Benjamin K. Sovacool, professor of earth and environment at Boston University, spoke at a climate justice event at the Dana Samuel Trask Building on Friday to discuss his work on social inequities in the transition to low-carbon energy sources and recommend several policy initiatives to reduce them.
The event, which was jointly hosted by The School for Environment and Sustainability and the School of Public Policy, began with Sovacool highlighting a study he worked on to understand the disparate effects of four prominent low-carbon technologies: clean cookstoves, food-sharing, electric vehicles and solar panels.
The study found that all four technologies perpetuated social inequities across racial, class and gender lines, as well as across geography and generations and between humans and non-humans. Sovacool said it is important to consider not only the presence of each distinct inequity but also how they connect and exacerbate each other.
“Unfortunately for us, these four inequities not only exist for all four innovations, they also interrelate and compound,” Sovacool said.
Rackham student Karl Hoesch told The Michigan Daily after the event that he has always been inspired by Sovacool’s work. He said he is studying large-scale solar installations and that Sovacool’s research on energy justice directly applies to his own studies.
“His work is both inspiring, but also sobering,” Hoesch said. “We’re all invested in the energy transition, and a lot of us are huge proponents of a lot of the technologies that he talked about, like solar, smart meters, electric vehicles, but he brought us down to earth a lot in terms of the justice implications.”
Sovacool also discussed a study reviewing energy transitions in France, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom. The study combined expert interviews, community focus groups and input from internet forums to document the injustices of pro-climate interventions. The research team found 120 distinct injustices resulting from these energy transitions, including the high cost of electric vehicles and human rights violations in uranium mines.
Sovacool said they also found that the impacts of these injustices disproportionately affected marginalized communities.
“Our 120 justices is a sobering laundry list, but it doesn’t really focus on community, even with analysis of the injustices,” Sovacool said. “We also tended to find that many of the impacts aren’t distributed equally, and they tend to migrate to vulnerable roots.”
Sovacool said these injustices are not inevitable and that many can be mitigated by feasible policy changes that bolster the impact of green technology. He pointed to the government rollout of smart meters in the U.K. as one example of an improvement resulting from climate policy. According to Sovacool, smart meter users in the U.K. who change energy suppliers must replace the meter, often leading to frustration and confusion.
Sovacool also pointed to policies in Norway that prioritize incentives for electric vehicles over encouraging mass transit use.
“One of our (study) respondents said the tax incentives a Tesla Model S owner got in 2018, which is coming out of the Treasury (Department), had the same value as 20,000 bus tickets,” Sovacool said. “So, what that policy has done is privilege automobility, and private individual automobility, over potentially 20,000 trips riding on low-carbon mass transit.”
Pamela Jagger, professor of environment and sustainability, told the crowd that Sovacool’s research on climate change has had wide-ranging impacts on policy makers.
“I’m particularly familiar with his work on energy transitions, energy justice,” Jagger said. “He also does work on energy security, climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. His research has been read and taken up by former presidents, current presidents (and) the global community working on climate action.”
Sovacool told The Michigan Daily after the talk that he hopes the campus community — and anyone else passionate about mitigating the effects of climate change — keep in mind the gravity of individual decisions.
“I like reminding people that the decisions that we make about energy aren’t just about electrons or dollars and cents — they are actually ethical decisions,” Sovacool said. “So when you decide whether you want to take the car or not, when you decide if you’re going to have dinner with beef or vegetarian, when you decide what career you’re going to take, which politician to support, where you’re going to invest money — if you are investing money — all of those can actually be ethical decisions that make assumptions about the future and about the environment.”
Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.