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Poverty, energy and social justice

On June 18th, as part of Big Green Week, the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute hosted an event entitled ‘Poverty, energy and Social Justice’, at Hamilton House in Stokes Croft.

 ‘Social justice’ relates to making sure that current and future generations can fulfil their needs, whatever they may be, to live life to an acceptable standard. The term is often linked to ensuring that human rights are maintained and that equality is promoted within society. ‘Energy poverty’ is “a lack of access to modern energy services, defined as access to electricity and clean cooking facilities” (International Energy Agency).  In the UK, a household is said to be in ‘fuel poverty’ “if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel, to maintain a satisfactory heating regime” (Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2013).

Definitions covered, the first part of the event involved presentations from three speakers which provided an overview of poverty, energy and social justice at a variety of scales, introduced various interesting themes and shared some surprising statistics.

Simon Roberts, CSE
Firstly, Simon Roberts, Chief Executive at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, provided a national perspective on poverty, energy and social justice. The presentation brought up some interesting comparisons between the highest and lowest income households in the UK. It turns out that households with the top 10% of income emit around 16 tonnes of carbon per person per year, with aviation being a major contributor to that, whilst households with the lowest 10% of incomes emit just 5 tonnes of carbon per person per year, almost entirely from fuel and energy for their homes. It was pointed out that the lower income households emit so little largely because they can’t afford the fuel rather than because they have chosen to live low carbon lifestyles.

Energy policies, such as ‘feed-in tariffs’, in which energy companies will pay you and reduce your bills if you produce renewable or ‘green’ energy in your home, do not consider social justice or energy poverty, in that it is only the reasonably well-off - those with investable capital, that can afford such schemes. This has lead to the lower income households emitting less carbon, contributing to the cost of energy policies (like feed-in tariffs) through their bills and benefiting from the policies the least.  In fact, it has been found that current energy policies have lead to the highest income households receiving reductions in their energy bill of around 12%, whilst the lowest income families are only receiving reductions of 7%. Considering how much more the lower income households could benefit from those reductions, it seems incredibly unfair that current energy policies end up benefitting those that need the reductions least. I didn’t get the impression that this outcome was aimed for by policy makers, but rather that energy policies really do need to be re-assessed so that they benefit those that need it most.

Mareike Schmidt, BCC
Next up was Mareike Schmidt, the Strategic Energy Programme Manager at Bristol City Council, who provided a more Bristol-centric view on matters. Mareike highlighted that, whilst there is no obligation for councils to engage with energy policy, Bristol City Council is very much eager to do so. Although funding is limited, BCC specifically would like to decrease energy bills in the city, increase jobs in the environment sector and keep energy-related money in Bristol - hopefully addressing both energy poverty and social justice in the process.

Karen Bell, UoB
The final presentation of the evening was given by Dr Karen Bell, from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, who provided us all with an international perspective. Dr Bell argued that energy prices cannot rise as this would not only make getting electricity even more unattainable for those that already don’t have access to it, but it would increase the number of people, globally, who live without energy by making it unaffordable to a greater proportion of the population. Some of the options left for dealing with energy poverty then appear to be the uptake of renewable energy, the reduction of energy consumption (by decreasing emissions from non-essential things, rather than making the poor reduce their consumption) or the redistribution of wealth amongst society – moving towards a more equal and ‘just’ society.

Dr Bell explained that inequality in society leads to greater consumption, as the people with the least want to have the same things are those in higher income households, leading to more consumption, more waste, and increases in behaviours such as the consumption of meat and flying around the world. By redistributing wealth within society, perhaps consumption would decrease as people may feel that they ‘need’ fewer material things when they compare themselves to others, more people would be able to afford adequate fuel to achieve a reasonable standard of living and it would even benefit the environment.

This idea of addressing inequality, rather than energy poverty directly, was one of the most memorable ideas of the evening for me; a number of other members of the audience commented on this as well.

Having gone in with very little knowledge of energy policy, poverty or social justice, I came out much more aware of all three and feeling quite enlightened, with a new perspective on problem solving in the context of society – sometimes the seemingly obvious solution (energy policy) is not the most appropriate way of going about dealing with an issue in society (e.g. energy poverty). Sometimes we need to go right back to the cause of a societal issue (inequality) to fix the symptoms.  Hopefully we will begin to see change in this direction over the next couple of decades.

This blog has been written by Sarah Jones, a Geography PhD student at the University of Bristol.
Sarah Jones, University of Bristol

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