Advocating for human-centric energy justice: A call to action

Posted on October 05, 2023

The importance of placing people at the centre of the just energy transition (JET) was a focal point in a seminar titled ‘In conversation with Aditi Bansal’, hosted by the Energy Economics Unit (EEU) in the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS), in collaboration with the United States (US) Embassy in South Africa on 28 September 2023.

The JET topic has sparked public interest from researchers, civil society groups, economists and climate change activists globally. As climate change continues to pose risks to the South African ecosystems, public health and infrastructure, the undertaken JET in the country will help tackle the risks associated with climate change.

While the transition from coal-generated energy to a sustainable low-carbon economy is anticipated to accelerate economic growth, reduce carbon footprints and achieve energy security, equity for people is at the core of it. Ensuring that the transition leaves no one behind and does not adversely impact society is key.

Transitioning from ideas to action in JET

In her welcome address at the event, Professor Loretta Feris, Vice Principal: Academic at the University of Pretoria, emphasised the urgency for action against the potential threats of climate change, underlining the pivotal role of humans in the changing environment. “We are no longer predicting climate change, we are living it and it is causing havoc on our natural ecosystems and, as a result, on human health and human lives,” she stressed.  

According to Prof Feris, universities play an important role in steering the action that is needed to mitigate the challenges of climate change as places where knowledge production and exchange happen, where solutions are developed and where innovative leaders who can solve global problems like climate change are produced. If we say universities are places of ideas, our current reality is that we need to move from ideas to action and we need to be places of action. As we talk about just energy transition, our conversations must translate into impactful actions,” she said.

                      Prof Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu, Aditi Bansal and Prof Loretta Feris

Democratising energy for all

Aditi Bansal, a global energy justice advocate and programme director at the Initiative for Energy Justice in New York who was the guest speaker at the event, emphasised the importance of adopting a human-centric approach to climate and energy justice. Through their advocacy and research on energy justice, Bansal has strived to make an impact on energy insecure communities in the US.

As an energy justice advocate, Bansal’s presentation delved into the various tenets of energy justice, their importance for the US communities and requisite actions needed to ensure equitable energy transition and effective implementation of government policies that address socio-political and economic inequalities in the US.

Bansal said that energy justice advocacy should be guided by the four tenets of energy justice: recognition, procedural, distributional and restorative justice. According to them, these principles not only serve as lenses to analyse policies but also ensure that the policies enacted by the US government at all levels are equitable and enhance justice. They emphasised that these tenets are fundamentally people-centred, underscoring the need for a human-centric approach in achieving both energy justice and a just transition.

Fostering energy equity: Lessons from New York

In New York, energy justice advocacy has yielded some positive outcomes, such as the passing of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019. This Act aims to achieve a 100% transition to renewable energy by 2040. It promulgates that 40% of the benefits of the Act will be allocated to disadvantaged communities when implemented, said Bansal.

However, despite this significant progress in energy justice advocacy, challenges persist. One of the challenges of this law is that, as you can see across the map, it varies. We won't have consistency in what the transition looks like across the country. Some states will be way ahead of the game, like Texas, California, New York, Michigan and Minnesota. Other states, like Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas may be left behind because they don’t have the state-level standard for transitioning to renewable energy. It’s also a limited legislative tool for furthering energy justice, depending on how we define energy justice,” noted Bansal.

In an effort to make renewable energy more accessible for communities in New York, the state introduced a community solar programme, which contributes solar-generated electricity to the electrical grid. While implemented in diverse ways, similar to the situation in South Africa, affordability remains a hurdle for some communities. This is further compounded by the erosion of citizenry trust in the energy system due to some service providers overpricing solar technologies, effectively limiting access for the disadvantaged.

Bansal stressed that given these challenges and historical racial inequalities that limited access to essential resources for disadvantaged communities, it is imperative to consider these communities in research, advocacy and energy justice initiatives. They said: “To address the climate crisis, the focus should be on transitioning from an extractive economy to a regenerative one, promoting cooperation, care and respect for people and the environment, especially emphasising the voices of black people, indigenous people, Latinx and Asian communities in the US.” 

Bansal highlighted efforts among JET researchers to take an interactive approach to research design, hand in hand with affected communities.

Professor Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Head of the EEU, facilitated the Q&A session that followed Bansal’s address. Questions posed in the session addressed the integration of policymakers in the energy justice conversations, energy regulatory bodies and the geopolitics of climate change, amongst others.

Collective action in shaping a just energy future

Echoing Bansal’s sentiments in her closing remarks, Professor Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu, Dean of the Faculty of EMS, said energy transition and energy justice need collective action for equitable energy for those who are defined as being energy poor. Half of the world's population. We're talking billions, which are defined as being poor in terms of energy. There's no justice there. This is not just. So, this topic is a big topic,” noted Prof Chitiga-Mabugu.

Emily Stoll, energy officer at the US Embassy in Pretoria, expressed her gratitude to the Faculty for hosting the discussion and to members of the EEU, including Dr Jessika Bohlmann who organised the event and served as the programme director of the event.

The event, which was attended by EMS staff and postgraduate students, as well as representatives of the US Embassy, is one of the many initiatives of the EEU to foster collaborations between the public and private sectors in order to steer positive societal impact. 

- Author Refilwe Mabula

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