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Getting Decarbonisation Right in a Time of Crisis
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To reduce emissions and address climate change, we need to invest in renewables and rapidly decarbonise our energy networks. However, decarbonisation is often seen as a technical project, detached from questions of politics and social justice. What if this is leading to unfair transitions, in which some people bear the costs of change whilst others benefit?

In this timely and expansive book, Ed Atkins asks are we getting decarbonisation right? And how could it be made better for people and communities? In doing so, this book proposes a different type of energy transition. One that prioritises and takes opportunities to do better – to provide better jobs, community ownership and improve people’s homes and lives.

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This opening chapter presents the main themes of the book. It details the need for the decarbonisation of energy in a fair and equitable way – and the possibilities of doing so. However, the chapter moves to argue that the current energy model is unable to deliver an energy transition that is inclusive: using the energy price crisis of 2021–2022 as an example of the need for a new energy model. It turns to outline a new model of energy transition that is both nationally driven and community centred, signalling what subsequent chapters discuss and introducing the rules for a just energy transition that guide the book itself.

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This chapter outlines the conceptual starting point and vocabulary used for subsequent chapters. It introduces how contemporary energy transitions are creating new energy landscapes, in which the relationships between people, communities, and energy are transformed. It highlights how these changes currently benefit the most powerful in society. In light of this, the chapter moves to assert the need for a new form of energy transition. In understanding this new energy model, it draws from scholarship on just transition, energy justice, and energy democracy to explore how decarbonisation policies can be transformative and improve people’s lives. It moves to assert the significance of place-based elements in an energy transition – highlighting that while decarbonisation is a national priority, it is primarily felt at the local level.

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This chapter discusses how a focus on large-scale renewable infrastructure in energy transitions can lead to distributive injustice. To do so, it explores the role of hydropower in energy transitions – highlighting a process of cost-shifting in which some communities at the ‘energy periphery’ bear the burden of change, while others enjoy the benefits. This contrasts with the experience of smaller-scale, locally centred energy projects – where the benefits are more accessible to communities. To explore this, this chapter draws on the case of renewable energy generation in Orkney – which is rooted in a particular community and sense of place. In highlighting this case, the chapter illuminates the transformative potential of community-centred approaches to energy transitions. It ends by detailing the first rule of a just energy transition: the need to push for community-centred renewables.

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This chapter discusses the procedural justice of contemporary energy transitions. To do so, it explores wind energy projects – arguing that large schemes fail to benefit local communities living nearby and often exclude these groups from decision-making. The chapter presents the impacts of wind power and highlights the complex opposition to such schemes. It defines how the importance of social acceptance of new infrastructure necessitates procedural justice, highlighting the case study of Samsø in Denmark. The chapter ultimately argues that the wind is public and that energy projects should put it to use for the benefit of those living nearby. It ends by detailing the second rule of a just energy transition: the need to elevate and emphasise the participation and voices of local communities.

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This chapter adopts a perspective of justice as recognition to explore how communities, institutions, and local governments might play new, active roles in an energy transition. It highlights examples of community energy projects, reflecting on the complexity of the term and the wide variety of community-centred energy transitions. The chapter moves to detail the history of community-centred energy in the UK, highlighting processes that have both supported and stymied these schemes. Drawing on the example of the re-municipalisation of energy in Germany, it highlights the active role that local government might take in an energy transition, as well as reflecting on how this role can be hindered through the case of Bristol Energy. The chapter argues for the development of direct links between renewable energy schemes and the broader transformation of local and regional economies. It ends by detailing the third rule for a just energy transition: foregrounding community-centred energy projects in local goals of community wealth-building.

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This chapter presents a particular geographical dimension of a just energy transition: exploring how patterns of energy poverty and injustice can cluster in certain areas and affect particular groups. It adopts a language of restorative justice to highlight the need for energy transitions to help those facing energy poverty. It illuminates how current policies fail to do this – with respective schemes often being inaccessible to those who would benefit from them the most. in terms of economic inequality but also along lines of home ownership. Energy efficiency and rooftop solar policies should prioritise those most in need. The chapter highlights the potential of both national and local schemes to do so and calls for new policies of mass retrofitting policies urgently. It ends by detailing the fourth rule for a just energy transition: the need to prioritise those most vulnerable to energy poverty.

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This chapter presents a second geographical dimension of a just energy transition: detailing how decarbonisation has important consequences for workers. Any energy transition represents a process of economic restructuring – creating new jobs and making others redundant or undesirable. While green jobs are a key priority in national and international policy, there is often uncertainty about what these jobs might be. This chapter reflects on how ‘good’ current green jobs are – highlighting issues of pay, conditions, and who can access such work. It argues that, for any transition to be just, it must offer better jobs to those impacted by the phasing out of fossil fuels or looking for work. A route to doing this is by investing in skills, rather than jobs – supporting workers to not only change jobs but secure future livelihoods. The chapter then moves to assert the fifth rule for a just energy transition: the inclusion of workers and trade unions in deliberations of what decarbonisation is and the forms it takes.

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This chapter presents a final geographical dimension of a just energy transition: exploring the global dimensions of decarbonisation. It adopts an approach of cosmopolitan justice to explore how contemporary energy transitions represent a process of cost-shifting between countries and communities that leads to renewable energy technologies benefiting some and negatively impacting others. To do so, this chapter explores how solar panels and battery technologies are implicated in environmental destruction in South America’s ‘lithium triangle’, child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and forced labour in Xinjiang, China. It also discusses the global dimensions of electricity transmission, illuminating how the potential exporting of electricity from Morocco to Europe will link the latter region to processes of subjugation and injustice in Western Sahara. It then moves to discuss patterns of waste, exploring how energy technologies must be reused and recycled – rather than going straight to landfills, where they may become implicated in further global injustices. It closes with the final rule of a just energy transition: that justice here equals climate justice everywhere.

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This final chapter provides a commentary on the arguments and cases developed throughout the previous chapters and reflects on the potential of a new energy model. It asserts the need for energy transitions to present a better future for many, arguing that a just energy transition can reduce emissions, help vulnerable households, and empower local communities. However, it contrasts this potential with UK government policy in 2022 that remained short term and narrow in character. This chapter closes by presenting a vision of what a just energy transition should be, reiterating the rules presented in previous chapters and reflecting on what happens next.

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