilitating their development being powered by clean energy, or engaging in a massive military campaign to keep it from them. A physical embargo on fossil fuels would require enormous military force, which itself would cause incalculable carbon emissions − incalculable because nations typically refuse to reveal the emissions of their militaries.

We can see from many graphs, like this one, the close correlation between energy use and GDP. There is money to be made in developing nations by offering them access to energy, so this is not some idea that developed countries must somehow subsidise developing ones.

What justice in energy does actually mean, is taking policy positions in the battle against energy security in a climate crisis, that leverage and empower the systems and peoples of our world to make clean energy accessible to more than just the developed world. It would be possible to invest in energy economies of scale until you could reap profits off the developed world, and sit very happily on that - but Energy Justice calls to actively look further, and to take the gamble on investing until those economies of scale for energy technology are accessible to those still without energy at all. 

To stop climate change, it’s not enough for Australia and all of Europe to switch over to solar and wind − if there are still 3 billion people in Africa and India who go on to choose to achieve their energy future through coal, gas, and oil. A just energy future means sharing the technologies for clean energy. It means investing in the manufacturing industries until clean energy costs become accessible to everyone. It means making energy a commodity that can be distributed as needed to resolve humanitarian challenges. 

As global citizens, achieving energy justice means forging links between more and less developed neighbours. Whether those neighbours are geographic neighbours, economic trade partners, or diplomatically connected, a just energy future requires a collaborative approach to solving the clean energy needs of our climate-affected world, together. Leaving no nation behind.

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