There is a need to integrate social equity into early stage technology research if we want to have a just transition to a low carbon energy system, according to Distinguished Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Erin Baker. She has published a paper arguing that “A just energy transition requires research at the intersection of policy and technology” in PLOS Climate, an open-access journal that furthers understanding of climatic patterns, processes, impacts, and solutions by publishing transparent, rigorous, and open research from diverse perspectives.
Among other responsibilities, Baker serves as the faculty director of The Energy Transition Institute, which focuses on research at the intersection of energy technology, climate resilience, and social equity.
As Baker writes in her PLOS Climate paper, “The current energy system, in the U.S. and around the world, is rife with inequities. The coming energy transition to a low carbon world has the potential to right some of these; but, without intention, it is more likely to perpetuate the current inequities.”
Baker explains that research focused on technological solutions, such as solar and batteries, is a crucial enabler for the energy transition, but it is not enough. “If not intentional,” she says, “the resulting solutions will support the status quo, not equity.”
For instance, as Baker notes, carbon capture is a technological solution to address climate change, but it may exacerbate local pollution in marginalized communities.
To help support a just energy transition into the future, Baker’s PLOS Climate paper provides three examples of areas of scientific and technological research for energy transition that should be fully integrated with social equity concerns: carbon capture, materials science, and fair and unbiased algorithms.
The paper details how the energy research process in these three areas should be integrated with various methods to foster social equity, including, but not limited to, engaging community input, developing mechanisms for community engagement, and instituting structural reforms to support interdisciplinary research.
Baker says that all these actions, and many more, are required to create an equitable, technology informed, clean-energy transition.
As she writes, “These [three examples] provide a starting point for thinking about how to embed equity throughout technologically focused research as well as why it is important for equity researchers to be aware of developments in emerging technologies.” (October 2022)