Beyond Technocentrism: Unpacking Capabilities and Human Agency in Energy Transition Processes

Stuti Haldar, Markus Grillitsch, Amir Bazaz  | 2024


The recent climate change discourse highlights the urgency for climate action given that global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to rise in the last decade, with average annual GHG emissions being the highest as compared to any previous decade (IPCC, 2022). The energy sector contributes to approximately three/quarters of the global GHG emissions (Boukaert et al., 2021). Hence, transitioning to Renewable Energy (RE) is key to averting the worst impacts of climate change and limiting average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. While there is increasing political consensus globally towards reaching net zero emissions by 2050, there are also growing concerns regarding the justice implications of large scale RE technology deployment, especially on local marginalized communities who do not possess adequate agency to negotiate their rights in transition processes.

We argue that adoption of large scale RE technologies not only have profound impacts on not just economic growth, income, and employment, but also have broader welfare and justice implications that are heterogeneously distributed among actors at multiple levels. How the costs and benefits of RE projects are distributed depend on the agency of individuals and groups. An important aspect of institutional work and change agency that is still underexplored is what forms the foundations of human agency, that further translates to institutional work to disrupt, maintain, or create institutions (Duygan et al., 2019). To address this gap in literature, we propose a novel iterative framework that borrows from the capability approach (CA), which is a normative concept rooted in development economics, focusing on welfare and justice dimensions of development. We situate capability sets of individuals\communities as the foundations for human agency, which further exerts itself as institutional work to influence the pattern of energy transitions towards more just or unjust outcomes. Further, we argue that there exists a bidirectional relationship between transformational capabilities of individuals\groups and the justice implications of energy transitions, as negative outcomes might lead to capability deprivation of local communities leading to lack of agency to control their realities (and vice versa).

Against the aforementioned context and motivations, the study addresses an important research question – What constitutes foundations for human agency in energy transitions that further shapes the pattern of these transitions towards relatively just or unjust outcomes? In generic terms, we attempt to answer who benefits and how in energy transition processes? The specific objectives around which this study is framed are as follows.
● To identify foundations of human agency in capability terms
● To explain how capability sets influence human agency and consequently justice outcomes of energy transitions.

We test our conceptual framework by operationalizing it using the case study of the Pavagada Solar Power Park (2.05 GW) in Karnataka, India. This case is interesting as it is a pilot project, facilitated by the government of Karnataka to experiment with a new model of land leasing, rather than the previous model of land acquisition. This departure was a cognizant effort to avoid potential land related conflicts that have been a major reason for delays in project development and social justice concerns, not only in the RE sector, but also in other industrial development projects in India (Ghosh et al., 2022). Spread across 53 sq Kms, the solar park is the second largest in India and encompasses five villages. We use both primary and secondary data. Through content analysis of reports, archival government notices, gray literature etc. we trace the actor constellations, and their capability sets that led to implementation of this project. We will then engage in field observations and personal interviews with these actors.