Energy, Need and Justice

Timeline: May 2013 – May 2016

Our team includes: Gordon Walker, Rosie Day, Neil Simcock, Sylvie Douzou, Ferenc Fodor, Dominique Le Roux

Some of our key questions include:

  • How is and can energy use be positioned within normative theory on notions of need, rights and justice?
  • How is energy demand implicated in public conceptions of what constitutes the necessary elements of an adequate standard of living?
  • How do media discourses explicitly or implicitly connect notions of need, necessity, rights, waste and luxury to the use of and demand for energy?

And these are some of the ideas we are engaging with:

Gordon Walker reflects on how that energy and mobility systems might be linked to understandings of need and normal ways of life.

Neil Simcock discusses how the concept of fundamental human need might alter the scope of debates about energy justice.


The implications of attempting to manage and reduce energy demand will be distributed in different ways across society.  Therefore, we should expect debate about these implications, and for matters of justice to be part of how any interventions are evaluated.  Certain energy services (heat, light, mobility for example) are routinely considered necessary for a minimally decent quality of life and an adequate ability to participate in society.  Yet the exact amounts and forms of these services that are judged to be ‘necessary’, the considerations that are brought to bear when making such judgments, and the process through which such decisions should be taken are all open to contextual variation and debate.  Underpinning notions of need and necessity (and, it follows, what constitutes ‘waste’ and ‘excess’) can be explicitly stated in policy provisions, but also implicitly mobilized in dominant discourses and embedded in established infrastructural and institutional arrangements.

Therefore, as demand management goals are discussed, formulated and implemented, there are many ways in which normative expectations, assumptions, and discursive categorisations will come to the fore and entangle questions of need and justice. These can form potentially problematic (or necessary) boundaries on the scales and forms of demand management that are seen as acceptable and feasible.

Project Content

This project explores the various forms of linkage between energy demand and questions of need and justice, through an interplay between conceptual reasoning, analysis of media and public discourses, and identification of implicit assumptions within energy policy and energy provisioning systems.

We are bringing together several methodological approaches.

  • First, conceptual grounding has come from reviewing academic literature on justice theory, and particularly four key concepts that are often drawn into theories of justice – rights, entitlements, needs and capabilities.
  • Second we are exploring how these concepts and ideas can be mobilised in relation to access to energy services and expectations of what constitutes a minimally-decent standard of living. In this work, we are drawing on secondary data from recent UK studies that have examined what members of the public consider to be the goods and services necessary for a minimally acceptable living standard. Analysing this data, we will examine how energy usage is implicated in these ‘necessary’ goods and services, and how the rationales utilised to define them as ‘necessary’ relate to more abstract concepts of need, capability, or rights.
  • Third, we are examining how these concepts feature explicitly and implicitly in public and media discourse about energy. This work explores how different uses of energy are given normative meaning and purpose in the media, such as being framed as ‘rights’, as ‘needed’, or as ‘wasteful’, and whether and how such meanings are considered contextually dependent. It also examines the different beliefs about who has needs for or rights to certain energy services, and viewpoints about who should decide which forms of energy consumption are needed or acceptable. This process will also provide a sense of how particular framings or beliefs are linked with particular political standpoints.

In undertaking this research we are taking opportunities to interconnect with ongoing work at EDF R&D in Paris, who are conducting research on fuel poverty and access to energy (both within Europe and beyond Europe), including analysis of media reporting and policy measures.  A joint workshop is to be held in late 2014, which will explore several common themes shared by both sets of researchers.  We are also exploring the scope for developing some directly parallel and comparative analysis.

We will use these various approaches to consider more broadly a conceptualization of how notions of need and justice are implicated in the normative meanings that are explicitly and implicitly attached to different energy services in particular contexts, drawing out implications for efforts to reduce or manage energy demand in a ‘just’ and socially acceptable manner. Outputs will result in both academic papers and reports, and non-academic engagement.

For more detailed information about how the project fits into the Demand Research Programme you can read the 13-page DEMAND research summary.

Featured results

Whilst the easiest way to browse our materials is via the Project 4.1 tag, we have collected a few key outputs here.

Key Outputs

  • Walker, G. (2015) “Beyond individual responsibility: sustainable practices, capabilities and the case for a rights-based politics of social change” in Maller, C. & Strengers, Y editors, Beyond Behaviour Change, Routledge.

Key Dissemination Events