Some of you may know that I am in the midst of a PhD. In fact, I am currently in Malawi to conduct some fieldwork! As such, I thought it might be an opportune time to share a bit more about my research field and what it is that I’m exploring in Malawi. I promise I’ll keep this as light as possible. I’ll start with a brief introduction to my field of research. I’m up for any feedback on how I can better discuss these topics to a wider audience.
A Quick Primer
First and foremost, I position myself within the emerging, interdisciplinary field of energy justice. Understandably, energy has long been a technical concern, dominated by fields such as science and engineering. Whether it is the Global North or South, much of the focus when it comes to energy, has been on matters of technical innovation, and how access can be improved. This occurs in a global context where just under 1 billion people lack access to electricity, and climate change necessitates transitions to cleaner forms of energy. Energy justice, as the name suggests, is concerned with issues of justice that arise in energy systems. Think of an energy system as a series of steps/processes that are required for energy to get to our homes for use.
What energy is available? Who decides? Who benefits? Who bears the costs? Who is marginalised? These are some of the crucial questions that the concept of energy justice aims to address through the application of social justice principles to energy systems.
To this end, the field focuses on three forms of justice - distributive, recognition and procedural. Distributive justice is concerned with how the benefits and harms of energy systems are spread across populations. To illustrate through my research, Malawi is a sub Saharan African nation where just 10% of its 17.5 million population have access to grid-based electricity. The (unreliable)grid is largely concentrated in urban centers, meaning that the rural majority (approximately 85% of the population) is disproportionately disadvantaged. To state the obvious, access to electricity is crucial to improving the livelihoods and well-being of households in Malawi. Thus the lack of access represents a fundamental injustice, it constrains efforts to address poverty in one of the poorest countries in the world. Within this context, consider the justice implications if a coal or hydro plant was situated in a rural region that has no grid-based electricity. In this scenario, populations could experience the harms of losing land, of relocation, and pollution, but not necessarily have access to the benefits of electricity and employment. This highlights how there can be fundamental inequities in how the benefits and harms of energy systems are distributed.
Recognition and procedural justice are closely intertwined. Recognition justice is concerned with whose voices are heard and whose are not. Again, put in the context of Malawi, this could involve the extent to which the needs and concerns of the rural poor are taken into account. A recent example involves the Government’s decision to lease diesel-powered generators, instead of investing in a solar farm. The former representing an arguably short-term, expensive and unsustainable response to an energy crisis, while the latter is an ostensibly longer-term , cost-effective solution. The decision to go ahead with diesel generators is also at the heart of a corruption scandal, with questions raised about the tendering process and theft of fuel. Were the energy needs of the rural poor recognised when making this decision? Could decentralised solutions, like solar, have been more appropriate given that the grid mainly caters to an urban minority? In my view, these are crucial questions that the pursuit of energy justice requires.
Related to this, procedural justice is concerned with how people can democratically participate in decisions about energy systems. For instance, how can they voice their views on new power projects, what types of power are used, how they can gain access, and at what price. Delving beyond potential rhetoric about recognition, procedural justice is concerned with the substantive processes through which people can get involved in decision making e.g. genuine consultations, representation on bodies, voting mechanisms. In summary, distributive justice represents the “what” (distribution of benefits and harms), while recognition and procedural justice consider the “who” and “how” respectively. The purpose of this framework being to surface issues of justice and thereby open avenues for more just solutions.
I hope this gave you a suitable introduction to my area of research! In my next post, i will delve into my PhD research, which looks into how issues of energy justice are entangled in the adoption of household solar systems in Northern Malawi.
Thanks for reading,