Energy justice in the COVID-19 era

Stefan Bouzarovski, Professor of Geography, explores how our response to COVID-19 could shape our environmental and societal futures.

At no other point in history have people been more dependent on the social and technical infrastructures of domestic and residential energy use to sustain their everyday lives and wider economic and emotional connections.

Understanding the social and technical forces that shape urban energy consumption has become critical. Not only to address the widening energy inequality but also because this understanding can help us develop more comprehensive, decisive, determined responses to contemporary crises – health, environmental or societal issues.  

We are situated at a very critical historical juncture at a moment in time that can deeply reconfigure our shared environmental and societal futures. When the pandemic is over, there may be a path for a greener, healthier and fairer future underpinned by alternative visions of economic and social development.

Recorded in September 2020

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Lecture transcript

The COVID-19 pandemic has confined many people to their homes, often for prolonged periods of time, and so energy use in the home has increased rapidly and become much more complex. And in fact, at no other point in history have people been more dependent on the social and technical infrastructures of domestic and residential energy use to sustain their everyday lives and wider economic and emotional connections.

We know that some people have been affected more than others by the pandemic - urban dwellers as a whole are among the most vulnerable - and this can be attributed to a combination of circumstances whether socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, gendered, spatial, political.

Now, in light of all this, understanding the social and technical forces that shape urban energy consumption becomes very important and it can help us develop more comprehensive, decisive, determined responses to contemporary crises, whether those are health issues or in environmental terms but also in social terms.

At The University of Manchester, we take these issues of urban energy demand and consumption very seriously; not only in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but also with regard to sustainability policies and research more broadly.

We study the relationship between energy and cities in highly integrative terms. We bring together various technical and social science disciplines - human geography, engineering, economics, sociology, political science, planning and many others. We're part of a growing community of academics - practitioners, advocates, decision makers - working on these issues and I think we are situated at a very unique and very critical historical juncture at a moment in time that can deeply reconfigure our shared environmental and societal futures.

All of this extends beyond practical and policy solutions. It actually involves the capacity to formulate, to imagine, alternative radical, progressive, visions of infrastructural and economic development.

We acknowledge that implementing successful climate change mitigation, but also other environmental objectives, is fundamentally predicated upon deep transformations in urban energy end use. And this is because urban energy consumption is embedded in the conduct of everyday life, the regulation of economic activity and the practice of political power.

Energy demand itself shapes the development trajectories of cities, of neighbourhoods, of regions across the world. Cities themselves can be seen as nodes of energy, circulations of energy flows, where you have multiple systems and modes of infrastructure provision becoming entangled with things like society, culture, economics.

Moreover, we have changing dynamics of governance where you have the entry of non-state actors, you have the increasing role of local authorities in infrastructure management - sometimes they are constrained by austerity policies - and you have also continued dynamics of globalisation.

So, therefore you need, if you have a low carbon transformation, you need the restructuring of existing and future relationships between cities and energy in political and governance terms as well.