There are as many views of the energy transition as there are economic, political, ideological, ecological, technological and hegemonic interests.
Thus, proposals for energy transition have very different objectives. There are political-economic views from neoliberalism, Keynesianism, and anti-capitalism; from ecological perspectives, from the cult of wildlife or eco-efficiency (cult of technology), or from the environmentalism of the poor (Martinez Alier, 2011) – with emphasis on weak, strong or super-strong sustainability (Gudynas, 2004); from large multinational corporations in the oil industry; and from small citizen co-operatives.
Today, different views of energy transition coexist, from those held by representatives of green neoliberalism and large oil industry multinationals, to those of environmental institutions or movements with diverse ideologies, to those of international organisations linked to energy, and of various scientists and diverse unions, to mention just a few.
Analysing and systematising the various energy transition proposals allows us to reflect on the characteristics of an energy transition that is consistent with post-capitalist, social, and environmental justice, and which genuinely confronts extractivism.This handbook presents a non-exhaustive and non-exclusive classification, with the aim of organising the various proposals in circulation today.
Despite significant differences among them, most proposals for an energy transition share some common bases: accepting the role of human activity, particularly since the industrial era, in climate change and proposing the diversification of the “energy matrix”. They also encourage the reduction of fossil fuels and their replacement with other sources – in some cases with renewable and sustainable sources, in others with nuclear power or even with so-called unconventional fossil fuels.
Discussions on energy transition emerged during the Cold War at the end of the 1970s as a proposal to develop an energy matrix based on renewable resources, in opposition to the development of nuclear energy (Brüggemeier, 2017) (Fornillo, 2018).
The term ‘just transition’ does not refer exclusively to an energy transition but to a broader economic and ecological transformation of which the energy transition is one part. It emerged in the 1970s as a guiding principle of the labour movement under Tony Mazzocchi’s leadership in the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). The origins of the concept are found both in the environmental and the labour movement. The concept of a ‘just transition’ appears in the preamble of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which mentions the need to take into account ‘the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities’ (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2015).
In the 21st century, the climate crisis is a central concern driving the energy transition, though some actors also see this as an economic opportunity. Thus, official spaces like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) produce proposals and conditions for an energy transition. Having identified greenhouse gas emissions as the main cause of the climate crisis, these entities seek to create mechanisms to reduce emissions, mainly by relying on non-fossil energy sources.
However, reducing the climate crisis to greenhouse gas emissions ignores other matters, both environmental (for example pollution and biodiversity loss) and social (inequalities and rights violations). These important issues are part of the crisis and must be taken into account in the search for solutions. This conceptual reduction is sometimes described as the ‘carbonisation of climate’ or ‘carbon reductionism’. It is associated with an interest in establishing quantitative indicators and market tools that claim to address the crisis. Generally, emissions are expressed in terms of equivalent tonnes of carbon dioxide (because it is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere), and decreasing emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ becomes the primary indicator of success in the fight against the global climate crisis.
Several groupings of actors are seeking to impose their view of energy transition in this context – some in an authoritarian manner and others in a more fluid and people-centred way that is in constant construction. Two groups are especially apparent. On the one hand, there are the actors who, faced with the climate crisis, see the energy transition as an opportunity to accumulate wealth and strengthen their geopolitical position. They promote weak sustainability mechanisms and view the situation with a corporate and patriarchal gaze. This could be called ‘corporate environmentalism’ or – following Maristella Svampa, in her essay ‘Imegenes del fin’ (Images of the End) (2018), – ‘the capitalist-technocratic narrative’. This positioning encompasses what we refer to here as a corporate energy transition.
On the other hand, there are those who support strong or super-strong sustainability and pursue an energy transition based on participatory and cooperative social and environmental justice. This could be defined as ‘popular’ or ‘peoples’ environmentalism. It is based on an anti-capitalist social and environmental transition narrative (Idem, p. 158, 2018). This perspective leads to what we call a peoples’ energy transition.
The Corporate Energy Transition
The corporate energy transition does not come solely from businesses. It is promoted by diverse actors including multinational corporations, states (countries, provinces, regions, municipalities), and institutions and organisations that see this as the only possible path, or the only path able to respond quickly enough to the urgency of the crisis.
Those who promote a corporate energy transition focus on a strictly hegemonic techno-economic perspective. Their main objective is to reduce emissions and generate a bit of geopolitical support in the face of growing public concern about climate change, while continuing to expand the accumulation of wealth and power through new extraction areas, and maintaining existing inequalities. In many cases, they promote very controversial and high impact solutions to the climate emergency, such as the use of nuclear energy, unconventional gas and large dams.
In the corporate energy transition, most elements (machinery, projects, regulations, research and development, etc.) are controlled by, or work in favour of, transnational corporations or world powers. Under the guise of increasing efficiency, their ‘solutions’ often make the systems governing peoples’ everyday lives less transparent and accessible, thus limiting the possibility of democratising the use of energy and technology.
Access to, ownership and control of energy sources, materials and necessary technologies play a central role in this framework. Fundamentally, it increases the concentration of the energy systems. Large companies – not only private but in many cases notionally public – hold hegemonic power.
The main actors in the corporate energy transition see renewable energy sources as a way to address the planetary limits which are threatening to undermine the continuation of the industrial and extractivist model of development. They believe that non-fossil energy sources can sustain the current path of unlimited growth (Gonzalez Reyes, 2018).
Energy efficiency also plays a leading role in this vision. Advocates see ‘efficiency’ as a panacea which can sustain the same level of consumption while reducing energy use. In this way, they avoid the need to question or alter the logic of consumption itself.
The corporate energy transition is hegemonic, authoritarian and patriarchal: it consolidates the power of the powerful, including men, and it is willing to use state-sponsored violence to do so. However, it does sometimes include some democratic characteristics, for example the elimination of taxes on the self-generation of solar energy in Spain and other countries, and plans to ensure access to renewable energy for vulnerable households in New York. However, such elements are not a central part of the corporate energy transition. Instead they are the result of political pressure exerted by social movements.
Thus, the corporate energy transition is based on a trivialised notion of ‘sustainable development’. It foresees our society continuing on the path of limitless growth, exchanging fossil resources for renewables and high technology, without modifying the logic of capitalist consumption, without questioning distribution and people’s access to energy, and without deepening or expanding citizen participation in decision-making processes. It does not represent a paradigm shift, but illustrates how the capitalist system seeks to capitalise on the energy and climate crisis for a new cycle of accumulation.
Those who promote this vision of energy transition seek to be at its forefront. This is how a representative of the Danish company DONG Energy expresses it:
‘Our ambition is to drive the transition of the energy system and to lead the Green transformation. And to do that isn’t just a technological challenge, it’s also a human challenge! […] How do we get the public that we build our windfarms for to accept this change in their landscape? […] We will be needing people to adopt things which are good for society and good for the environment but don’t necessarily have direct visible benefit for the individuals whose behaviour we are asking to change.’
The resulting socio-environmental conflicts are not questioned, as the approach seeks instead to overcome communities’ cultural values and impose the perspective of the companies.
A Peoples’ Energy Transition
‘Popular environmentalism’ stands in sharp contrast to this corporate environmentalism. This other perspective recognises the urgent need to collectively build a peoples’ energy transition that is counter-hegemonic, based on respect for rights and socio-environmental justice. In the words of researcher Kolya Abramsky (Transnational Institute, 2016):
‘Energy democracy – understood as an abstract vision of a future energy sector – is “a fantasy”. The existing balance of power under neoliberal capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic. Thus, any kind of emancipatory energy transition would require a fundamental transformation of the existing geometries of power – and, as such, would demand a concrete and ambitious political strategy for how this kind of transformation might be achieved. Therefore, we might wonder whether the more pressing question is not the precise details of what a future energy utopia might look like but, rather, how we might build collective power and organisation.’
The material conditions of the planet make the idea of limitless expansion or growth impossible. This reality must be analysed in a context of ecological distribution conflicts: different actors, with different levels of power and different interests, are confronted with resource demands by other actors at a particular ecological moment (Martinez Allier, 2004).
We cannot imagine ‘a world where many worlds are possible’ without contemplating how to build multiple societies that can achieve happiness with much reduced inputs of energy and materials. This is necessary to create the space for alternatives to flourish. However, envisioning and building these societies involves deep disputes over both power and meaning.
There are a few views that take energy not as an end, but as a means to improve people’s quality of life within a rights framework that is coherent with the rights of nature.
‘The conceptualization of energy is cultural. Societies that consider oil as a resource are radically different from those that consider it as the blood of the earth. In this framework, energy is understood as something more than a physical concept, because it is a social, political, economic and cultural element.’ (Fernández Durán & González Reyes, 2018) [Own translation]
A peoples’ energy transition aims to construct a ‘right to energy’ and questions the idea of energy as a commodity. It is based on the idea of de-privatisation, of strengthening the diverse forms of the public sphere, of participation and of democracy. It is based on the imperative need to reduce energy use and, at the same time, to move away from fossil energy sources. It is based on the struggle to eliminate energy poverty, and to decentralise and democratise decision-making processes around energy.
A peoples’ energy transition is therefore a process of democratisation, de-privatisation, decentralisation, de-concentration, de-fossilisation, and decolonisation of thought. It is a process for the construction of new social relations, consistent with human rights and with the rights of nature.