Social Sustainability in the UK’s Energy Transition: Understanding the importance and challenges of the often overlooked “S” in ESG

Simone Abram is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University and is the Executive Director of Durham Energy Institute.

Durham Energy Institute (DEI) is one of the first energy centres to take a truly interdisciplinary research approach – not just between Engineers and Economists but also with Anthropologists, Geographers, Physicists, Chemists, Biologists, Philosophers, Law researchers and more. DEI, through its partnerships with both local and national and government, international organisations, as well as industry-leading companies such as Ørsted, emphasises a ‘Science and Society’ approach to energy which integrates social, policy and technical insights to produce world-leading research on decarbonisation1. Simone’s work has focused extensively on anthropological or interdisciplinary perspectives for an extensive range of energy-related challenges and how this impacts the current debate about a Just Transition2.

What does social sustainability mean in the context of the energy transition?

Debates about Sustainability were brought into focus at the Rio Earth Summit in 19923. By then, it was evident that addressing climate change was both urgent and complex. The UN had already proposed a three-pillar understanding of sustainability that incorporated social, economic and environmental sustainability, the so-called ‘Energy Trilemma’ 4. These three pillars were an attempt to show that addressing climate change was not just a simple question of replacing one technology with another, but that all three elements are co-dependent. Further, once you start to ask why climate change is accelerating, and greenhouse gas emissions escalating, it is impossible to ignore the socio-economic causes and impacts of environmental pollution.

Talking about social sustainability is a way to keep attention on the effects that both climate change and its impacts have on society. What makes societies sustainable is highly contested – is it greater equality, higher standards of living, justice or rule of law? And is economy part of society or is it a form of politics? Despite such controversies, it is clear that moves to address climate change, or to move energy systems towards decarbonisation, rarely succeed if those affected by change are not constructively engaged in the processes of change. Social sustainability suggests change that is beneficial and widely supported across society.

Are there examples of initiatives that have successfully promoted social equity within the energy transition?

The Research Centre for Socially Inclusive Energy Transitions (‘Include’) has looked at the role of collective responses to climate change5. What opportunities are there to effect inclusive changes in energy systems, and which organisations should lead? Include’s research is focused on the Norwegian context, where, broadly speaking, local authorities have both the credibility and resources to be ‘agents of change’. This is true in many countries where local authorities are close enough to the ground and have the powers to change the conditions for construction or energy infrastructures.

In the UK, the picture looks different, and it is often left to voluntary or charitable organisations to insist on justice in energy transitions. Some third sector initiatives have shown the way, such as through cooperative investment in infrastructure (such as wind or solar farms), but these still rely mainly on ordinary householders being able to afford to make investments. They do have the beneficial side-effect of generating interest among investors in the broader issues of decarbonisation: although early adopters might install solar roof-panels because they’re interested in renewables, people who invest in panels to save on energy costs in the long run often become more interested in decarbonisation and climate action in general.

But it is hard to see how this helps people unable to pay their energy bills or otherwise struggling with the cost of living, who are also more likely to live in poorly insulated housing.

How can the energy transition ensure that the benefits of renewable energy are shared fairly right across society?

Increasingly, energy infrastructure companies are realising that even though they might proceed according to the book, gaining all the relevant licences and permissions to build new power plants, they will meet objections and even protests if they don’t work with the people living and working around the sites where they aim to build. There are many reasons for this, whether it is because they feel that investors are like absentee landlords, building solar farms or hydrogen networks and taking all the profit, or because they haven’t been part of the decision-making process, or because they’ve been led to believe that renewable energy schemes are some kind of scam. Here, economists assume that offering people a cash share in the benefits of a scheme is enough to placate them, but other social scientists find this both misguided and patronising. People may have real concerns, and would be further concerned by moves that look like attempts to buy them off.

In contrast, where schemes have been carefully prepared, with genuine engagement, transformations can be welcomed. A major neighbourhood retrofit in Craghead, in County Durham, for example, saw several streets of privately-owned terraced houses completely retrofitted – after several years of engagement with each and every household by local authority officers. There are similar examples where housing associations have been able to co-design energy efficiency projects. It is both simple and complicated. Simple, in that the process is one of genuine, committed engagement over time. Complicated in that engagement is demanding and time-consuming. Done well, though, it works.

What role can communities play in shaping the direction of the energy transition?

Communities are key to the energy transition, but when we say ‘communities’, we may be imagining quite different things. We tend to project both ideals and prejudices about society when we talk about ‘communities’, so it can be helpful to look other words that better describe who we have in mind. Most of us have varied and overlapping social groups who we relate to, whether that’s people who live nearby, people we socialise with, near and extended families, special interest groups or other societies and associations.

The point here is that it is not just the authorities who should decide ‘for us’ how best to make energy systems more equitable and less carbon-emitting. The question is how people who are not directly involved in either government or energy industries can have a say. Whether that is through activism, investment, changing energy practices or consumer pressure, those in charge need to listen to the widest range of voices, and think about what is being said. What are people’s fears and hopes? What are people able to do, and where do they feel disempowered? Certainly, greater knowledge and awareness of what people can do differently at home, at work or on holiday will help people make informed decisions about their own choices, but my concerns are with the choices that are available to people in the first place. People can get together to develop their own renewable energy projects, but without access to knowledge and finance, and where regulations are designed for the needs of large corporations and not community-groups, the odds are against their success – so the successful projects that we do see represent the phenomenal dedication and persistence of the people who get them to work.

What role do policies and regulations play in promoting social sustainability within the energy transition? (Minimising job displacement, energy poverty)

This is the big question. Many of the arguments around the role of the energy regulator, or the various transmission and distribution operators, not to mention energy suppliers and planning authorities, highlight the journey still to travel between business-as-usual and a truly equitable, inclusive energy transition. Large, stable organisations rely on tradition or conventions, and shared assumptions about the world – that is what makes them stable and enduring. But this also makes it difficult to change course, to recognise prejudices or blind spots, or adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

At present, policy development tends to assess proposals through impact assessments – which are very important, of course. But what if we started with the desired outcome from the perspective of broader society and environment, and derived policy and strategy from there; would that offer more considered policy? Should we be doing a policy-impact assessment based on social and environmental goals rather than the other way round? Even undertaking this kind of thought experiment can be a way for regulatory and policy actors to unbundle some of their normal practice, to check if they are really fit for the new purposes of an equitable energy transition.

Our rather disjointed and partial set of energy policies in the UK (particularly in England) need to move towards a coherent approach to the energy transition in which social sustainability or equity are central to every step. They need to recognise that there is no such thing as a purely technical regulation, but that every technical assumption has social repercussions that should be aired and considered. And they need to include energy service users in the design of energy policy and have the courage to listen to diverse voices, including those who are saying things that may be unwelcome. Those are often the most valuable and thought-provoking contributions.

[1] Durham University. About
us – Durham University  

[2] Durham University. New
interim director for the Durham Energy Institute – Durham University

[3] United Nations.
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil, 3-14 June 1992
, United Nations.

[4] Our Common Future, Report
of the World Commission on Environment and Development
, Oxford University
Press, 1987. 

[5] University of Oslo, Include – Research centre for socially inclusive energy transitions

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