Navigating the complex landscape of energy ethics for a sustainable future: A European perspective

Navigating the complex landscape of energy ethics for a sustainable future A European perspective Areti Ntaradimou

Photo: EUSEW


June 26, 2024



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June 26, 2024



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Author: Areti Ntaradimou, Brussels Editor at Enlit Media and EU Projects Officer at Enlit Europe, a EUSEW partner organisation

We live in an era that is defined by rapid technological advancements and a growing global population. That makes the ethical implications of our energy choices more critical than ever. The quest for sustainable and morally responsible energy solutions is not just a matter of scientific and economic importance anymore, but also a profound ethical challenge. The decisions we make today shape our present, and as if this was not significant enough already, they also determine the quality of life for future generations. This article explores the complex landscape of energy ethics from a European perspective, examining key issues such as environmental sustainability, social justice, intergenerational equity, and global responsibility.

“Act so that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life,”  wrote philosopher Hans Jonas in 1979. This principle highlights the importance of long-term sustainable practices and is without doubt paramount to energy ethics. At its core, this field of ethics addresses questions about justice, responsibility, and the long-term impacts of our choices. It centers on the moral considerations regarding energy production, transmission, distribution, and consumption.

The ethical imperative of sustainable energy is rooted in the recognition that our reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable

The ethical imperative for sustainable energy is rooted in the recognition that our reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable, causes significant environmental harm, contributes to climate change, and threatens ecosystems, human health, and the global economy. And it does so disproportionately, because developed countries – including those in Europe – who have historically contributed the most to greenhouse gas emissions, are less affected by the impact of climate change than developing countries.

The European context: Policy and practice

The European Union, honouring the principles (inspired by the French Illuminism) that formed it, has made significant progress in promoting sustainable energy through ambitious policies and initiatives. The European Green Deal, introduced in 2019 and approved in 2020, aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

Its comprehensive strategy includes measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote energy efficiency, and invest in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The Renewable Energy Directive sets binding targets for the share of RES in the EU’s energy mix, while the Emissions Trading System (ETS) puts a price on carbon, incentivising companies to reduce their emissions.

The ethical dimensions of energy choices

It is not, however, only a matter of policy. Understanding the ethical dimensions of our energy choices is crucial because our decisions have far-reaching impacts on our environment, society, and future generations. In other words, our – even individual – actions, matter. Environmental sustainability, social justice, intergenerational equity, and ethical technological innovation are all essential factors that influence the well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants (humans, non-human animals and plants alike). By examining these ethical concerns, we can make more informed and responsible energy choices that promote a fair, sustainable, and equitable future for all. Specifically:

Environmental Sustainability: This is perhaps the most immediate ethical concern in energy production and consumption. The effects of fossil fuel-based energy systems on the environment are well documented, while the transition to renewable energy is not without its own ethical dilemmas. RES, after all, have environmental impacts of their own, such as habitat disruption for entire ecosystems.

Social Justice: According to the EU Commission, around 34 million Europeans cannot afford adequate heating, cooling, and lighting in their homes. Addressing energy poverty is fundamental for energy ethics and requires targeted policies and interventions. The Just Transition Mechanism is a positive step in this direction, but more needs to be done to ensure that no one is left behind.

Intergenerational Equity and Global Responsibility: We have the responsibility to ensure that future generations inherit a world that is at least as good as, if not better than, the one we live in today. That requires a long-term perspective in energy policy and decision-making prioritising investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate resilience. On top of that and as philosopher Peter Singer argues, affluent nations have a moral obligation to assist poorer countries in mitigating and adapting to climate change. This can be achieved through financial support, technology transfer, and capacity building initiatives.

Technological Innovation: Advances in renewable energy technologies, energy storage, and smart grids offer promising solutions for reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy sustainability. However, these technologies must be developed and deployed ethically, ensuring responsible sourcing, fair labour practices, and environmental protection. And in addition, the benefits of said technological innovation should be equitably distributed, ensuring all communities have access to clean and affordable energy.

Charting a path forward

To ensure a sustainable and morally responsible future, all we must do as Europeans is simply remain faithful to our values, even if they cause a small drop in our competitiveness. And the best part is that we do not have to start from scratch. European philosophers have long grappled with questions of ethics and responsibility, offering valuable insights that can inform our approach to energy ethics.

Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics emphasises the importance of duty and moral principles in guiding our actions. John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of our actions, advocating for the greatest good for the greatest number. Aristotle’s ethics centred on hexis, or the notion that a virtuous person not only knows what the good thing to do is, but is also attracted to it. And so on, and so forth.

Europe has made significant progress in promoting sustainable energy through ambitious policies and technological innovation, but challenges remain. As we move forward, the insight of philosophers and the values of stewardship, justice, and prudence can help us navigate the ethical challenges of our energy choices. By prioritising the well-being of both current and future generations, we can create a more sustainable and equitable energy future for all. If we can do it alone, however, is another question.

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