The right to energy: ambivalent, contingent, problematic (reading group summary)

An experiment in bringing together the still developing thinking and insights of project 4.1, and discussions that have taken place in recent Paris and Taipei workshops, by engaging with growing discourse around the right to energy

Rights-based talk has increasingly incorporated energy – alongside water, housing, food – into a set of ‘second generation’ rights that seek to specify the politically significant socio-economic or welfare demands of contemporary (global) citizenship. The ‘right to energy’, as articulated in both international and regional forms, seeks to asset that energy matters to the degree that it is more than just another commodity, and that the state and other actors involved in energy provisioning therefore have obligations that go beyond normal (uneven) market relations.

In this discussion I will consider what it means to conceive of a right to energy, and how, in so doing, it is necessary to consider carefully what energy is for. Setting the right to energy alongside the more established provenance of the right to water, highlights that energy is not one thing (a constructed rather than a natural category), and that its value and demand is derived – for multiple services – rather than more immediately vital or direct. Both these characteristics complicate the practical formulation of a right to energy per se, and suggest (maybe) that more specific terms are more appropriate – the right to electricity, the right to warmth, for example. They also flow into distinctions between a right to access (which gives attention to supply infrastructure and the possibility of demand) and a right to use (which gives attention to the terms of supply, affordability, and the necessity of demand); as well as to the degree to which the right to energy can or should take a universal form, applicable globally and socially to all.

The right to energy emerges from this analysis as significantly ambivalent (in that its meaning is slippery and imprecise), contingent (in that context and conditions matter) and for these (and other) reasons problematic (in that there are internal normative and practical tensions). These arguments have implications for rights-based talk related to energy, and the translation of political rhetoric and generic normative concerns into specific meanings and formulations.