Vermont Law School: The Ethical Dimensions of Energy Policy

EarthzineClimate, Economy, Energy, Health, Original, Politics, Quick Looks, Sections

The human use of energy has profound moral and ethical implications, raising issues that can only be answered by considering notions of justice. Earthzine science writer Osha Gray Davidson blogs about these crucial issues while on a fellowship at the Vermont Law School

Vermont Law School is located in South Royalton, Vermont, on the east side of the Green Mountains. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

Vermont Law School is located in South Royalton, Vermont, on the east side of the Green Mountains. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

Few issues have shaped civilization as profoundly as energy. From exploration and extraction to generation, distribution and use, our complex relationship with energy has defined our lives in countless ways. Today, on a warming planet, the human-energy nexus affects the fate of all living things to a far greater degree than at any time in history.

BenjaminåÊ Sovacool is a researcher and award-winning writer who directs the Danish Centre for Energy Technologies. Sovacool focuses on one of the most important and under-reported questions about energy: How does the concept of justice apply to this critical field?

Sovacool teaches an intensive summer course on ‰ÛÏGlobal Energy Justice‰Û at Vermont Law School (VLS), widely considered as the top environmental law program in the United States. The course examines the current global energy system and associated injustices, explores how ‰ÛÏjustice theory‰Û applies to energy, considers policy mechanisms that promote energy justice, and analyzes case studies around the globe that offer positive examples of how energy justice can be achieved. Thanks to a media fellowship from VLS, Earthzine science writer Osha Gray Davidson will be attending Sovacool’s course from July 7-17 and blogging on these pages about what he learns.

July 15 – Energy poverty

‰Û÷Electricity is just another commodity in the same way that oxygen is just another gas.” Hazel O’Leary, U.S.åÊ Secretary of Energy, 1993-1997.

InåÊEnergy Security, Equality, and Justice, the authors write that, ‰ÛÏElectricity occupies a special place in the global energy system.‰Û There are several reasons for this distinction. Although it powers so much of our technological society, electricity isn’t a fuel in the way we normally use that word. Experts distinguish between primary and secondary forms of energy. Primary energy occurs naturally and includes fossil fuels, uranium, wind, and sunlight. Energy that is produced from primary sources — like electricity and hydrogen — is, not surprisingly, called secondary energy.

To convert primary energy to electricity, the world has 170,000 generators at 75,000 power plants, producing 20,225 billion megawatt-hours of electricity. Most of it (67 percent) is produced by burning fossil fuels. Renewable sources account for roughly 20 percent (mostly from hydroelectric damns), and nuclear power generates about 13 percent of the total. The United States has about 20,000 power plants (26 percent of the global total). In addition to power plants, the broader electrical system includes thousands of coal and uranium mines, railroads and pipelines, to carry primary fuels to power plants, and 4 million miles of transmission and distribution lines to bring electricity to consumers. The system is hugely expensive. In the U.S. alone, expenditures on electricity represent 3.2 percent of our annual GDP, and the infrastructure accounts for 10 percent of all sunk investment.

Until a century ago, humans have always depended almost exclusively on primary sources of energy, heating with coal furnaces, cooking on wood stoves, using horses for transportation and in agriculture. Today, electricity is king, powering everything from lights to stoves to the laptop computer I’m using to research and write this blog — and you’re using to read it.

Most of us can’t imagine a world without access to electricity. But about 1.4 billion people don’t have to imagine this scenario; it’s the life they live every day.

One in five people on the planet don’t have access to electricity.åÊ In addition to lack of access to electricity, dependence on wood, charcoal and dung for cooking is another form of ‰ÛÏenergy poverty.‰Û Using the second definition nearly doubles the total number of people considered energy poor to 2.6 billion (or 37 percent of the world’s population). But ‰ÛÏenergy poverty‰Û is far from random. It is determined by geography and by social, economic, and gender stratification within countries.


Figure 1. Energy poverty by place. Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

Figure 1. Energy poverty by place. Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

Energy poverty is more than an inconvenience. It is truly a life-or-death issue. Four million people die annually from breathing in particulates produced by ‰ÛÏdirty cookstoves.‰Û Because most cooking is done by women, they are the ones most likely to die. And because young children are generally with their mothers in the home, they too die in disproportionate numbers.

Not having access to electricity has a host of other negative consequences, including injuries while gathering firewood, disease contracted from unrefrigerated food and untreated water, and a lack of health care services dependent on electricity.

Within poor countries, electricity is often available only to the wealthy. Where electricity is available, the poor pay up to eight times more for the same amount of power. Large scale energy projects in developing countries, including those financed by international aid organizations, often have few benefits for the bulk of the population. In fact, because of corruption, these projects often result in consolidation of power by elites and further marginalization of the poor.

July 14 – Energy by the numbers

‰ÛÏThe science of political economy, and the distribution of resources, bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics than to mathematics.‰Û Robert Thomas Malthus

Our energy system is vast, complex, and pervasive. In part because of its scale and ubiquity, it is also mostly invisible, hidden in plain sight. In industrialized nations, we simply take it for granted — until something goes wrong, like a power blackout or the oil shocks of the 1970s that forced millions of drivers to wait in lines at gas stations for hours.

Despite Malthus’ statement above, to understand the moral aspects of our energy system it helps to know some of the numbers that describe the system.

Humans use 500 exajoules of energy annually.

Converting that huge number into something familiar makes it easier to grasp. As electricity, 500 exajoules would power a typical American household for 14 billion years (about 3 times longer than the Earth has existed, or about as long as scientists believe the universe has been around). Another way to look at it is if energy use were distributed equally among humankind’s 7 billion people, every person on the planet would have at their disposal, twice as much electricity as the average American household uses. åÊ[Of course, energy isn’t distributed equally; but more on this later].

Humanity depends on fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas for 81 percent of our primary energy needs.


Figure 1. Primary fuel sources. Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

Figure 1. Primary fuel sources. Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

Just five countries account for over half (53%) of global primary energy production (2011). And two countries (China and the United States) produce a third of the global total.

Figure 2. Top energy producing countries. Image Credit: The Shift Project.

Figure 2. Top energy producing countries. Image Credit: The Shift Project.

Global energy usage by sector.

Where does all that energy go? Globally, it can be broken down into four main sectors. Over 50% is used to manufacture goods and for other industrial purposes. The largest portion of the remaining energy pie is used in transportation (26.6 percent of the total).

Figure 3. World Energy by sector. Image Credit:

Figure 3. World Energy by sector. Image Credit: Thomasnet News.

96% of energy used for transportation comes from oil.

Sectors vary in their reliance on specific sources of energy. Transportation relies almost exclusively on oil.

Figure 4. Energy sources for transportation.

Figure 4. Energy sources for transportation (mbd= millions of barrels a day). Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

There are around 1 billion motor vehicles on the planet today.

The U.S. has the largest ‰ÛÏcar population‰Û in the world, with 240 million vehicles. China is in second place with 78 million vehicles or about one third as many as the U.S., but with a human population four times larger than the United States.

The US car population is growing at a rate of about one percent a year. In 2010, China’s vehicle population grew by 27.5 percent — accounting for nearly half of all new vehicles in the world for that year.

Dependence on fossil fuels is a relatively short-term phenomenon.

Figure 5. Global production of fossil fuels over time. Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

Figure 5. Global production of fossil fuels over time. Image Credit: Benjamin Sovacool.

As finite resources, fossil fuel supplies that took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate, will be on a steep decline in a few generations if used at the present rate. (The rate is expected to increase, however.)

åÊJuly 9 – The Case for Energy Justice

Like millions of Americans, I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, hand over heart, without considering what it meant. With repetition, the words quickly became like the lyrics to a familiar song, something to be chanted, sometimes even enjoyed for its cadence, but certainly never analyzed. That’s too bad because the Pledge — especially in its culminating words, ‰ÛÏwith liberty and justice for all‰Û — is a clear statement of what our nation is supposed to be about.

The reach of our aspiration has always exceeded our grasp of implementation, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less relevant. The U.S. Constitution itself has been called ‰ÛÏaspirational,‰Û meaning it’s something we are always striving to perfect in deed as well as word.

It makes sense, then, that the concept of justice pervades our civic lives and undergirds our institutions. We accept this in principle, but, like the Pledge of Allegiance, most of us don’t think too much about the meaning of justice in our everyday lives. This is nowhere more true than in the realm of energy. We flip a switch and a light comes on. We fill our cars with gas and drive away. In the winter, we turn up our thermostat and our homes become warm. What does justice have to do with any of that?

A lot, and that’s the raison d’Ì»tre of the Energy Security and Justice program at the Vermont Law School.

"We're blowing through millions of years of resources in three centuries. Is that fair? Is that just?" Prof. Benjamin Sovacool, Vermont Law School.

“We’re blowing through millions of years of resources in three centuries. Is that fair? Is that just?” Prof. Benjamin Sovacool, Vermont Law School. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

The program was created to ‰ÛÏinvestigate how to provide ethical access to energy services and minimize the injustice of current patterns of energy production and use. It explores how to equitably provide available, affordable, reliable, efficient, environmentally benign, proactively governed and socially acceptable energy services to households and consumers.‰Û

More than at any time in history, all aspects of energy today have a transnational and even a global reach. On a given day a car in Des Moines may be running on gasoline that originated from ancient oil deposits in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Mexico. Coal from West Virginia powers business computers in Shanghai, Seoul, and Mumbai. Nuclear reactors in France are fueled by 11,500 tons of uranium a year, mined in Niger, Canada and Australia. Soup on a stovetop in Berlin is heated by natural gas from a pipeline that originates in western Siberia. It’s easy to forget about these links because energy doesn’t come with a ‰ÛÏplace of origin‰Û sticker.

But whether we think about it or not, there are real consequences to the global energy system. There are winners and losers in this system. At all points along the energy path — from extraction, to refining, distribution, and use — some people benefit from the system as it is. Jobs are created, standards of living rise, people are healthier and live longer. But others are displaced by mining operations or giant hydroelectric projects, or are pushed into poverty or have years shaved off their lives from the effects of air and water pollution. Some are killed outright in wars over oil or other fuels.

How just is our existing energy system? How can it be made more so? These questions are at the heart of the course, ‰ÛÏGlobal Energy Justice,‰Û and I’ll discuss them in more detail over the next two weeks.