What does it truly take to make our global energy system just and regenerative? As we reimagine our energy landscape, it's crucial to rethink consumption patterns, ensure equitable access, and empower change makers. In his compelling exploration, Forum for the Future's Kunal Sharma writes about the critical shifts necessary for an equitable and sustainable energy transition.  ​

What does it take to overhaul the global energy system? The answer will vary based on who you ask, but chances are their response will largely touch on a combination of the following: the need to rapidly scale renewable energy; drastically cut fossil fuel use; expand power grids, energy storage and electric mobility; radically increase efficiency and vastly increase investment. While all of these are urgent and essential, we must not lose sight of the enabling conditions required for these solutions to be realised at the pace and scale needed.  

An overt focus on the technical aspects of the transition is dangerous; it risks excluding people, and resultantly human behaviour, from our diagnosis of the problem and the solutions we develop in response. My colleagues and I at Forum for the Future hold the view that social and environmental considerations aren’t truly getting their due in shaping the energy transition, posing a grave threat to the deep and urgent transition we seek. 

The urgency of overhauling the global energy system

I share a few data points in support of my assertion. With every passing year new reports are being published that conclude that we are falling further behind the decarbonisation pathway we need to be on to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, though most of the solutions required to achieve this target already exist. Policy action by countries lag their climate pledges, and countries like the UK and Germany have recently backtracked on some of their climate goals and policies. Even the deployment of renewable energy like solar and wind, typically seen as benign, are witnessing challenges from local communities on account of social and environmental concerns. Technologically, we know how to solve the problem, but aren’t doing well on solving it due to other factors that are at play. 

So, what are the implications and the corrective actions needed? These are the weighty, but surprisingly underexplored questions about the energy transition that Forum is grappling with as we endeavour to deliver on our vision of a just and regenerative future in which both people and the planet thrive. 

The implications are obvious; if we do not course correct and address the deep-rooted, systemic deficiencies of the existing energy system, moving from a system that is inequitable and extractive to a just and regenerative one, our approach to the energy transition will remain shallow and piece-meal. We’ll never be able to expand renewables, mobilise finance and deploy other decarbonisation solutions at the pace and scale needed, nor realise the additional value renewables and other solutions can generate for people and the planet. 

Reimagining the energy system 

What’s the solution then? It begins with mindsets and revisiting the purpose of the energy system, thinking not of it as just a means for delivering gigawatts needed to drive economic activity, but understanding how it can build wellbeing and resilience.  

Holding a just and regenerative mindset, we start seeing how the system needs to change and that’s what Forum’s work on the energy transition and the change actors we collaborate with seek to deliver: an energy system that is radically decarbonised and resilient in a rapidly changing world, depends wholly on renewables and other carbon-neutral sources, actively engages those who produce, trade and consume energy in the sector’s development and how it can enable socio-economic resilience, and prioritises universal energy access by providing affordable, reliable, ecologically positive and human-rights respecting energy.  

Fostering a just and regenerative energy transition

We organise our work on the energy transition within three activation areas. Our Reimagine Purpose activation area is building the case for fundamentally changing the way we think about, produce, consume, and value energy. We also seek to repattern power dynamics, by working on governance structures, participatory approaches and business models, to enable citizens and communities to have a greater say in decision-making and deliver a more equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of the energy transition. These are essential building blocks for fostering public support, political will, and business sentiment in favour of the energy transition. 

Our Scaling Socially Just, Ecologically Safe and Regenerative RE activation area recognises that existing business practices, ESG frameworks and laws and regulations in many regions of the world are not fit-for-purpose to deal with the environmental, social and human rights risks that renewables can embody, and threaten their future expansion if such risks are left unaddressed. In response, working with change actors, we are co-creating a compelling vision and principles for renewable energy to be developed and operated in a just and regenerative way, supporting the adoption of practices to deliver on this commitment, and demonstrating the additional value that renewables can deliver when developed in a way that is ecologically positive, rights-respecting, and socially just. 

Our Shape Just Transition Pathways activation area assists change actors to navigate today’s rapidly evolving and uncertain energy landscape that is awash with innovation in new technologies, business models and public policy, as well as competing narratives on the merits and pitfalls of various energy alternatives. We are scanning and sensemaking to identify solutions and pathways that are just and regenerative and consistent with the goal of long-term decarbonisation of the energy system, and to avoid those that are incremental or perpetuate harm to people and the planet. 

If you too believe we need to go deeper to enable the truly just and regenerative energy transition that is so urgently needed, get in touch with Kunal Sharma to explore how we can collaborate.