Equity in the zero-carbon energy transition

Affordable energy services are essential to a good quality of life. Currently there are major inequalities in access to key energy services, such as warmth and mobility.

Higher income groups use more energy, especially for flying and other long-distance travel, but low-income households spend a much larger proportion of their income on household energy [1], and the effects of this are being exacerbated by rising prices. These issues need to be addressed and not exacerbated if the zero-carbon transition is to be a ‘just transition’.

Fuel and transport poverty are caused by a mix of factors, notably lack of access to capital, low incomes, poor housing quality, use of higher cost tariffs, lack of public transport and ‘forced ownership’ of cars. There is substantial overlap in the socio-demographic groups that are vulnerable to fuel poverty and transport poverty [2]. Both are detrimental to quality of life and contribute to social exclusion and health inequalities. Many of the people at greatest risk also experience discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion in other facets of social life. Many have limited choice in energy and transport services, in particular those in rural areas without access to gas or public transport [3].

Fuel and transport poverty are linked to unequal access to good infrastructure, and therefore vary significantly across the four countries of the UK. There are north-south and urban-rural divides. There are spatial clusters, with high fuel poverty in some peri-urban areas and transport poverty in rural areas and some inner-city areas outside of London [4], as well as higher levels of fuel poverty amongst many minority ethnic groups [5].

All change tends to produce winners and losers, so the impacts on vulnerable groups need to be carefully considered in the net-zero transition. However, it is possible to implement carbon reduction policies in such a way that inequality is also reduced [6]. There are some immediate challenges. In particular, the current fuel price crisis is massively increasing both the extent and seriousness of fuel poverty. A combination of support for low-income households, price controls and expanded energy efficiency programmes will be required to address this [7], see The energy affordability and security crisis.

Travel energy demand is much more unevenly distributed than residential energy demand. It is much higher amongst the richest income groups. The wealthiest 10% of the population is responsible for 25% of all personal transport emissions and for 41% of all flights from the UK [1]. Male, high-income, professionals and large car owners are more likely to be high distance travellers [8]. Frequent flying has been normalised, despite only being undertaken by less than 10% of the population [9]. Policies targeted at the characteristic activities of high energy users could be effective whilst impacting relatively small proportions of the population [10].

Policy interventions to encourage uptake of electric vehicles tend to support car owners who are early adopters, who are predominantly in higher income groups and more mobile. Other lower-cost electric mobility options, such as e-bikes, also warrant support [11]. And an equitable mobility policy needs to support low-income households, especially in areas where much of the population remains ‘car dependent’ because they cannot work from home and live somewhere without good public transport [12].

Zero-carbon heating systems tend to have higher capital costs (heat pumps) and/or higher fuel costs (hydrogen) than current systems, see Buildings and heating. In either case, equity will need to be a major consideration in policy interventions [13].

Flexibility interventions are not a win-win for everyone [14]. Households have very different capacities to contribute to demand response, depending on their circumstances and energy using practices [15]. Distributional effects of time of use tariffs may also depend on location [16]. And smart home technologies can exacerbate inequalities by disempowering people without access to, or skills in, information technology [17].

Reframing energy policy around access to sufficient services would involve questioning expectations and norms about what ‘enough’ means and who gets to decide. Such a sufficiency framing would challenge some existing social and political assumptions [18] and require policy innovation, see Governance and policy.


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