Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Justice in energy transitions

April 2024

Stephen Williams (Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia, Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability) and Andréanne Doyon (Assistant Professor and Director of the REM Planning Program, Simon Fraser University, Resource and Environmental Management)


Energy systems are dynamic, driven by factors such as industrial growth, political shifts, social change and emerging technologies demanding new energy sources. “Transitions,” a term coined by social science theorists, represent long-term changes resulting from interconnected economic, social, technological, institutional and ecological developments (Markard et al., 2012). This could include changes in the landscape, from traditional hunting and harvesting grounds to mines and windmill farms. As communities grapple with escalating threats posed by climate change, transitioning from fossil fuel-based energy systems to renewable and sustainable alternatives has become a pressing issue. However, this transition is not without its challenges. Many energy transitions exacerbate existing social inequalities and injustices, particularly the loss of Indigenous culture and protocol. Acknowledging and addressing the impact on people, species and the environment is crucial for just and sustainable transitions. 

In that context, transitions research must incorporate justice in its analysis. The inseparable connection between energy transitions and social justice highlights the significance of fostering an equitable approach to climate change mitigation, ensuring that no community is left behind in the global pursuit of a greener and more sustainable future. Through a literature review and theoretical synthesis, this research developed an analytic framework to support the integration of justice into transitions research. Transitions, environmental justice and energy justice were the main bodies of literature reviewed and analyzed for this research.

State of the scientific literature on the action modality studied

Figure 1. Aerial image of agricultural fields, windmills and fog
Photo by Thomas Richter on Unsplash


A sustainable energy system transition includes changes in buildings, energy and transport systems that enhance energy efficiency and reduce demand or induce a shift from fossil fuels to renewables (Geels et al., 2016). These transitions consider consumer behaviour, markets, institutions, infrastructure, business models and cultural discourses (Geels et al., 2016). The trajectory of incremental or radical change is a central focus, aiming to understand the origins, patterns and mechanisms driving transitions. 

Governance plays an important role in sustainable development transitions, across scales, levels and sectors. Understanding governance, then, provides a historical contextualization and insight regarding the influence of power and politics in transitions (Meadowcroft, 2007, 2011). Geography and scale are also important dimensions in transitions research, addressing questions about the occurrence and unfolding of transitions across different contexts (Holscher et al., 2017). 

Transitions research also observes and examines aspects such as shortcomings in power dynamics, politics, equity and justice (Avelino & Rotmans, 2009; Meadowcroft, 2009). To address these gaps, newer approaches have emerged, incorporating insights from political economy (Geels, 2014), ecology (Lawhon & Murphy, 2021) and geography (Murphy, 2015). The notions of a “just transition” (Swilling and Annecke, 2012) and “justice in transitions” (van Steenbergen and Schipper, 2017) have been introduced to reconcile sustainability challenges with equity and justice, taking into account social, environmental and climate justice. Integrating justice into transitions research involves a broader social science perspective, exploring power dynamics and addressing issues of equity, recognition and representation.

Environmental justice

Environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws and policies” (US EPA, 2018). It aims to address disproportionate environmental impacts on disadvantaged communities (Schlosberg, 2013). Environmental justice supports justice at different scales, including individual, community and non-human species and ecosystems. Environmental justice can be viewed in horizontal and vertical scales. Horizontal injustice brings together diverse groups to address common issues (Walker, 2012). Vertical injustices are global issues that extend borders to recognize relations between countries (Schlosberg, 2013).

The three core concepts of justice within environmental justice are distributive justice, procedural justice and justice as recognition. Distributive justice is the equitable distribution of environmental goods, costs and benefits, considering vulnerability, need and responsibility (Walker, 2012). Procedural justice concerns the inclusion and fairness of decision-making processes regarding environmental and social issues, ensuring public participation and access to information (Walker, 2012). Justice as recognition is the acknowledgment, or lack thereof, of different groups, addressing prejudice and discrimination caused by cultural and institutional processes (Walker, 2012).

Climate justice, a related concept, is concerned with addressing the impacts of climate change on affected communities, with sharing the burden of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and with recognizing the unequal distribution of climate change responsibility and vulnerability. Climate justice highlights how climate change can heighten existing inequalities and affect sustainability governance and decision-making processes (Steele et al., 2012; Barnett, 2006; Adger et al., 2006).

Energy justice

Energy justice is “a global energy system that fairly distributes the benefits and burdens of energy services” and fosters inclusive decision-making (Sovacool et al., 2017). It shifts the focus from resources, technology and prices to understanding the variation in energy intensity among communities (Sovacool, 2014). Energy justice often centers on access to affordable energy, fuel poverty and the politics of energy infrastructures (Fuller & McCauley, 2016).

Energy justice evaluates the emergence of injustices, identifies affected or overlooked stakeholders and explores remediation (Jenkins et al., 2016). It includes three justices: distributional, recognition and procedural (Fuller & McCauley, 2016). The concept has been proposed as a tool to better integrate different forms of justice and enhance the understanding of social aspects in energy systems (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015). Efforts have been made to introduce energy justice into policymaking (Sovacool et al., 2016; Jenkins et al., 2017).

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge in decision-making processes is critical in energy justice (Hulbet & Rayner, 2018). Some critics argue that energy justice has a Western theoretical bias and is primarily human-centric, lacking consideration of other species (Sovacool et al., 2017). Additionally, the spatial dimension of energy justice has been overlooked, and researchers have called for the inclusion of spatial justice and inequality to better assess energy-related injustices (Bouzarovski & Simcok, 2017). As energy systems are complex and large, addressing multiple forms of injustice remains a challenge.

Original research case, method and data 

With the aim to develop an analytical framework for incorporating justice into transitions research, a broad-ranging literature review was conducted to examine how different disciplines have addressed the concept of justice. Three bodies of literature (described above) were reviewed: transitions, environmental justice and energy justice. The focus was to explore how transitions research addresses justice-related aspects such as governance, power, geography and scale. Environmental justice literature was examined for its combination of social and environmental elements. Energy justice was examined for its capacity to bridge the socio-technical focus of transitions research with the socio-ecological foundation of environmental justice. To develop the analytical framework, we analyzed how the different bodies of literature in our literature review responded to questions of justice. We did this by categorizing the different approaches into the three most used forms of justice, which are distributive, procedural and recognition.

The review found that all examined literature prioritizes distributive justice, emphasizing the fair distribution of benefits and costs, particularly on equitable sharing (Schlosberg, 2007). Most literature also addressed procedural justice, highlighting the need for inclusive participation in decision-making processes. Some literature touches on power dynamics, albeit without discussing how power imbalances can be effectively addressed.

Apart from environmental justice, only energy justice, justice in transitions, legal geography and climate justice incorporate recognition-based justice. Recognition-based justice highlights the importance of acknowledging the diverse needs, values and interests of different groups. This approach aims to include historically marginalized groups in decision-making processes and addresses past and present exclusion and disproportionate impacts they have experienced. Incorporating recognition-based justice within transitional frameworks requires adopting alternative governance modes, integrating various forms of knowledge, such as traditional ecological knowledge, and employing facilitation techniques that genuinely involve marginalized communities (Sovacool et al., 2017). It also includes challenging existing methodologies and designs to account for different needs and values.

A series of questions for each form of justice (distributive, procedural and recognition) were developed following the literature review. These questions were designed collaboratively and across sectors to support participants and increase justice in the research process. The questions form our justice and systems transitions framework (Table 1).


The justice and systems transitions framework is to be used by practitioners and researchers designing and implementing processes that facilitate sustainability transitions. The framework may take different forms depending on the project and participants. It seeks to tackle the unresolved issue of recognition-based justice within transitional contexts by adopting an approach that encompasses distributive, procedural and recognition-based elements.

Table 1. Justice and System Transitions Framework
Source: Adaptation of table 5, from Williams, Stephen and Andréanne Doyon. 2019. Justice in energy transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 31, p.150.

There are two main ways in which this framework can provide value. The first is through providing a comprehensive opportunity to understand different forms of justice and how they are impacted through transitions. In the literature reviewed, justice is narrowly defined. For example, recognition is not well addressed in either theory or practice. This framework presents questions and insights for future research and reflection. The second way is through operationalizing an environmentally just transition. While the literature challenges theorists and practitioners to be aware of issues in power transitions, it does not provide details on how to practice it. 

The questions in our framework support a deeper reflective practice to realizing tangible change. In asking these questions before, during and after design and implementation, changes can be made to support justice. When considering the process design and research development, it is important to ask and answer: Who is setting the engagement terms? Who is facilitating and organizing the process? What assumptions are being made, and how can this impact those on whose behalf we are working? Those designing the process must take each and all members of their team into account, a critical component of both recognition and procedural justice. During the process, the most important questions will revolve around ensuring that the process is inclusive, fair and unbiased. At the end of this reflection, an environmentally just transition lens can be used to evaluate the overall process. This may include asking if the process engaged with multiple forms of justice. 

In addition, it is important for theorists and practitioners to consider the context, time, space and geography of their work. In areas where settler/colonial/Indigenous cultures coexist, it is essential to link acknowledgment, truth and reconciliation when dealing with matters of justice and change. For instance, in Canada, Indigenous concerns regarding land and title claims are a central topic in the public discourse about the transition to clean energy. However, the official responses, such as the Government of Canada’s Just Transition Task Force, primarily emphasize resource distribution, with limited recognition of the significance of procedural justice and no mention of acknowledgment (Balkissoon, 2018; Marotta, 2018). Time is another critical dimension, affecting the speed and consideration of various interests in transitions. It also raises questions about inter-generational equity and the representation of future generations. Our framework guides this understanding using different forms of justice. For example, different contexts might present different issues, including income inequality or racism. In this situation, recognition may take different forms. Our proposed framework is intended to support new ways of recognizing and remedying injustice in transitions.


As the world confronts the escalating challenges of climate change, the urgent need to shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources has become increasingly evident. Energy transitions are happening around the world. However, energy transitions present its own set of complexities, particularly through social inequalities and issues of scale. The consequences of neglecting justice considerations in energy transitions, such as marginalized groups bearing disproportionate burdens or being excluded from decision-making processes, lead to further marginalization and must be considered. 

Our research showcases the importance of integrating justice into energy transitions. Participatory approaches, inclusive policies and fair distribution of resources are crucial to foster a more sustainable and socially responsible energy paradigm. Adopting an analytical framework that addresses justice in transitions practice and research allows for reflection on the quality of the transition that is underway. Drawing from various literature including, transitions, environmental justice and energy justice, our framework explores distribution, procedural and recognition justice. While alternative justice frameworks have been proposed, the simplicity and comprehensiveness of our framework make it highly suitable for supporting systems change in energy transitions.

To cite this article

Williams, S., Doyon, A. (2024). Justice in energy transitions. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text

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