19– Can a peoples’ energy transition take place without democratisation?

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) asserts that a transition to a truly sustainable energy system can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power away from large profit–driven corporations towards ordinary citizens and communities. (Worker Institute at Cornell, 2012).

The current energy system is controlled by global actors linked to large economic interests and lobbies associated with various power groups. It is a highly opaque, non-transparent system.

In the current context, democracies have been distorted and weakened by the extreme concentration of media, political and judicial power, and wealth. In the opinion of political theorist Timothy Mitchell (2011), the imperialist imposition of the Western ideal of liberal democracy on the rest of the world is explained by the fact that democracy has been understood as a pre-designed set of principles and structures that can be exported to all countries, regardless of their historical and geographic context (Transnational Institute, 2016).

Within a peoples’ energy transition, however, democracy is understood as self-government of people who decide their individual and collective future. In this framing, ‘democracy is not a state of government, but a continuous and multidimensional process that seeks to democratise unequal power relations through political action, improved freedoms, justice, and the capacity for individual and collective self-determination’ (Grupo de Trabajo Global Más Allá del Desarrollo, 2019) [Own translation].

In this sense, energy democratisation also advances the possibility of transforming various other systems and dimensions of domination. Advancing a process of energy democratisation entails, at least, addressing the following areas (Bertinat, Tansición energética justa. Pensando la democratización energética, 2016):

  • Understanding what we want to change, why, and in what direction. This entails a collective social construction of a holistic diagnosis of the reality of the energy system, starting with the system’s capacity to satisfy society’s needs within the limits imposed by nature.
  • Building popular information systems that can dispute the corporate lobby’s biased data, which are shaped by strong corporate interests. This information should be gathered in the context of popular education processes. This includes not only the building of ‘technical’ knowledge, but also all types of knowledge, beyond the traditional Western and scientific lens, as discussed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos in his thesis about epistemology from the South (2014).
  • Resisting the imposition of the international free trade and investment protection regime, which limits energy democracy through instruments like the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), among others.[1]
  • A peoples’ energy transition will not occur by spontaneous generation; it will be the result of disputes, which means developing strategies to build power through alliances.
  • Energy democratisation is a continuous process within communities, movements, societies, and states (Grupo de Trabajo Global Más Allá del Desarrollo, 2019).
  • Energy democratisation requires the development of decision-making spaces, processes, and participation mechanisms; new forms that, based on the recognition of political rights, resist institutionalisation by the various levels of the State.

An energy democratisation process challenges conventional Western liberal visions and supports the deployment of new forms and processes that can articulate across levels: democracy from below as well as building consensus and alliances between the various spaces, to strengthen the struggle in national or regional spaces.

  1. Among other things, these instruments give large corporations the right to sue governments for measures that capital considers could limit profits or threaten private property, such as a moratorium on fossil fuel extraction or the decision to revert privatisation of a service (See Question 15). TISA’s provision on technology neutrality would limit the ability of States to differentiate between high and low carbon energy sources (Transnational Institute, 2016).