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News 29 May 2024

Anchoring justice in the transition: Europe’s pillars for a clean, fair and equitable energy future

Europe stands at a pivotal juncture in its energy transition journey. Moving from fossil fuel dependence to a sustainable, low-carbon energy system is not just an environmental imperative but an opportunity to redefine fairness and equity in the European socio-economic fabric. The Clean Energy Transition (CET) represents a holistic approach that transcends mere technological substitution, aiming to rectify historical injustices and prevent new ones. Without such an approach, the CET risks maintaining or even deepening socio-economic disparities across the bloc.

A recent white paper written by EERA researchers highlights that the absence of a comprehensive justice policy framework could hamper Europe’s path to a clean and just energy transition. This is clearly seen in well-intentioned actions that, paradoxically, undermine the very goals they aim to achieve. For example, vast amounts of money are funnelled into fossil fuel subsidies2 to fight energy poverty and secure energy supply, which counterproductively slows the progress towards sustainability.

This contradiction underscores the urgent need for a robust energy justice framework in Europe — a holistic ‘umbrella framework’ capable of addressing the wide array of justice-related challenges, making sure no aspect is overlooked. Such a perspective would harmonise the CET with broader social and environmental justice goals, from mitigating job losses and alleviating energy poverty to fostering greater citizen involvement, ensuring a transition that is also equitable and inclusive.

Energy poverty, the challenges faced by regions dependent on fossil fuels, and how people feel about new technologies (technology acceptance) are a few examples among multiple crucial topics in achieving a just energy transition. The energy justice framework can help shape policies and projects tackling issues like these. As the researchers Healy and Barry state: “A just transformation of the socio-energy system is also a decision to live in a different type of society, not simply a low-carbon version of the current one”.

With the European Green Deal, the European Union has already initiated an approach that diverges from the predominant free-market paradigm through, among others, policy interventions in areas supported by one-third of the EUR 1.8 trillion investment from the NextGenerationEU Recovery Plan, the EU’s seven-year budget and the Social Climate Fund. These policies represent a considerable effort; nevertheless, further developments and resources are needed to deal with the challenges posed by the ongoing energy transition, particularly at a time of widening inequalities.

Against this backdrop, the Just Energy Transition (JET) concept — defined as the “fair and equitable process of moving towards a post-carbon society” — becomes increasingly relevant. A Just Energy Transition is deemed truly fair when it stands strong on three tenets:

  • Distributional justice: Focuses on ensuring that resources and benefits, but also costs, are shared equally within a society or group — fair distribution.
  • Procedural justice: Emphasises the right of all individuals to have a say in the decisions that affect them, ensuring the decision-making processes are transparent and open to all — inclusive decision-making and/or collective voice.
  • Recognition justice: Advocates for recognising and respecting the different backgrounds and viewpoints people bring to the table, including their social, cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender differences — respect for diversity and special attention to those especially vulnerable.

The Clean Energy Transition presents an unprecedented opportunity to rectify historical injustices, bridge socio-economic divides, and forge a path that respects both the planet and the people who live on it.

To realise this vision, and according to the ideas put forward by the EERA white paper, future policies must:

  • Incorporate criteria as guiding principles for developing policies related to the Clean Energy Transition, covering all stages from the early design phase to implementation and eventual end-of-life. These guidelines should be set at the European, national and regional level.
  • Implement clear, universally applicable metrics to track the progress of justice aspects within the Clean Energy Transition at the policy level. These metrics can also help evaluate business initiatives to ensure they do not perpetuate or reinforce societal injustices.
  • Educate the public on how energy systems work at local, national, and European levels and the objectives of the clean transition. Such knowledge equips individuals to actively participate in and contribute to shaping a sustainable future.

As Europe strides toward a sustainable future, a just energy transition stands as a testament to the continent’s commitment to environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic resilience. The CET is not merely a shift in energy sources; it is a transformative vision for a society that values every individual’s right to clean, affordable, and sustainable energy. The journey toward this future, however, is fraught with complex challenges that require a nuanced, inclusive, and forward-thinking approach.

Recognising the multifaceted nature of energy justice—encompassing distributive, procedural, and recognition tenets—the EERA white paper underscores the imperative to weave these principles intricately into the fabric of Europe’s energy policies, addressing the interconnectedness of environmental sustainability, social justice, and economic viability.