The framework of a ‘just’ transition is intended to benefit many parties: green and sustainable energy works towards a more sustainable, fairer world, while those communities who are socio-economically disadvantaged by the transition to green energy from fossil fuels are compensated for their loss – ideally.

In reality, the networks of communities affected by energy technologies and varying levels of energy access are many and complex, and transition towards green energy practices does not always benefit the people immediately impacted. Existing social and economic inequalities can be exacerbated by the presence of energy industries, and international lines can be drawn between many different communities’ experiences of living in and around energy industry centres. This is why community-involvement, and the valuing of social histories, beliefs and stories, is key to imagining and implementing just futures.

This community-centered approach to energy infrastructure and policy is vital to the future of a just transition, an approach that academics at the University of Edinburgh are seeking to explore and amplify in their work. This is led by Energy@Ed, a network at Edinburgh which aims to engage scholars researching both the social and technical aspects of the world of energy.

How arts-driven research can engage communities to inform a ‘just’ transition

The Intersecting Energy Cultures project, launched in 2022 by Dr Rebecca Macklin, during her Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Bethany Wiggin of the University of Pennsylvania, is a transdisciplinary working group of ten research groups focused on community-led, arts and humanities-based work with communities affected by energy regimes, access and transitions. IEC has been made possible with funding from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, Penn Global, and the Edinburgh Futures Institute. This funding has been instrumental in facilitating the network’s workshopping, discussion and development of each research team’s projects, as well as going towards paying community partners who are co-leading on these projects, to compensate them for their work. As well as this, the project is supported by an International Advisory Board, which includes Edinburgh academics Professor Jamie Cross, Director of the Edinburgh Earth Initiative, and Dr Nelson Oppong, Lecturer in African Studies and International Development.

Centering the knowledge and voices of the communities involved in these projects was key to the IEC’s main aims of understanding which research frameworks can best involve communities in energy policy and transition. Dr Macklin, who has since September 2023 taken up the post of Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, said: “Collectively, we are beginning to understand that, in order to achieve a just transition, communities need to be at the heart of decision making. This project seeks to understand how the arts can play a role in this work, not only to better understand community needs around energy policy but to develop new ways of creatively imagining and collaborating to bring about more just futures. In bringing together interdisciplinary research teams from around the world, each working with different arts-based approaches, we have an exciting opportunity to better understand and help shape new methodologies for impactful community-driven energy research.”

Each IEC project widens the narratives of energy industries to include stories seldom heard. These co-led projects include communities in China, Scotland, the USA, Colombia, Ireland, Nigeria and Australia. One project, ‘Products of Our Environment’, explores the effects of extreme heat and climate change on incarcerated people in New York State. Isabel Lane discusses their arts-based approach:

Products of Our Environment (POE) is a collaboration between scholars, writers, and artists inside and outside of prison, and the central focus of our IEC project has been a graphic novella, Evacuation Plan, about a prison sited next to a nuclear plant. The arts-based approach has allowed for a truly remarkable and complex collaboration: scholars Jane Robbins Mize, David Pellow, and I conducted and compiled research about prisons, environmental justice issues, and the lack of evacuation planning in carceral facilities; POE co-founder and incarcerated writer Jared Bozydaj and I drafted the story; incarcerated artist Adam Roberts planned and drew the panels; and Adam’s longtime artistic partner outside of prison, CM Campbell, is currently inking and coloring the pages. Just as the community collaboration shaped and defined our project, our participation in the IEC impacted our focus: we began with only a loose sense of how we would incorporate energy justice into our work on prison and the environment, and working with colleagues across disciplines and types of energy opened our eyes to connections and currents that were previously invisible to us.”

The Intersecting Energy Cultures project will culminate in a final workshop in Aberdeen in July 2024 and will include a visit to St. Fittick’s Park: a local nature reserve and community green space in Torry that is at risk of being lost, following plans to turn the area into an Energy Transition Zone. Dr Macklin observes that this site “captures the importance of an intersectional emphasis when we talk about energy cultures. The local community have experienced decades of disruption from different energy regimes: first through the growth of the oil industry and now further disruption is on the horizon with the attempt to grow renewable energy infrastructures. What we haven’t learnt, however, is how to centre community needs in the process of bringing about an energy transition”.

Learn more about how arts and the environment are intersecting at the University of Edinburgh through Environmental Humanities and in the Edinburgh School of Art.

How community knowledge can inform policy

Again, University of Edinburgh scholars are engaging with this work at the highest level. Earlier this year, Dr. Nelson Oppong, Lecturer in African Studies and International Development, conducted a roundtable talk with the IEC research groups on community perspectives, which has been central to his own work on Ghana’s oil energy transition and the UN’s energy compacts.

Ghana discovered a large reserve of oil in the waters off shore from Cape Three Point in 2007, and since then has been strategizing on how to move forward with their newfound source of potential wealth. Aligning with global goals on climate change mitigation, Ghana also released a National Energy Transition Framework for the years 2022 – 2070. Dr. Oppong is interested in how Ghana will handle the competing goals of oil extraction and energy transition, and his new research project analyses Ghana’s National Energy Transition Committee, using the framework of the UN’s new energy compacts initiative, to offer insights about the potential for Ghana’s post-oil future and what this could mean for local communities.

The UN energy compact initiative is a system of voluntary, trackable commitments that aim to move countries towards a more just, inclusive, and affordable energy transition. Dr. Oppong thinks there are learnings to be taken from the initiative, but hopes Ghana will take these a step further by making them legally binding, as well as more inclusive of public opinion: “If it translates into law, and if it translates into enforceable mechanisms at the national level, and if it also complements democratic processes and civic spaces in countries, then it could be a powerful tool.”

Dr. Oppong emphasizes in his work the importance of community voices and civic action. Through this new research project, he hopes to learn more about public opinion on oil and energy transition in Ghana, as well as how this might inform Ghana’s use of the energy compacts in a way that pushes for an effective, fair and sustainable energy transition. Dr. Oppong is also leading another project funded by Legon Leiden Edinburgh Academic Partnership (LLEAP), which centres issues of civic action and energy transition in urban spaces.

University of Edinburgh is leading the way on ‘community-led’ just transition research

Whether through art, roundtable talks, or policy analysis, it’s important that communities are a key part of conversations surrounding energy transition. The University of Edinburgh is proud to be facilitating research projects, like those listed above, that are community-focussed and approaching the issue of just transition from a range of novel viewpoints.