Youth calling for action

Energy Justice is Socially Just  

By Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, and Co-Chair of UN-Energy


Social justice in its simplest definition means equal rights and equitable opportunities for all. It is fairness as it manifests in society, and includes fairness in education, healthcare and reproductive rights, employment, housing, and more. But is it possible to bring the principles of social justice into the energy sector? 

A brief history of social justice 

Social justice is an issue that has been greatly debated in recent times with the world facing growing economic disparities, adverse impacts of climate change, and the after-effects of a global pandemic. However, the concept is not new and can be credited to Luigi Tapparelli d’Azeglio who in the 1840s, first introduced the term that, in addition to doing the right thing, we should strive to do what is necessary for the betterment of others. 

Unfortunately, society has so far underinvested in the development, research, and deployment of social considerations in the energy sector. Many electrification initiatives have disproportionately benefited wealthy communities and countries and compounded economic inequalities, social injustices, and further concentrated wealth and power.  

In recent times, there has been a re-emergence of social considerations that reach beyond the standard technological or economic analysis of energy projects. Indeed, many researchers and policy experts now emphasize the importance of analyzing energy as a social project. 

Toward a just and equitable energy transition  

It is estimated that energy accounts for more than two-thirds of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. Therefore, to tackle the climate change crisis we must address the issue of decarbonization of energy systems. An energy transition away from fossil fuels to energy sources that emit far less carbon dioxide such as wind, and solar, is more than vital.  

But the energy transition must also be just. It is currently estimated that at least 775 million people still lack access to electricity and almost a quarter of the world (2.4 billion) still cook with highly toxic fuels, which has a direct impact on their health and quality of life. Many of these people are in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, small island developing states (SIDS), and landlocked developing countries (LLDCs). Therefore, the twin challenges of energy access and decarbonatization must be tackled at the same time. 

Furthermore, people and communities whose livelihoods are currently dependent on the extraction and production of fossil fuels will face significant changes as these industries shift. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind in this transition and must equip workers with the skills and knowledge needed to work in a renewable energy world while supporting local communities with the financial and community resources needed to transition. 

Achieving energy equity and justice 

For energy justice to become a reality across the globe, the energy sector must embrace the five pillars of social justice, which are human rights, equal access, meaningful participation by all, equity, and diversity in opinions and leadership. We therefore must:  

  1. Develop strong national energy policies and legal frameworks to help tackle energy poverty, advance the economic development of nations, and create long-lasting solutions to climate change. These legal frameworks and specific tools and strategies such as energy transition plans (ETPs) and universal integrated energy plans (IEPs) need to incorporate the needs of vulnerable and marginalized communities.  

  1. Broaden engagement with community-based organizations, NGOs, local governments, special-purpose minority-serving institutions, and justice and human-rights groups that work closely with underserved communities. The views and opinions of local communities need to be incorporated in all stages of energy provision from conceptualization, to planning, and to implementation and monitoring. 

  1. Broaden the focus of energy access to go beyond a focus on simply lighting homes through modern energy technologies. We must ensure that productive uses of energy are part of energy projects, which will enable communities to pursue economic activities and reduce drudgery. This way there can be meaningful and compounded benefits of energy access in people’s lives.  

  1. Expand funding opportunities to enable a just and equitable energy transition. With an estimated USD 4 trillion a year needed to be invested in renewable energy until 2030 to allow us to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, we must galvanize public and private energy finance required to deliver affordable, reliable, clean energy to all.  

  1. Avail affordable and reliable renewable energy technology to all. We must remove roadblocks to knowledge sharing and technological transfer, including intellectual property rights barriers. We must also expand renewable energy manufacturing capabilities to the Global South, and in particular Africa which has a huge yet untapped potential. 

  1. Expand opportunities for women and youth in the energy transition. To be truly just, the energy transition must include unique experiences, strengths, and viewpoints of all members of society. The renewable energy sector still lags, with women being underrepresented in the industry’s workforce, and in leadership positions. We must therefore tap into the potential of women and provide much-needed mentorship, training, and skills development. 

If we take all of these into account, we will move closer to socially just energy systems that explicitly link the energy transition with advancing economic and social justice.