In Trevor Letcher (ed.), Encyclopedia of Comprehensive Renewable Energy (2020)

Michel Bourban
Université de Lausanne
To avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, two mitigation measures are possible: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing greenhouse gas sinks. This paper starts by explaining that there are strong ethical reasons for favoring the former over the latter. The moral risks raised by a large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies are much greater than the ethical issues raised by replacing fossil fuels with renewables. Although small-scale negative emissions projects have become necessary because of the scarce remaining global carbon budget, the first moral imperative today is still to reduce global emissions rapidly and drastically through a global energy transition. But what is the content of this energy transition? First, to be fair, the energy transition should phase out both fossil energy and nuclear energy from the global energy mix. Both sources of energy come with insurmountable ethical issues. Second, the energy transition is only possible if the prices of fossil fuels increase while the prices of renewables decrease thanks to government subsidies. But to avoid a potential clash between climate justice and social justice, the energy transition should also include compensatory measures to compensate communities and workers who depend on fossil fuel extraction, as well as to offset the potentially regressive effects of carbon pricing policies. Third, given that there are limits on the extent to which fossil fuels can be replaced by renewables, the energy transition ultimately includes a behavioral component at the individual level. To reduce their carbon footprint, it is not sufficient for individuals to consume differently by buying green energy; they should also consume less by adapting their lifestyles, especially in terms of transportation and diet. To think about these behavioral changes which are necessary to make a full energy transition possible, this paper adopts the normative framework of ecological citizenship and a virtue ethics approach supporting ‘energy sobriety’ as a green virtue characteristic of the ecological citizen.
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