Energy decisions reframed as justice and ethical concerns


All too often, energy policy and technology discussions are limited to the domains of engineering and economics. Many energy consumers, and even analysts and policymakers, confront and frame energy and climate risks in a moral vacuum, rarely incorporating broader social justice concerns. Here, to remedy this gap, we investigate how concepts from justice and ethics can inform energy decision-making by reframing five energy problems — nuclear waste, involuntary resettlement, energy pollution, energy poverty and climate change — as pressing justice concerns. We conclude by proposing an energy justice framework centred on availability, affordability, due process, transparency and accountability, sustainability, equity and responsibility, which highlights the futurity, fairness and equity dimensions of energy production and use.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Disparities in electricity consumption between New York state and sub-Saharan Africa.


  1. 1

    Jones, B. R., Sovacool, B. & Sidortsov, R. V. Making the ethical and philosophical case for ‘energy justice’. Environ. Ethics 37, 145–168 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Smith, K. R., Desai, M. A., Rogers, J. V. & Houghton, R. A. Joint CO2 and CH4 accountability for global warming. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, E2865–E2874 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Matthew, R. A. in Climate Change: What it Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren (eds DiMento, J. F. C. & Doughman, P. ) 161–180 (MIT Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Wilkinson, P., Smith, K., Joffe, M. & Haines, A. A global perspective on energy: health effects and injustices. Lancet 370, 965–977 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Jamieson, D. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — and What it Means for Our Future (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Markowitz, E. M. & Shariff, A. F. Climate change and moral judgment. Nature Clim. Change 2, 243–247 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Stoknes, P. E. Rethinking climate communications and the psychological climate paradox. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 1, 161–170 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Sovacool, B. K. & Dworkin, M. Global Energy Justice: Problems, Principles, and Practices (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Moellendorf, D. Cosmopolitan Justice (Westview, 2002).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Beitz, C. Cosmopolitan ideals and national sentiment. J. Philos. 80, 591–600 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Held, D. Cosmopolitanism: Ideas and Realities (Polity, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Pogge, T. Cosmopolitanism and sovereignty. Ethics 103, 48–75 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Sen, A. Resources, Values and Development (Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Sen, A. Development as Freedom (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Nussbaum, M. C. Creating Capabilities: the Human Development Approach (Belknap, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Singer, P. One World: the Ethics of Globalization (Yale Univ. Press, 2002).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Brock, G. Global Justice: a Cosmopolitan Account (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Weiss, E. B. In Fairness to Future Generations: International Law, Common Patrimony, and Intergenerational Equity (Transnational, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Harris, P. G. in Ethics and Global Environmental Policy: Cosmopolitan Conceptions of Climate Change (ed. Harris, P. G. ) 1–19 (Edward Elgar, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Barry, B. Theories of Justice (Univ. California Press, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Hinman, L. M. Ethics: a Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory (Wadsworth, 2008).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Sandel, M. Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    World Commission on Dams The Report of the World Commission on Dams (Earthscan, 2001).

  24. 24

    Walsh, S. & Stainsby, M. in Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World (ed. Abramsky, K. ) 341–352 (AK, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Downing, T. E. Avoiding New Poverty: Mining-Inducted Displacement and Resettlement (International Institute for Environment and Development, 2002).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Hunter, D. Using the World Bank Inspection Panel to defend the interests of project-affected people. Chic. J. Int. Law 4, 201–211 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Walker, G. Environmental Justice: Concepts, Evidence, and Politics (Routledge, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Weston, B. H. Climate change and intergenerational justice: foundational reflections. Vermont J. Environ. Law 9, 375–430 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Paavola, J., Adger, W. N. & Huq, S. in Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change (eds Adger, W. N. et al.) 263–277 (MIT Press, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Habermas, J. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (MIT Press, 1996).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Colchester, M. & Ferrari, M. F. Making FPIC - Free, Prior and Informed Consent - Work: Challenges and Prospects for Indigenous People (Forest Peoples Project, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    United Nations Free Prior Informed Consent and Beyond: the Experience of IFAD (IFAD, 2005).

  33. 33

    Hitch, M. & Fidler, C. R. Impact and benefit agreements: a contentious issue for environmental and aboriginal justice. Environments J. 35, 45–69 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Tilton, J. E. Mineral endowment, public policy and competitiveness: a survey of issues. Resour. Policy 18, 237–249 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Wilburn, K. M. & Wilburn, R. Achieving social license to operate using stakeholder theory. J. Int. Bus. Ethics 4, 3–16 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Kleinman, M. T. The Health Effects of Air Pollution on Children (Univ. California Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Ard, K. Trends in exposure to industrial air toxins for different racial and socioeconomic groups: a spatial and temporal examination of environmental inequality in the U. S. from 1995 to 2004. Soc. Sci. Res. 53, 375–390 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Holifield, R. Environmental justice as recognition and participation in risk assessment: negotiating and translating health risk at a superfund site in Indian country. Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 102, 591–613 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Allen, D. W. Social class, race, and toxic releases in American counties. Soc. Sci. J. 38, 13–25 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Ottaviano, D. M. Environmental Justice: New Clean Air Act Regulations and the Anticipated Impact on Minority Communities (Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  41. 41

    Steger, T. Making the Case for Environmental Justice in Central and Eastern Europe (CEU Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Linnerooth-Bayer, J. & Vari, A. in Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change (eds Adger, W. N. et al.) 239–259 (MIT Press, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    Berkovitz, D. M. Pariahs and prophets: nuclear energy, global warming, and intergenerational justice. Columbia J. Environ. Law 17, 245–326 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44

    Dworkin, R. M. Taking Rights Seriously (Harvard Univ. Press, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45

    Global Tracking Framework: Energy Access (World Bank, 2015).

  46. 46

    Sovacool, B. K., Sidortsov, R. V. & Jones, B. R. Energy Security, Equality, and Justice (Routledge, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47

    Lelieveld, J., Evans, J. S., Giannadaki, D., Fnais, M. & Pozzer, A. The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale. Nature 525, 367–371 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48

    Overcoming Vulnerability to Rising Oil Prices: Options for Asia and the Pacific (UNDP, 2007).

  49. 49

    Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice Revised edn (Belknap, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  50. 50

    Dworkin, R. M. Sovereign Virtue: the Theory and Practice of Equality (Harvard Univ. Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51

    Shue, H. in The Ethics of Global Climate Change (ed. Arnold, D. G. ) 292–314 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52

    Rao, N. & Baer, P. “Decent living” emissions: a conceptual framework. Sustainability 4, 656–681 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53

    Shue, H. Subsistence emissions and luxury emissions. Law Policy 15, 39–59 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54

    Shue, H. Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence and U. S. Foreign Policy (Princeton Univ. Press, 1980).

    Google Scholar 

  55. 55

    Caney, S. Cosmopolitan justice, responsibility, and global climate change. Lei. J. Int. Law 18, 747–775 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56

    Funk, A. & Sovacool, B. K. Wasted opportunities: resolving the impasse in United States nuclear waste policy. Energy Law J. 34, 113–147 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57

    Current Status of Spent Nuclear Fuel ANA Information Sheet (Australian Nuclear Association, 2015).

  58. 58

    Sovacool, B. K. & Funk, A. Wrestling with the hydra of nuclear waste storage in the United States. Electric. J. 26, 67–78 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59

    Weinberg, A. M. Social institutions and nuclear energy. Science 177 27–34 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. 60

    Weinberg, A. M. Immortal energy systems and intergenerational justice. Energy Policy 13, 51–59 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. 61

    Shue, H. in Perspectives on Climate Change: Science, Economics, Politics, Ethics (eds Sinnott-Armstrong, W. & Howarth, R. B. ) 265–283 (Elsevier, 2005).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62

    Nolt, J. in The Ethics of Global Climate Change (ed. Arnold, D. G. ) 61–76 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  63. 63

    Barry, B. in Obligations to Future Generations (eds Sikora, R. & Barry, B. M. ) 204–248 (Temple Univ. Press, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

  64. 64

    Barry, B. in Energy and the Future (eds MacLean, D. & Brown, P. G. ) 15–30 (Rowman and Littlefield, 1983).

    Google Scholar 

  65. 65

    Barry, B. in Democracy, Power, and Justice: Essays in Political Theory (ed. Barry, B. ) 511–525 (Clarendon, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  66. 66

    deShalit, A. Why Posterity Matters: Environmental Policies and Future Generations (Routledge, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  67. 67

    Ash, J. New nuclear energy, risk, and justice: regulatory strategies for an era of limited trust. Polit. Policy 38, 255–284 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. 68

    Shrader-Frechette, K. What will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, not Nuclear Power (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  69. 69

    Bodde, D. L. in Energy and the Future (eds MacLean, D. & Brown, P. G. ) 120–128 (Rowman and Littlefield, 1983).

    Google Scholar 

  70. 70

    Prouty, A. E. The clean development mechanisms and its implications for climate justice. Columbia J. Environ. Law 34, 513–540 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  71. 71

    Hope, C. How deep should the deep cuts be? Optimal CO2 emissions over time under uncertainty. Clim. Policy 9, 3–8 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. 72

    de Bruin, K., Dellink, R. & Agrawala, S. Economic Aspects of Adaptation to Climate Change: Integrated Assessment Modeling of Adaptation Costs and Benefits (OECD, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  73. 73

    Gupta, J. et al. in Making Climate Change Work for Us: European Perspectives on Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies (ed. Neufeldt, M. H. H. ) 319–339 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

  74. 74

    Peake, S. & Smith, J. Climate Change: from Science to Sustainability (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  75. 75

    IPCC Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  76. 76

    Frumhoff, P., Heede, R. & Oreskes, N. The climate responsibilities of industrial carbon producers. Climatic Change 132 157–171 (2015).

  77. 77

    Climate Change and Human Rights: a Rough Guide (International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2008).

  78. 78

    Gardiner, S. M. in Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (eds Gardiner, S. et al.) 3–35 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

  79. 79

    Neumayer, E. In defence of historical accountability for greenhouse gas emissions. Ecol. Econ. 33, 185–192 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. 80

    Eriksen, S. et al. When not every response to climate change is a good one: identifying principles for sustainable adaptation. Clim. Dev. 3, 7–20 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. 81

    Brulle, R. J. & Antonio, R. J. The Pope's fateful vision of hope for society and the planet. Nature Clim. Change 5, 900–901 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. 82

    Carvalho, A. The Pope's encyclical as a call for democratic social change. Nature Clim. Change 5, 905–907 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. 83

    Singer, P. Practical Ethics (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  84. 84

    International Energy Agency, United Nations Development Programme & United Nations Industrial Development Organization Energy Poverty: How to Make Modern Energy Access Universal? (OECD/IEA, 2010).

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin K. Sovacool.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sovacool, B., Heffron, R., McCauley, D. et al. Energy decisions reframed as justice and ethical concerns. Nat Energy 1, 16024 (2016).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing