The rapid transition to clean energy is fraught with potential inequities. As clean energy policies ramp up in scale and ambition, they confront challenging new questions: Who should pay for the transition? Who should live next to the industrial-scale wind and solar farms these policies promote? Will the new “green” economy be a fairer one, with more widespread opportunity, than the fossil fuel economy it is replacing? Who gets to decide what kinds of resources power our decarbonized world? In this article, we frame these challenges as part of an emerging agenda of “clean energy justice.” Mapping this agenda highlights the equity challenges that will attend the transition to clean energy, and allows for more comprehensive, creative approaches to legal and policy solutions.
A cleaner energy economy does not ineluctably translate into a more just economy. We identify four considerations that will be critical to ensure that clean energy does not entrench widening inequalities in wealth and power: (1) how to fund the transition; (2) who benefits from the upsides of the new clean energy economy, including green jobs and new technologies like rooftop solar panels; (3) who participates in decisions about the shape of the new clean energy economy; and (4) how and where new clean energy infrastructure is sited. Drawing from available data, we describe why there are real risks that the gains of clean energy might be unequally distributed, while the costs fall on rural communities and non-adopters of new technologies, thus exacerbating inequality while greening the grid. And through original empirical research, we highlight the challenges of full and equal participation in the esoteric, technocratic procedures of energy law.
The present moment is a critical one for bringing these diverse considerations together into this overarching agenda. The U.S. energy system is in the early days of a long transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy. It is time for energy lawmakers and energy law scholars to better anticipate the distributive and procedural justice concerns that will attend this transition, and to forge new ways to address them.
Joel B. Eisen and Shelley Welton, Clean Energy Justice: Charting an Emerging Agenda, 43 Harvard Envtl. L. Rev. 307 (2019).