Decarbonization and its discontents: a critical energy justice perspective on four low-carbon transitions

Low-carbon transitions are often assumed as positive phenomena, because they supposedly reduce carbon emissions, yet without vigilance, there is evidence that they can in fact create new injustices and vulnerabilities, while also failing to address pre-existing structural drivers of injustice in energy markets and the wider socio-economy. With this in mind, we examine four European low-carbon transitions from an unusual normative perspective: that of energy justice. Because a multitude of studies looks at the co-benefits of renewable energy, low-carbon mobility, or climate change mitigation, we instead ask in this paper what are the types of injustices associated with low-carbon transitions? Relatedly, in what ways do low-carbon transitions worsen social risks or vulnerabilities? Lastly, what policies might be deployed to make these transitions more just? We answer these questions by first elaborating an “energy justice” framework consisting of four distinct dimensions—distributive justice (costs and benefits), procedural justice (due process), cosmopolitan justice (global externalities), and recognition justice (vulnerable groups). We then examine four European low-carbon transitions—nuclear power in France, smart meters in Great Britain, electric vehicles in Norway, and solar energy in Germany—through this critical justice lens. In doing so, we draw from original data collected from 64 semi-structured interviews with expert participants as well as five public focus groups and the monitoring of twelve large internet forums. We document 120 distinct energy injustices across these four transitions, including 19 commonly recurring injustices. We aim to show how when low-carbon transitions unfold, deeper injustices related to equity, distribution, and fairness invariably arise.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Mari Martiskainen, Andrew Hook and Lucy Baker

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