The need for a just and sustainable energy sector

November 29, 2022


From the previous section, we have established the need to transition from fossil-fuel dependent energy sources to renewable energy sources. In addition, we have also seen that it is not enough to use renewable energy sources as these have caused various environmental, social, economic and cultural issues. Additional characteristics of renewable energy sources needs to be identified and considered for a just and sustainable energy sector and industry.


Just Energy

Energy justice is closely related to environmental justice and climate justice. Environmental justice is “the principle that all people and communities have the right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.” [1] It comes from the recognition that there are communities that are negatively affected by activities and policies that disrupt ecological balance and that certain groups are disproportionately affected. In addition, these groups have less capacities to cope with these impacts, have less or no access to information about these activities and policies, and have less or no decision-making power over them. [2] Environmental justice fights back against systemic issues, promotes more sustainable and healthier communities and aims to improve the quality of life for those who are impacted. [3] The concept originated in the USA in the 1960s with the aim of ensuring the protection of black people as well as low income and other minority groups. [4]

With the increasing awareness and understanding of climate change through the years, it became evident that it is also a justice issue. There are three reasons according to Harlan, et al. (2015), “First, there are causes of climate change: social inequalities drive overconsumption, a key source of unsustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the impacts of climate change are unequally felt by the rich and poor and disparate impacts will continue to increase in future generations. Third, policies designed to manage climate change have starkly unequal consequences, and the processes are decided tend to exclude the poor and the powerless.” [5] Therefore, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, climate justice “is a term used for framing global warming as an ethical and political issue, rather than one that is purely environmental or physical in nature. This is done by relating the effects of climate change to concepts of justice, particularly environmental justice and social justice and by examining issues such as equality, human rights; collective rights, and the historical responsibilities for climate.” [6]

Energy justice is part of the environmental justice and climate justice concept and movement. It recognizes structural pillars of energy injustice, according to Lee and Byrne (2019). The first characteristic of the modern energy system is having a preference for large-scale technical systems and distancing from local decision-making processes. This means that primacy is placed on efficiency of production while having less consideration for local participation. The second characteristic is centralizing energy production and distancing supply from users which results supposedly in low-cost power but has governance implications at the local level. And lastly, it has a ‘risk-taking’ tendency as a necessity for technological innovation and social progress which accepts the principles of ‘necessary risk’ and ‘normal accidents’. [7]

Despite have numerous definitions and descriptions, energy justice is often broken down into three tenets. According to Jenkins et al. (2016), the first aspects is distributive justice which looks into where injustices emerge such as the location of production facilities. The second aspect is recognition-based justice which focuses on which sections of society are ignored and misrepresented. The last aspect is procedural justice which explores the ways in which decision-makers have sought to engage with communities. [8]

Eight core principles were then developed subsequently from the three tenets according to Sauraw (n.d.): [9]

  1. the availability principle urges to have sufficient modern energy resources;
  2. the affordability principle argues that all people, including the poor, should get energy at a reasonable cost and should pay no more than 10 per cent of their income for energy services;
  3. the due process principle requires countries to follow the rule of law and human rights in their production and use of energy;
  4. the good governance principle implies that all people should have access to all information regarding energy and environment, and citizens must be able to participate in fair, transparent and accountable forms of the energy decision-making process;
  5. the sustainability principle is an obligation on the state to ensure long-term sustainable energy development with prudent management and to confirm sustainable use and sovereign rights over natural resources;
  6. the intragenerational equity principle is a principle which emphasizes that people have the right to fairly access a certain set of minimal energy services enabling them to enjoy a basic minimum of well-being;
  7. the intergenerational equity principle suggests future generations have a right to enjoy a good life undisturbed by the damage our energy systems inflict on the world today; and finally,
  8. the responsibility principle refers to the duty of all nations to protect the natural environment and its sustainability as well as diminish energy-related environmental threats.

Energy justice is also defined as referring to “achieving equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system, while also remediating social, economic, and health burdens on those historically harmed by the energy system (‘frontline communities’)” focusing on “the concerns of marginalized communities and aims to make energy more accessible, affordable, clean, and democratically managed for all communities.” [10]

From the previous definitions and the interviews with local communities, we uphold the following definition on a just energy. Just energy has the following principles: 

  • Recognizes all people have equal rights
  • Recognizes there have been violations to human rights, also called injustices, related to the energy sector and industry
  • Recognizes that negative impacts from the energy sector are more greatly felt by certain groups such as poor, vulnerable and marginalized groups
  • Recognizes that these injustices are a result of systemic issues related to poverty and inequality
  • Recognizes that upholding human rights is the responsibility of the State
  • Promotes sustainable development
  • Ensures democratic participation in decision making processes especially the affected communities and the poor, marginalized and vulnerable groups
  • Ensures the due process principle where in the rule of law is followed and human rights are upheld
  • Ensures accountability for the proponents in the energy sector that have caused negative impacts on communities by providing reparation for those affected
  • Ensures access to information and transparency on activities and policies related to the energy sector for the affected communities and general population 
  • Upholds the precautionary principle wherein action for environmental protection is called for in the presence of a threat or risk of serious damage despite the lack of scientific certainty on potential impacts [11]
  • Emphasis on the identification of the impacts on the poor, marginalized and vulnerable groups and communities 
  • Ensures that groups and communities do not experience development aggression


Sustainable Energy

Sustainable energy is often used interchangeably with renewable energy. Renewable energy is defined as energy that “comes from sources that naturally renew themselves at a rate that allows us to meet our energy needs” while sustainable energy “comes from sources that can fulfill our current energy needs without compromising future generations.” [12]

The concept of sustainable energy came from the recognition of the role of energy in achieving sustainable development in the 1980s. From this, sustainable energy has taken on similar concepts of sustainable development. Many definitions arose surrounding themes such as access to affordable energy services, sustainable energy supply, sustainable energy consumption and energy security. Despite variations in focus areas, all these are rooted in the need to transform the current energy system to reduce its harmful impacts. [13]

The study on Theoretical Aspects of Sustainable Energy by Prandecki (2014) noted the similarities of the definitions by Rogall, Hammond and Jones who used the terms dimensions, pillars and criteria. All had the following three aspects: ecological/environmental, economic and socio-cultural. Under the environmental aspect are the considerations related to greenhouse gas emissions, natural tolerance and hazards to human health. Under the economic aspect are the considerations related to impacts on the national economy, meeting the energy needs, cost-benefit analysis, job creation, profitability and prices. Finally under the socio-cultural aspect are the considerations related to the avoidance of conflicts, involvement of stakeholders, security, intergenerational equity in access and social acceptance. [14]

Previous studies and the interviews from local communities, we therefore uphold these definitions. Sustainable energy has the following components and characteristics:

  1. Environmental aspect
    1. Ensures the least greenhouse gas emissions
    2. Maintains ecological balance
    3. Ensures the access to natural resources and health environment for future generations to natural resources
    4. Ensures human health
  2. Economic aspect
    1. Contributes to national development
    2. Meets the needs of local communities
    3. Does not cause negative impacts to the livelihoods and other aspects of people’s lives
    4. Accessible to the population
  3. Socio-cultural aspect
    1. Does not aggravate existing issues and inequalities
    2. Does not threaten the people’s security 
    3. Socially acceptable

Just and sustainable energy (JSE) has been defined in many ways based on different experiences and contexts both at the conceptual and practical levels. What is common to all is the recognition that there are changes that needs to be made in the energy sector due to its negative impacts of people’s lives and the environment. Despite the varying issues and impacts, having a common understanding of just and sustainable energy can guide communities and environmental and social movements in analyzing issues, defining alternatives and solutions and developing plans of action.