2– Why do we need an energy transition?

Energy transition is already on the agenda of various institutions, governments, movements, corporations, and others. However, different actors have and promote different visions of both the process and the end goal of this transition.

Embarking on a transition requires agreeing on a baseline assessment, tracing a desirable future, and developing a process, a path, a journey. Understanding the magnitude of the necessary changes and building pathways for these changes also requires a collective process of reflection and construction, democratisation of energy, and an inter- and cross-disciplinary approach in accordance with the complexity of the problems.

Here are just some of the problematic characteristics of the world’s energy systems which we must confront in our transition towards a just and sustainable system: (Bertinat, Chemes, & Arelovich, 2014)(Cornell Global Labor Institute, 2012)

  • Strong growth in energy extraction and consumption, heavily reliant on fossil and non-renewable fuels.
  • Highly concentrated ownership and management of conventional energy resources (in the hands of private entities or held by public entities that function as corporations).
  • High levels of conflict regarding access to energy sources.
  • Conflicts with people and communities affected by the entire chain of energy exploration, extraction, transformation, and use.
  • Serious impacts on biodiversity in both rural and urban areas.
  • Substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions related to the energy sector.
  • Conflicts created by large energy infrastructure projects (many of which have been developed with public funds) with impacts on territories, biodiversity, and affected communities.
  • Inequitable appropriation of energy and its benefits along the entire value chain.
  • A high degree of dependence on fossil-fuel revenues in the economies of the main hydrocarbon producing countries.
  • Private appropriation of energy resources and services for profit. The commercialisation of the energy chain in all its stages.
  • Energy regulations in many countries that are the result of structural adjustment processes in the 1990s which pushed privatisation and market-based approaches.
  • The decline in the efficiency of energy production, meaning that more and more energy is needed to produce one unit of useful energy.
  • The absence of spaces for citizen participation in the creation of energy policies and, above all, in decision-making regarding how natural systems and territories are used.

From these summarised observations, we conclude that change is necessary, and that there are central themes that need addressing:

  • There is growing evidence[1] that there will be less energy available in the future. The finite nature of fossil resources and the fact that fully using reserves that do exist would trigger catastrophic climate change are a current reality.
  • The tremendous inequality and inequity in access to energy for a good life (energy poverty).
  • the impacts of the energy system on ecosystems, territories, and peoples.
  • Increasing concentration of wealth and power in large energy corporations (Bertinat & Kofman, 2019).
  • Continued threats to peoples’ ability to meet their basic needs, either from the privatisation of services or from the actions of state corporations

Some important issues must be highlighted. A peoples’ energy transition is not simply a change in the energy matrix, or a decision about which technological options to adopt. Rather, it is centred on discussing and transforming power relations. There are no infinite energy sources or materials. On the contrary, resources are limited, as is the capacity of the biosphere to absorb the impacts of the energy system.  

Thinking about a peoples’ energy transition, therefore, requires a radical change in the energy system. The energy system cannot be reduced to the production and consumption of certain physical volumes of energy. The system is a complex interrelationship between public policies, sectoral conflicts, geopolitical alliances, business strategies, technological advances, diversifying production, sectoral demands, oligopolies and oligopsonies, the relationship between energy and distribution of wealth, the relationship between energy and the production matrix, relations with technology, and so on (Bertinat, Chemes, & Arelovich, 2014). This complexity demands a solution which is transformative, democratic, and participatory.

  1. See Questions 6, 7, and 12.