/ Human rights law often mentions enabling people to live ‘a dignified life’; how does energy come into play?

Energy access and the right to a dignified life ● Podcast

Much work on access to energy as a basic human right aims to establish minimum levels of energy supply or find ways to reduce consumption and costs. This podcast shifts discussion to social dimensions of energy deprivation, with in-depth exploration of the concepts of ‘energy justice’ and the ‘capabilities approach’.

“If you look at any charter for human rights or national constitutions, the first paragraph usually talks about enabling people to have ‘a dignified life’ as the basis for the legal frameworks,” says Dr. Katrin Großmann, University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany.

Sneaking out after dark to collect water from a public fountain. Waking up to icicles on your bed linens in student housing. Feeling too embarrassed, as an adolescent, to invite friends to your cold, dark home. Being berated by an energy company employee who could never fathom the hoops you’ve jumped through to clear an overdue bill. Seeing social workers roll their eyes while you explain any or all of the above.

Indignity. Humiliation. Isolation. Anxiety. Depression. All of these are common conditions for people facing energy deprivation, according to La Alianza contra la Pobreza Energética (APE / Alliance Against Energy Poverty) in Spain and Students Achieving Valuable Energy Savings (SAVES), a project spanning seven EU countries.[1] Heaped on top of the known health problems linked to being too cold or too hot at home, the social challenges can undermine people’s ability to manage daily life, destroy relationships and crush self-esteem.

Moving away from technical topics such as minimum levels of energy supply or boosting energy efficiency of homes, this fourth podcast co-produced with the ENGAGER Cost network examines how truly upholding the right to energy would address the social impacts of energy poverty.

In particular, with the help of Dr. Neil Simcock, John Moores University (UK), we probe the concept of ‘energy justice’, building on tenets that come out of environmental and climate justice.

Dr. Simcock also walks us through the ‘capabilities approach’ as it can be applied to energy justice. Initially developed by Amartya Sen[1] and Martha Nussbaum,[2] this concept is concerned with whether society is set up to ensure that all people have the same opportunity to ‘be’ and ‘do’. The ability to ‘be in good health’ or to ‘participate in education’ are examples, which Sen and Nussbaum refer to as ‘functionings’. In turn, ‘capabilities’ is about having the opportunity or the freedom to go ahead and achieve such functionings … if a person so wishes. Core to the capabilities approach is that – from a moral, ethical and justice perspective – equality is less about material goods and certain conditions: what really matters it the capability to be and do. Nussbaum identified a list of ten central capabilities.

Across this podcast, academics and advocates make the case for ensuring that all citizens be entitled to adequate energy for a dignified life.

For Jade Monroe of the SAVES programme, the degree to which energy poverty is undermining the well-being and achievements of university students is a question that needs more research. Particularly in that students who perform below their potential because of poor housing conditions may end up trapped in career paths with lower incomes.

Irene Gonzalez-Pijuan (APE) recounts a recent ‘big win’ in Catalonia, achieved by empowering the people who previously felt defeated by energy-related problems. And shares a touching story about what energy access can mean to young children.

This podcast is the fourth in a series of four arising from a conference entitled ‘Co-creating the Right to Energy in Theory and Practice’, organised by the ENGAGER network, at which more than 50 participants shared ideas about meaning and purposes, as well as rights, duties and responsibilities linked to this end goal.

ENGAGER stands for European Energy Poverty: Agenda Co-Creation and Knowledge Innovation, reflecting the network’s aim to bring about transformational change in the investigation and amelioration of household-level energy poverty in Europe. It is supported by COST – European Cooperation in Science & Technology – a funding agency for research and innovation networks that aims to enable scientists to grow their ideas by sharing them with peers.

This podcast series was financed by ENGAGER, through its COST funding.