How the energy transition can promote social justice and a stronger Europe

Ashwini Chaudhary Monty

The Global Social Challenges (GSC) research pillar comprises six global challenges. Dr. Iain Todd, the lead investigator of the social challenge ‘Climate and Energy transition’, argues that climate change is currently the most significant challenge facing the world. As it has the potential to affect all living things on our planet. Still, he is optimistic that climate change will be solved, although it will be tough. “In 200 years, people will look back on this time and wonder why we did not take action faster because we knew what needed to be done.”

What is your background, and how did you become interested in the energy and climate transition?

I started my career as an energy consultant engineer. After that, I worked as a civil servant for various government bodies in the energy sector. In 2017 I started my PhD at the University of St. Andrews, where I researched the societal barriers to solar energy in South Africa. I focus my research at Erasmus University on a just energy transition. During my first research project for the GSC pillar, I looked at how the Covid-crisis will affect the delivery of climate change goals in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

What did you find during your research on how the Covid-crisis influences our climate goals?

We conducted interviews with national experts in both countries. Some thought that demands and the cost of Covid-19 would divert attention away from climate change. Others believed this was an opportunity and that the economic recovery after Covid-19 could help with the green investment. And indeed, we have seen the EU make substantial spending plans for green investment, known as the Green Deal, post-Covid. Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused the EU to compromise on some of its policy decisions. For example, Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy, but are now re-evaluating that decision.  

Would you argue that the Russian invasion will negatively affect countries’ policies to counter climate change? 

In the long run, it will put Europe in a stronger position. It pushes the EU to become more self-sufficient and invest in renewable energy. As we see now, you get political pressure and tradeoffs with imported fuel. Europe will be much stronger if it supplies all of its own energy. It has great resources like wind and solar. It will just take time to build the appropriate infrastructure. 

You focus your research efforts on a ‘just’ energy transition. What do you mean by that?

In a nutshell, an energy transition is when we move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But there are different ways you can do that. A just energy transition divides the benefits and the burdens equally among different societal sectors. Energy systems last for 25 or 50 years, so the impact of an energy system lasts a long time. There can be social benefits to all parts of society from this change. For example, in many African countries, women prepare meals with wood fuel and breathe in smoke that has detrimental health effects. Suppose African countries get the opportunity to switch to more green energy sources. In that case, it also provides the opportunity to improve gender equality. 

What is necessary for a just energy transition to happen?

Citizens, companies and governments all have their part to play. Based on our previous research into the role of the Covid-19 crisis on climate change plans we have made policy recommendations. First, we need more green investment from companies and governments, and second, we must cut our fuel use. The last policy recommendation was to use the tax system to help poorer parts of society so that the energy transition burden is more equitable. 

How do you view the role of citizens in the energy transition?

Energy use can be divided into three equal groups; electricity, heating and transport. We can make individual choices in all three: you can switch appliances off, decide to cycle or use public transportation and turn our thermostat down like the International Energy Agency recommended earlier this year. If everyone in Europe turned their thermostat down by one degree, it would have a massive effect.

How do you hope your research contributes to a just energy transition?

I hope to inspire the younger generation, although most are already very engaged on this topic. I provided classes on the energy transition in schools in the UK. I was always impressed with how aware young people are of the issues. Also, I see a lot of interest in climate change among students who want to work in the environmental sector. The younger generation is now entering the voting population, and I think their voting for the green sectors will only increase. This will pressure governments to progress in this area. 

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