Energy decisions reframed as justice and ethical concerns

Sovacool, Benjamin K, Heffron, Raphael J, McCauley, Darren and Goldthau, Andreas (2016) Energy decisions reframed as justice and ethical concerns. Nature Energy, 1. p. 16024. ISSN 0001-4966

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All too often, energy policy and technology discussions are limited to the domains of engineering and economics. Many energy consumers, and even analysts and policymakers, confront and frame energy and climate risks in a moral vacuum, rarely incorporating broader social justice concerns. Here, to remedy this gap, we investigate how concepts from justice and ethics can inform energy decision-making by reframing five energy problems — nuclear waste, involuntary resettlement, energy pollution, energy poverty and climate change — as pressing justice concerns. We conclude by proposing an energy justice framework centred on availability, affordability, due process, transparency and accountability, sustainability, equity and responsibility, which highlights the futurity, fairness and equity dimensions of energy production and use.

The structure of the global energy system and the pending consequences of climate change are among the central justice issues of our time, with profound implications for human happiness, welfare, freedom, equity and due process1.

One global study distinguishing between ‘experienced’ and ‘imposed’ effects of climate change — essentially separating out primary emitters from those suffering from climate change — concluded that people in rich countries impose 200–300 times more health damage on others than they experience themselves as a result of their nation's historical emissions2. Others argue that the costs of climate change will befall the weakest and least developed countries as well as the poorest in developed nations, while the benefits, if there are any, will probably be accrued by the rich and powerful3.

Meanwhile, serious environmental burdens can arise from having too much energy (from waste, over-consumption and pollution4) or from not having enough (from lack of access to modern forms of energy, under-consumption and poverty). With increasing wealth, these environmental burdens shift in terms of severity, geographic scope and temporal reach. For instance, a decline in household environmental risks through enhanced access to modern energy services, clean water and better healthcare coincides with an increase in global risks such as climate change and other forms of transboundary environmental pollution. While solutions to some problems, such as poverty, obviously require an increase in energy consumption, solutions to other problems, such as climate change, might well require a decrease in energy consumption.

Clearly, the current fossil fuel-based global energy system has many benefits but also many disadvantages, including significant health burdens that shorten lives, undermine the conditions for happiness and impede a more just and equitable society. Yet most of us confront and frame such climate and energy risks within a moral vacuum. It has been argued that our moral systems are ill-equipped to handle the complexity and expansiveness of modern-day energy and climate problems5,6, and that individuals will work to avoid feelings of responsibility for climate change or energy insecurity; some will even have optimistic biases, downgrading any negative information they receive and counterbalancing it with almost irrational exuberance7.

In this Perspective, we argue that concepts from ethics and justice provide an important structure to think about, and approach, the world's climate and energy dilemmas. We reframe five contemporary energy problems — nuclear waste, involuntary resettlement, energy pollution, energy poverty and climate change — as justice and ethics concerns. We then synthesize justice elements into a common framework that energy decision-makers can utilize to create a more just and equitable energy future. By ‘decision-makers’, we refer not only to the more traditional notion of policymakers and regulators, but also ordinary students, jurists, homeowners, businesspersons, investors and consumers — essentially, anyone that makes decisions or choices about energy conversion and use8. Admittedly, we take an anthropocentric perspective based on social justice principles, though there are certainly justice claims that arise with how humans interact with non-human forms of life. Some have called this human-centered approach ‘cosmopolitan justice’, as it acknowledges that all ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a collective morality9. Many scholars have taken up modern manifestations of these ideals, and have advanced the core arguments presented in Table 110,​11,​12,​13,​14,​15,​16,​17,​18,​19. These arguments underscore how all human beings have equal moral worth and, as we will argue, are deserving of ‘energy justice’.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: Carbon and energy, Ethics
Schools and Departments: University of Sussex Business School > SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit
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Depositing User: Nora Blascsok
Date Deposited: 06 Jun 2016 15:31
Last Modified: 03 Jul 2019 02:31

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