Over the years, anthropogenic activities such as mining, deforestation, transportation, poor waste management, and particularly the burning of fossil fuels for energy generation have led to and continue to lead to an increase in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These greenhouse gases, when released into the atmosphere, trap heat, which in turn leads to climate change and its devastating effects on the global population. For this reason, countries across the world have found the need to join efforts and collaborate to address the effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, food insecurity, poor health, water scarcity, displacement, and death, among others.
To this effect, the global community continuously aims to develop and implement climate action strategies to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. One of the most important of these climate action strategies is the global energy transition. The energy transition requires the world’s energy community to shift from fossil fuel-based systems like coal and oil to cleaner and more renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the energy transition is a continuing process requiring long-term energy strategies and planning, with a country-tailored focus on applying appropriated energy technologies to reach net-zero emissions. To achieve this, there needs to be an integrated, people-centered approach.
The Role of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
To further cement the importance of the energy transition for the global community, one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a blueprint for the world to achieve a better and more sustainable future, is dedicated to affordable and clean energy. SDG 7 aims to ensure universal access to clean and affordable energy through investments in energy sources such as wind and solar.
However, for energy transition projects and initiatives to be completely effective, they must also be just. And this brings us to the issue of climate justice.
Understanding Climate Justice
Climate justice is the nexus between human rights, climate action, and development. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), it involves a people-centered approach to climate action strategies. Climate justice shifts the focus from climate change as a purely environmental issue to climate change as an ethical and political issue. According to the UN Environment Programme, climate justice relates the effects of climate change to concepts of justice, particularly environmental justice and social justice, by examining issues such as equality, human rights, and the historical responsibilities of climate change.
The concept of climate justice is guided by certain principles, some of which include:
- Historical Responsibility: Climate justice acknowledges developed countries, who are historically responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions, as the most accountable for efforts towards climate action and the global energy transition.
- Common But Differentiated Responsibilities: By identifying historical responsibility, climate justice then recognizes the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), upon which international climate agreements like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are based. The principle of CBDR considers the fact that all countries have varying degrees of development and contribution to global emissions and, as such, should have differentiated responsibilities in climate action efforts. CBDR is a practical implementation of the principle of historical responsibility.
- Gender and Social Equity: Climate justice recognizes the fact that the effects of climate change disproportionately affect women and other vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities and indigenous people. And as such, climate justice promotes gender inclusion and aims to ensure that the interests of marginalized populations are protected in the development and implementation of mitigation and adaptation strategies.
- Intergenerational Equity: Climate justice also considers sustainability across generations, ensuring that current actions and strategies do not compromise the well-being of future generations.
- Fairness: Ultimately, climate justice is guided by interdimensional fairness and equity, ensuring that all populations benefit from climate action strategies and the least contributors to climate change do not bear the heaviest consequences.
The Interconnection of Climate Justice and the Energy Transition
The use of fossil fuels contributes the most to climate change. According to the UN, burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas accounts for about 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions alone. Despite this, different countries and regions of the world contribute differently to the emissions rate.
According to Generation Climate Europe, privileged lifestyles in Europe, North America, and other nations in the Global North (developed countries) produce a carbon footprint 100 times greater than that of the world’s poor nations combined. In addition, as of 2019, the top 10 percent of global emitters (771 million individuals) were responsible for about 48 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the bottom 50 percent (3.8 billion individuals) were responsible for almost 12 percent of all emissions. This implies that countries in the Global South (underdeveloped or developing countries) contribute the least to global emissions. Africa, for example, is estimated to contribute just four percent to global emissions, the least from any region.
However, this disparity in emissions rate does not influence the consequences of climate change on populations. In fact, populations in the Global South are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change for reasons such as poverty, socio-economic inequalities, and political inequalities, which prevent the development of adaptation and mitigation interventions. Hence, the importance of climate justice in the energy transition. Climate justice regarding the energy transition ensures that every member of the global community, irrespective of social, economic, and political status, benefits from energy transition efforts. Therefore, climate justice in the energy transition ensures that the onus remains on countries in the Global North to be more responsible in promoting the development of energy transition initiatives, particularly for underdeveloped countries. This responsibility can be enforced by developed countries through funding clean energy projects and initiatives in developing countries.
According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in the 2023 edition of its World Investment Report, developing countries face an investment gap of $2 trillion annually.
However, despite the huge gap, through specific programmes, efforts are underway to help developing countries achieve a just energy transition. One of such programmes in Nigeria is the Rural Electrification Agency’s (REA) Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP), implemented by the federal government with funding from the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB). The project focuses on bridging the country’s energy access gap with clean energy solutions for households, medium- and small-scale enterprises (MSMEs), and educational and healthcare facilities. To ensure energy justice, the components of the project mainly target underserved and unserved communities and low-income households. In addition, these components include gender inclusion considerations both in grantmaking processes and beneficiary selections.
Challenges to Climate Justice in the Energy Transition
Even though protecting vulnerable populations and their interests is a critical component of climate action strategies, especially the energy transition, there are limitations to climate justice. Some of these limitations include:
- Energy Inequality: In some cases, the transition to cleaner energy sources can disproportionately affect low-income communities. In situations where clean energy projects are mainly developed in affluent urban areas, underserved and unserved rural communities will be left behind.
- Land Disputes: The development of clean energy projects often requires the consent of indigenous landowners. Often, unresolved disputes between developers and indigenous people are a hindrance to climate justice in the energy transition.
- Global Inequality: The global energy transition is at different stages across different countries. Many developing countries still rely heavily on fossil fuels, and due to their socio-economic status, they may be unable to financially support the technologies required to ensure a just energy transition.
- Underrepresentation: The interests of marginalized communities and populations are often not considered in the development of energy transition projects and initiatives, and this underrepresentation hinders climate justice in the transition process.
- Policy Barriers: The policy and regulatory frameworks of some countries may hinder the development of energy systems and technologies, particularly for grassroot populations.
Recommendations to Promote Climate Justice in Energy Transition Initiatives
- Increased Collaboration: Increased collaboration and engagement with community-based organizations, civil society organizations, and human rights groups that work closely with low-income communities and vulnerable populations would help identify and protect the interests of these populations and ensure that they are considered in decision-making processes.
- Ensuring Productive Energy Use: Broadening the focus of the energy transition from just enabling energy access to also improving productive energy use, especially among underserved and unserved rural communities, would enable populations in these communities to completely benefit from the energy transition.
- Gender and Social Inclusion: Opportunities for vulnerable populations such as women, youths, and low-income communities must be considered and expanded. Their experiences, strengths, and perspectives should influence the decision-making processes of energy transition initiatives.
- Increased Funding: More financial commitments must be targeted, especially by developed countries, and made available to developing countries to enable the development and implementation of adaptation and mitigation strategies that would cushion climate change effects, particularly for the most vulnerable populations.
- Policy support: Countries across the globe need to adjust and update their policies to allow the adoption of clean energy technologies, especially at the grassroot level. In addition, favorable policies will create a safe environment for investors to fund clean energy projects.
Climate justice is an integral part of the global energy transition to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized populations that contribute the least to climate change benefit from the development and implementation of adaptation and mitigation strategies. However, adopting the principles of climate justice in energy transition plans may be challenging, particularly for developing countries. Nonetheless, through continuous collaboration, adequate funding, and policy adjustment, the global community can be assured of an energy transition that is truly just.