The energy transition goes beyond shifts from fossil fuel-based to green energy technologies. The transition also addresses the way we use energy every day. These changes affect the way we view energy. Changes in social, economic and political structures need not be inferior in terms of impact on their technological counterparts in the energy transition.
Costs and benefits of the transition are not likely to be proportional for citizens. A key question is: Who pays for the costs of the energy transition and who benefits from a sustainable energy supply? To answer this, the societal consequences of a large-scale transition to green energy must be mapped.
Where do we place facilities for solar and wind energy and CO2 storage? Coal-fired power stations are closing and declining demand for fossil-based fuels for cars in Europe will inevitably lead to a steady closure of Dutch refineries. How do we deal with this fairly? The energy transition will create societal choices that involve energy justice.
Important choices are required at national, regional and individual levels to make the Dutch energy system more sustainable. It is necessary to examine the consequences of these choices for the prosperity and well-being of different groups of people in the Netherlands. Decisions to achieve a more sustainable energy system can lead to societal inequalities (Straver et al., 2018).
The interpretation of energy justice varies greatly from situation to situation and from person to person. This makes it difficult to agree on the right solution related to a just policy. Just or fair energy policy can be realized from different points of view. For example, it can be viewed from a distribution perspective where an equal distribution of the revenues, costs and risks that the energy transition entails is needed (Middlemiss et al., 2018). It can be viewed as having involvement in the decision-making process, i.e. who makes/is allowed to make choices in the energy transition. It can also be about recognizing groups of people or cultures when making decisions, where respect and recognition must be built–in for all citizens affected by innovation or policies. These are some examples of how one can view justice issues surrounding the energy transition.
Distributional issues may arise when a government decides to introduce a ‘natural gas–free neighborhood’ policy, as is the case in the Netherlands. If large groups of people can phase out natural gas from their energy consumption, but a smaller group remains dependent on the gas grid, distribution issues arise that must be taken into account when making policy for natural gas–free. The same goes for the introduction of a tax on energy or CO2. Who benefits from a sustainable home and who doesn’t?
People with a low income spend on average a larger part of their income on energy expenditures compared to people with a high income (Kolstad and Grainger, 2009). This is partly because they spend relatively more on transport and heating. When energy becomes more expensive, low-income groups are disadvantaged due to their energy expenditure patterns. People whose income depends on the fossil fuel industry can also be hit hard by the energy transition. In the coming years, around 60,000 jobs related to the fossil fuel industry are expected to disappear. Only by taking into account all the different vulnerable groups can the energy transition become both fair and achievable.
Knowledge and planning are needed to make the right choices and to formulate policies that will contribute to a fair energy transition. Strong policies will resonate at local, regional, national, and European levels that need to be aligned. Insights from an economic and technical perspective must be compared to results from the behavioral sciences, ethics and climate sciences. Moreover, understanding and paying attention to the experiences of people affected by energy policies and the energy transition is crucial. Experiences with energy poverty from social policy, health care, and education can play an essential role in this and can help to remove obstacles that can block the energy transition.
All of this forms a whole that is complex on different themes: it encompasses many different groups of people who consider different things important on a theme that encompasses many disciplines and needs different policy levels to be resolved. Although the complexity of the situation could be used to first think carefully about the ethics of energy transition and the causes of its unjust aspects, there is precisely every reason to start collecting examples of groups affected by the energy transition and do something about it right away. For example, energy advisers have been appointed by the municipality of Leeuwarden and the province of Groningen to visit low-income households, with positive consequences for the reduction in total CO2 emissions, burden reduction for the household and an increase in employment (Straver et al., 2018).