From Inclusion to Empowerment: The Social Impacts of a People-Centric Energy Transition
A people-centric energy transition, characterised by a focus on individuals and communities, has emerged as a powerful force in reshaping energy systems while fostering positive social impacts. This is at the heart of a just energy transition.
At its core, a people-centric energy transition can be defined as an approach that places individuals and communities at the heart of decision-making processes whilst ensuring their participation, empowerment, and equitable access to clean energy sources. The approach recognises that the transition to sustainable energy extends beyond new energy technologies; it also necessitates a holistic understanding of social, economic, and environmental dimensions.
According to a recent Ipsos survey, citizens across 29 countries perceive climate action as a shared responsibility between citizens (63%), government (61%), and businesses (59%). This data highlights the recognition that addressing climate change requires collaboration and inclusive participation, with the public, private, and government sectors vital in driving a just transition.
When long-term cooperative efforts are in place to facilitate inclusive participation, a people-centric energy transition brings with it a number of multifaceted benefits. Below, we explore four of the most prominent social impacts of this approach.
Equitable access to clean energy
A key aspect of a people-centric approach is its aim to democratise energy systems. By prioritising the involvement of communities, this approach ensures that disadvantaged groups have equal access to affordable and reliable energy services. It also provides underserved communities greater control and influence over their energy choices.
In rural areas, decentralised energy solutions have become a critical part of involving communities in decision-making processes and empowering them to actively participate. Community-owned renewable energy projects, microgrids, and energy cooperatives enable communities to have increased control over their energy supply, enhancing their ability to withstand disruptions. Increasing access to energy also improves the quality of life for rural communities by providing constant access to electricity for lighting, cooking, education, healthcare, and communication.
One successful example of the deployment of solar-based decentralised mini grids is in Cambodia. In 2000, less than 7% of Cambodia’s rural areas had access to electricity. Today, nearly 100% of these areas have been electrified, benefiting communities in over 13,700 villages. The implementation of mini grids has powered street lights at night to improve the safety and mobility of women and girls. Access to reliable drinking water and enhanced sanitation facilities has also improved. Furthermore, reduced reliance on firewood has freed up time for women and girls, enabling them to pursue education, livelihood development, and other opportunities, while also reducing exposure to indoor air pollution.
Human health and environmental benefits
In 2019, pollution alone was responsible for approximately nine million premature deaths worldwide. Air pollution (both household and ambient) emerged as the 4th leading risk factor for early mortality, contributing to 6.7 million deaths that year; water pollution caused 1.4 million premature deaths.
To address these environmental impacts, a people-centric energy transition is imperative as it prioritises sustainable and responsible resource use—ultimately yielding tangible effects for human welfare.
For instance, transitioning away from polluting fossil fuels such as coal, particularly in highly affected areas, greatly improves air quality and reduces the health risks associated with fossil fuel combustion. Similarly, minimising pollution from energy generation and consumption, such as toxic discharges into water bodies or soil, helps to preserve water quality, protect ecosystems, and reduce the risks to human health.
It is possible to see the positive impacts of air pollution reduction in countries like China, which have made significant advancements in improving human health. Since 2013, China has embarked on an action plan that has successfully reduced PM2.5 levels by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. When the nation went into lockdown in 2020 as a result of COVID-19, China also witnessed a substantial improvement in air quality due to reduced industrial and economic activity. These concerted efforts to combat air pollution have set the stage for remarkable improvements in the country’s life expectancy. Should China’s reduction of air pollution persist, the average individual can anticipate an increase in their lifespan by an average of 42.5 days by 2025.
Greater job inclusivity
Transitioning to cleaner energy sources also opens up new economic opportunities across various sectors. Renewable energy projects such as solar and wind farms require skilled and unskilled labour for construction, maintenance, and operation—all of which will resultantly stimulate local economies, reduce unemployment rates, and enhance income generation.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that the number of jobs in a transformed energy sector could rise to 122 million by 2050. Here, what is particularly noteworthy about the creation of green jobs is how it facilitates greater job inclusivity for women and youth.
At present, IRENA reports that the renewable energy sector employs approximately 32% women, surpassing the average of 22% in the overall energy sector. This data demonstrates the potential for improved gender outcomes in the renewable energy industry.
Additionally, a people-centric energy transition provides more opportunities for youth, minorities, vulnerable individuals, and marginalised populations in the Global South. In a 1.5°C Paris-compliant scenario, IRENA anticipates that fulfilling half of the 122 million jobs created by 2050 will require only a primary or lower secondary education. This underscores how a just energy transition can target a larger social segment, create opportunities for diverse skill sets and education levels, and foster greater social inclusivity.
A people-centric energy transition aims to address social and environmental challenges holistically by promoting sustainable practices and addressing energy access gaps. This focus on poverty alleviation has profound implications for underserved communities, particularly in regions with high levels of energy poverty like Asia and the Pacific region.
In the Asia and Pacific region, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that over 600 million people lack access to electricity, and approximately 1.8 billion still rely on wood or charcoal for cooking and heating their homes.
By prioritising a people-centric energy transition, it is possible to make significant strides in poverty alleviation. Improving energy access in underserved communities can create opportunities for economic growth, enhance education and healthcare services, and foster entrepreneurship. These efforts will especially benefit women and youth who bear the greatest burden of energy poverty. Access to affordable and clean energy sources also reduces reliance on inefficient and harmful energy practices, contributing to improved human health and welfare.
Thus, in the effort to chart sustainable pathways for a just energy transition, a people-centric approach brings about positive social impacts by democratising energy systems, improving access to clean energy, promoting human health and environmental wellbeing, creating inclusive job opportunities, and alleviating poverty. Across Asia, this approach proves paramount to deliver equity and sustainability. Stakeholders in the energy sector must recognise the importance of collaborative and holistic practices to drive meaningful change for a sustainable future for all.