NERI Seminar BELFAST: Just energy transitions and ‘full spectrum innovation’: decarbonisation, democratisation, divestment and disruption

25 October 2018, 3:30pm - 4:45pm

Topic: Just energy transitions and ‘full spectrum innovation’: decarbonisation, democratisation, divestment and disruption

Speaker:  Professor John Barry, Queen's University Belfast 

Date:  25th October, 2018

Time:  15:45 (Tea and Coffee from 15:30.  Seminar ends 16:45)

Venue:  INTO, 23-24 College Gardens, Belfast, BT9 6BS

Abstract: While there is a lot of truth in the view that the certainties of the coming century are ‘death, taxes and the inevitable transition to a low carbon economy’, this does not mean this transition will be smooth, just or democratic.  Alongside the decade’s long timeframe such large-scale energy and associated infrastructural, economic and cultural changes require, there are also significant political and economic actors and pressures that are prolonging our continuing ‘carbon lock in’ (Barry et al, 2015).  Overcoming carbon lock in will require major socio-technical innovations at different scales and within different economic sectors.  A key political concern is that any energy transition be a ‘just transition’, that is, that does not disproportionately and negatively effect workers, industrial sectors, communities and regions, or if they are, compensating and mitigating measures are put in place (Healy and Barry, 2017).  The ‘just transition’ approach to moving beyond carbon lock in has its origins in the trades’ union/labour movement.  This presentation will outline a just transition analysis of how the decarbonisation of the energy system requires investment and innovation in growing the low carbon system (which includes but goes beyond energy and electricity production, distribution and consumption, but includes, inter alia, the food, housing, transportation systems).  But it also requires the planned retirement and decommissioning of the carbon energy system (including associated other systems), which means for example the ending of jobs and economic activities based around coal, oil and gas.  The innovation required for such just energy transitions include but go beyond a focus on simply changing the ‘fuel’ (i.e. a shift from oil to renewable energy) which could lead to sustainable but ‘unjust’ transitions, what I have called elsewhere the problems of simply greening ‘business as usual’ or ‘biofuelling the hummer’ (Barry, 2016).  What is required is ‘full spectrum innovation’ which includes changes to the structure and ownership and control of the energy system, opening it up to processes of energy democracy (Trades Unions for Energy Democracy, 2016). 

A just energy transition also requires ‘disruptive innovations’ such as speeding up the process of decarbonisation by divesting from carbon energy. Here the recent historic decision by the Irish state to divest from fossil fuels is an encouraging development, alongside other divestment initiatives across Europe and North America.  The Irish decision also underscores the centrality of the state in any just energy transition, using regulation to drive socio-technical innovations, which should be extended to the state enabling and supporting the democratisation of low carbon energy production, such as community-owned renewable energy (here lessons can be learnt from the German Energiewede or energy transition).   This also requires social innovations not simply in low carbon lifestyles but also experiments in low energy living and communities, where high quality lives, jobs and communities are based on less not more energy (here focusing on the untapped potential of energy conservation, efficiency and reduction).  The presentation concludes by suggesting a just energy transition may require not simply moving beyond carbon and the creation of a green/low carbon/ regenerative economy but also beyond orthodox economic growth, perhaps the most disruptive innovation of all needed to transition beyond our currently sub-optimal and ecocidal energy and development trajectory.    


Barry, J. (2016), ‘Bio-fuelling the Hummer?’, in Byrne, E., Mullally, G. & Sage, C. (eds.), Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the Transition to Sustainability.  London: Routledge, p. 106-124.

Barry, J., Hume, T., Ellis, G. & Curry, R. (2015), ‘Low Carbon Transitions and Post-Fossil Fuel Energy Transformations as Political Struggles: Analysing and Overcoming ‘Carbon Lock-in’’, Energy & Environmental Transformations in a Globalizing World. Athens: Nomiki Bibliothiki, pp. 3-23.

Healy, N. and Barry, J. (2017), ‘Politicizing energy ju

stice and energy system transitions Fossil fuel divestment and a “just transition”’, Energy Policy, 108, pp. 451-459.

Trades Unions for Energy Democracy (2014), TUED Working Paper #4: Power to the People

Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation, available at:

Registration:  Please email


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