23. February 2021Who Loses the Most from Low-carbon Transitions?

Far from being automatically benign, low-carbon transitions and climate mitigation efforts entail power struggles and processes of exacerbating vulnerability. Grounded in literature review of 198 studies and their corresponding 332 case studies, this study confirms the persistent presence of four processes—enclosure, exclusion, encroachment, and entrenchment - across diverse technologies from hydropower to household solar panels.

Low-carbon energy sources are often portrayed as more equitable, egalitarian, and just than fossil-fueled or carbon-intensive energy sources. However, like all large-scale changes, low-carbon transitions can negatively impact certain communities and marginalized spaces.
To shed a better light on the energy justice implications of low-carbon transitions, a new study by Benjamin Sovacool from the University of Sussex undertakes an expert-led literature review of 20 years of political ecology, including 198 studies and their associated 332 case studies. The analysis uses an analytical framework that conceptualises the political ecology of low-carbon transitions as consisting of four distinct processes:

  • Enclosure (capture of land or resources),
  • Exclusion (unfair planning, lack of due process),
  • Encroachment (destruction of the environment), or
  • Entrenchment (worsening of inequality or vulnerability).


Fig. 1. Conceptualizing the political ecology framework of enclosure, exclusion, encroachment, and entrenchment. Source: Author, with inspiration and substantial modification from Bohle et al. (1994).


The review finds that climate mitigation actions “create a fulcrum for elitism, discrimination, and the consolidation of wealth”, across technologies as diverse as wind energy, dams, electric vehicles, residential solar, building retrofits, climate-smart agriculture, land use management, and forestry, in different contexts (energy markets, political economies, different cultures) and countries (Africa to Asia, Europe to North America). Every form of climate mitigation is linked to at least one process of enclosure, exclusion, encroachment, or entrenchment, and many are linked repeatedly and persistently. Nearly 1/3 of the cases in the corpus are associated with all four processes.


Fig. 2. Process of entrenchment, encroachment, exclusion and enclosure in the political ecology of climate mitigation (n = 198 studies). Source: Author.

No fewer than 61 different vulnerable groups of indigenous peoples, aboriginal collectives, or ethnic minorities are identified as being negatively affected by mitigation efforts. Some of them were threatened by multiple processes or mitigation options simultaneously. Sixty-two cases involved violence, including severe violence, murder, and torture. There were also cases involving child prostitution and modern slavery. In other cases, there was a threat of irreversible species loss, destruction of cultural icons, or permanent alteration of ecosystems and landscapes.

In addition to these empirical findings, the study suggests five important starting points for future research:

  • Greater inclusivity and diversity: Research teams should strive for more inclusiveness, especially of the arts and humanities, and perhaps the life and medical sciences.
  • Rigor and comparative analysis: There is a need for more rigorous research designs that can enable replication and increase transparency. More comparative analysis would be better able to build models and theories or translate research into generalizable and actionable findings.
  • Focus on everyday technologies and non-Western case studies: There should be less emphasis on “high technology”, such as smart grids or nuclear power, and more emphasis on “everyday” technologies, such as light bulbs, cook stoves, or bicycles, especially since these latter options are more immediately useful and more widespread among the world’s poor. In addition, the study observes an implicit bias towards WEIRD case studies (in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies), which may also limit the global reach of political ecology efforts.
  • Multi-scalar analysis: There should be a stronger focus on multi-scale and whole-systems thinking to better identify how mitigation efforts rely on resource extraction and mining, production, transportation and construction, policy and planning, operations and use, and disposal and waste streams. Whole systems approaches would help to ensure that the suffering of others is no longer obscured or distorted by distance.
  • Focus on policy and recommendations: The research community needs to strive for more policy relevance. Currently, most studies (about 80%) only identify problems without offering recommendations on how to improve them.

The study concludes that while a future low-carbon world may well be more equitable than the present, this is by no means a given. Without proactive governance, the future may well be more brutal and destructive. As climate change mitigation becomes ever more important for resource planning and national economies, we must work together to ensure that solving the problem of climate change does not exacerbate other equally compelling problems.



Wolfgang Obergassel
Co-Head of Research Unit Global Climate Governance
Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
Energy, Transport, and Climate Policy Division