Stealing the Genie from the Lamp: The Politics of Energy and Justice in Canada

Wednesday, May 5, 2021
by Lauren Kathryn Johnson

By Lauren Kathryn Johnson


As countries across the world intensify their commitments to mitigating the worst effects of climate change, activists, scholars, and regular citizens are demanding more from this transition than the mere substitution of fossil fuels with low-carbon forms of energy. Increasingly, many call for an energy system that better distributes the benefits that energy provides and more fairly spreads the costs that its production and use creates. However, it is not only those seeking to right past inequities that call for a just transition: justice is a rhetorical device that opponents of the clean energy transition can use to slow its progress. This paper will engage with the conflicting roles that various actors’ sense of justice plays in Canada’s transition to a decarbonized economy. First, it will consider how opposition to Canada’s carbon price was fueled by a sentiment that it would unjustly destroy an industry that many Canadians depend on for employment. The following section explores how the strategic use of energy democracy, or the involvement of people in the decision-making and ownership of clean energy infrastructure, could build political will for the clean energy transition across Canada. This paper ultimately argues that by designing this transition so that it directly benefits as many Canadians as possible, and ensuring that every citizen understands those benefits, Canadian decision-makers can fortify climate policies to withstand false claims and perceptions of injustice.


As the early-stage effects of climate change unleash flood, fire, and famine on communities across the globe, governments have finally begun to intensify efforts to decarbonize their economies in response. Activists, scholars, and regular citizens are demanding more from this transition than the mere substitution of fossil fuels with low-carbon forms of energy. They stress the fact that the global energy system unequally distributes both the “goods” of fossil fuel extraction and consumption (wealth, control of technologies and capital, decision-making power, unlimited access to energy) and the “bads” (pollution, vulnerability to climate change-induced impacts, local environmental destruction). Increasingly, many envision an energy system that better distributes the benefits that energy provides and more fairly spreads the costs that its production creates. Additionally, some call for the engagement of ordinary citizens in decision-making about and ownership of the energy system. The inequitable distribution of the “goods” and “bads” of fossil fuel energy is no different in Canada, where the poorest communities are victims of both energy poverty [1] as well as the environmental degradation of energy production [2] and consumption [3], often without having meaningful decision-making power over whether an extraction project goes ahead [4] or a fair share of the resulting riches. [5]

Although Canada is home to many world-class climate policies at both the federal [6] and provincial [7] levels, there is an underlying assumption that the fossil fuel industry is entitled to a place in a decarbonized economy, such that Canada’s prime minister can pledge billions of dollars to mitigate climate change one month (Walsh and Graney 2020) and attempt to persuade the United States to accept the Keystone XL pipeline in the next (Ballingall 2021). Despite Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s optimism that this “Grand Bargain” (Chase and Cryderman 2021) will allow Canada to have its cake and eat it too, the reality is that fossil fuel extraction has no place in a 1.5°C world. [8] Canada’s transition to net-zero carbon emissions, then, will include a monumental battle between the incumbent regime (the fossil fuel industry), struggling to survive as long as possible, and the competing niche actors (the clean energy industry), hoping to disrupt the status quo and remold Canada’s energy system to their benefit.

Within this heated fray, justice and equity are only two of many possible goals. An equitable transition would acknowledge the historic damage that Canada’s fossil fuel energy system has inflicted on marginalized communities and attempt to heal it by more fairly distributing the goods and bads of energy production and consumption. Equity is not equality, and therefore does not seek to treat all groups the same. The concept takes into account that different groups have been damaged in different ways, while some groups have received nearly all benefit and no damage. An equitable energy transition would ameliorate past harms by funneling benefits directly to groups that have been the most disadvantaged by the status quo.

An equitable transition would acknowledge the historic damage that Canada’s fossil fuel energy system has inflicted on marginalized communities and attempt to heal it by more fairly distributing the goods and bads of energy production and consumption.

Justice, on the other hand, is more subjective than equity: even the most privileged groups, such as White men employed in the fossil fuel industry, can feel that that a policy is unjust. Hence, calls for a “just transition” often refer only to ensuring that fossil fuel workers, who are overwhelmingly Canadian-born White males (Mertins-Kirkwood and Deshpande 2019), receive training so that they can take jobs in the growing clean energy industry. This version of a just transition has nothing to do with equity, or the correcting of past harms to marginalized groups, and everything to do with politics. An industry as cyclical as the fossil fuel industry could never promise anyone a job for life; a government transitioning away from an industry that threatens humanity’s very existence is not inequitable or even unfair. Yet retaliation could await any politician who ignores fossil fuel workers when designing clean energy policy. Hence, policymakers must contend with this perception of injustice, whether or not it is founded, when drafting climate policy, because both proponents and opponents of climate action can use injustice as a rhetorical device. The proponents of climate policy highlight the injustice that fossil fuel extraction and climate change create, while opponents highlight the unfairness of transitioning away from an industry that employs people and provides them with cheap energy. Policymakers must deftly navigate these claims to advance meaningful climate policy in Canada. This paper will use both equity and justice as lenses by exploring the conflicting roles that justice claims play in Canada’s transition to a decarbonized economy and proposing a policy paradigm that would more thoroughly weave equity into the fabric of Canada’s energy transition.

The first section describes the injustice of Canada’s current fossil fuel regime toward Indigenous peoples, followed by an overview of the relevant scholarship and its critiques. Then, it will consider two case studies that exemplify the complexity of justice considerations for Canada’s transition. The first considers Canada’s public discourse over its recently enacted carbon price, which perfectly exemplifies how the fossil fuel regime can attempt to use justice claims to halt policies that threaten its very existence. The second case study explores how energy democracy, or the strategic empowerment of marginalized communities by giving them direct ownership over energy generation, could hasten the transition in Canada while making it more equitable. This paper ultimately argues that energy democracy could broaden political will for continued climate action. By designing this transition so that it directly benefits marginalized Canadians, decision-makers could fortify climate policies to not only withstand false claims and perceptions of injustice, but to help topple the very regime that has caused climate change: the fossil fuel industry.


The Landscape: Energy and Injustice in Canada

The relationship between energy, climate change, and injustice is perhaps most salient when considering how Canadian governments [9] have defended the fossil fuel industry, sometimes violently, against Indigenous opposition (Richardson 2020). The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently reprimanded Canada for moving forward with three energy mega-projects [10] that cross through unceded territory of First Nations who did not give consent for their construction (Cox 2021). The committee declared Canada’s forced eviction of Wet’suwet’en land defenders, use of police violence against Indigenous protestors, and refusal to suspend the projects a form of racial discrimination so dire that Canada will be out of compliance with human rights treaties if it does not correct its actions. Indeed, the Canadian legal system defends energy extractivism against Indigenous land defenders, who often face draconian sentences after asserting their rights to peaceful protest over unceded territory (Spiegel 2021). Indigenous communities are more exposed to climate change (Ford 2009; Harper et al. 2019) and often directly bear the burdens of fossil fuel mega-projects, as they experience higher exposure to toxicity and pollution (Jonasson et al. 2019) and increased food insecurity from the resulting damage to the ecosystems upon which traditional food systems depend (Allan, Bode, Collard, and Dempsey 2020; Brown 2021; Parlee and Caine 2018). Further, these projects often do not deliver the economic development promised at the outset (Allan et al. 2020; Bernauer 2019). It is unsurprising, then, that 35 percent of Indigenous children live in poverty, double the rate of the rest of Canada (Wien 2014). While not all First Nations in Canada unilaterally oppose extraction projects, it is important to note that when giving an oppressed group of people the choice between continued poverty or economic development through resource extraction, it is understandable that some Indigenous leaders choose the latter. The final section of this paper will consider how smart renewable energy development could expand those options, providing economic development to First Nations without increasing their exposure to toxicity or harming the ecosystems that support their traditional food systems.

Of course, energy injustice in Canada does not only impact Indigenous peoples. Canada is home to the same inequities as anywhere else: racial and gendered poverty, anti-Black racism aggravated by police violence, xenophobia—these and other forms of oppression leave communities more vulnerable to climate change (Harper et al., 2019) and the toxic impacts of fossil fuels, including through higher exposure to air pollution (Kershaw, Gower, Rinner, and Campbell 2013). Further, there is a racial wealth gap in Canada: while 31 percent of White Canadians have enough additional income to invest, and their average investment income is $11,292 CAD a year, those statistics drop to only 13 percent of Black Canadians with an average of $4,475 CAD a year (Wealthsimple 2021). These statistics are yet another example of how the global economy, which has been enriched by energy extraction, has withheld that wealth from Black people and other people of color.


Critical Approach

One might view Canada’s goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 entirely as a technical problem, rather than a social problem: mitigating climate change simply requires the adoption of more renewable energy infrastructure. Healy and Barry argue that “policymakers and academics consistently overstate depoliticized techno-optimistic hopes that ‘green innovation’ will suffice to achieve a transition to clean energy,” (2017, 456); in other words, intentionally transitioning away from an industry that is as powerful as the fossil fuel industry is sure to inspire dangerous backlash. Accordingly, the multi-level perspective (MLP) acknowledges this conflict and focuses on the dynamics between actors who promote innovations (the niche), and actors who benefit from the continued use of well-established technologies (the incumbent regime) in order to understand how new technologies succeed or fail. Such scholarship considers how shocks to the status quo, like wars, pandemics, and economic recessions, can place pressure on the incumbent regime, which allows space for the niche to work its way through. Yet the regime defends its pre-eminence by using its sway over governments, persuading them to uphold the structural advantages it enjoys.

For example, Roberts and Geels (2019) use MLP to chart the shift from train transport to road transport in Britain. They argue that World War I (the external event) placed pressure on the landscape (an early industrial society dependent on dirt roads and railway tracks) to create an opening for the niche (automakers who only produced cars for the wealthy) (2019). The authors argue that cars gained pre-eminence because automakers took advantage of a war-weakened rail industry, successfully lobbying for immense public investment in road networks. Cars are now the regime, and their pre-eminence is fiercely defended by automakers, road construction companies, the fossil fuel industry, and others whose wealth and power would be deposed if a niche arrangement, such as high-density cities that better facilitated public transit and active transportation (i.e., human-powered forms of travel such as walking and biking) were favored by policymakers (Mattioli, Roberts, Steinberger, & Brown 2020). It is important to note that a regime is held in place not just by the actors who benefit from its continued existence, but by social constructs that normalize its use (i.e., the role of large cars in fortifying masculinity) and the physical infrastructure that facilitates the regime technology’s use (i.e., the vast network of roads that support private cars) (Mattioli et al. 2020). This is the same force at play when public courts defend extractivism by prosecuting Indigenous land protectors: regimes infiltrate public institutions and use them for self-preservation. The multi-level perspective, then, considers how politics and policy can alter this dynamic by undermining, rather than protecting, the existing regime, thereby allowing niche actors to radically reshape society as they establish firm footing (Geels 2014).

However, energy justice scholars criticize the MLP for ignoring the justice implications of transitions. Sareen and Haarstad (2018) argue that while the MLP considers the supply side—how innovations integrate themselves within society—energy justice scholarship examines the demand side by asking how the costs and benefits of various technologies are distributed among the population. They argue that the two analytical frameworks complement each other. Further, Jenkins et al. (2018) argue that energy justice literature would benefit from more engagement with how transitions happen because the technical aspects of a technology, its implementation, and how people use it affect how different communities are positively and negatively impacted by that technology. Therefore, using a justice framework in concert with the MLP allows us to consider how some niches can be inclusionary or exclusionary (Jenkins et al. 2018) and perpetuate patterns of injustice. For example, the renewable energy industry will probably continue to employ largely White men and be owned by the usual high-income investors and shareholders (Lytle and Santiago-Mosier 2018) unless carefully designed policy diverts the current flow of power and privilege.

Some climate policy scholars believe that scholarship should not concern itself with normative issues like justice. In the name of expediency and clarity, they would ignore justice to avoid immobilizing international climate agreements and domestic climate policies [11] under the weight of its complexity. However, justice scholars argue that a thorough understanding of the various groups who make justice claims, and how they make them, is key to understanding the politics of climate change and the clean energy transition (Bailey 2017; Klinsky et al. 2017; Patterson et al. 2018).

Research has also considered how justice claims can be used against climate policy, as often happens when fossil fuel industry workers are threatened with losing their jobs (Bailey 2017). One block of literature explores how the public integrates justice reasoning into complex climate policy questions (Gampfer 2014; Klinsky et al. 2012; Svenningsen 2019). These scholars focus on citizens’ conceptions of the distribution of rights, risks, and responsibilities (McCauley and Heffron 2018) in international apportioning of emissions reductions, as well as which countries should contribute or receive adaptation funding, and how much. Klinksy et al. (2017) argue that such research is vital because a) the success of international climate agreements depends on understanding public preferences so that domestic populations tolerate the conditions that their international delegates have accepted and b) it creates better policies. Conceptions of fairness, responsibility, and rights will all play into the public’s acceptance of international, national, and local climate policy, and the savvy student of public policy would do well to carefully consider how justice claims could sink any new climate policy or allow it to swim.


Don't Go into Battle in a Business Suit: Learning to Navigate Justice Claims from Both Sides

The public debate about carbon pricing in different countries is a prime example of how justice claims can be used to immobilize climate policy. Bailey (2017) tracked the public debate on two different attempts to establish a carbon tax in Australia. He found that proponents of the carbon tax stressed vague notions of international responsibility and historical contributions to climate change, while opponents localized the struggle. By highlighting how specific states in Australia would be impacted differently due to differing levels of dependence on coal mining, the opposition ignited anger in many Regional Australians (i.e., Australians who live outside of the main metropolitan areas), playing on long-held feelings that national policy supports people in highly populated urban centers while ignoring rural communities. Those who opposed the carbon tax also preyed on fears that the prices of electricity and other ordinary goods would skyrocket, creating a disproportionate impact on low-income households. Finally, they highlighted how Australia’s carbon price was much higher than Europe’s, arguing that domestic impacts would far outweigh the small amount of emissions reduction the policy could hope to achieve given Australia’s small relative contribution to the global problem. Although the government had invested time and effort into crafting a method to return the revenue directly to households, they packaged this as a separate policy and failed to clearly explain it to the public. Their opposition had come to the battlefield with cannons and artillery, wielding emotional arguments about injustice and unfairness. The government came in business suits, expecting a polite boardroom conversation.

Opponents of climate policy deftly engage locally-based justice claims to sink the policy, while proponents over-relied on arguments of international responsibility. The former crackles with tension and emotion by speaking directly to peoples’ lived experiences. The latter feels sanitized. 

As Bailey (2017) shows, the global scale justice arguments (i.e., “we are responsible for causing climate change, so we need to act”) were flattened by the opposition’s ability to raise regionally-based concerns about local economic impacts. Other research has shown that people respond more intensely to local examples of climate change impacts (Klinsky et al. 2012) and that “individuals evaluate the direct economic costs [of renewable energy] to themselves to be more important than broad, dispersed economic benefits to society” (Bayulgen and Benegal 2019, 29). Indeed, it is understandable that people would choose their own well-being over a stranger’s when the situation is framed as such.

Bailey (2017) found a common problem in other countries: opponents of climate policy deftly engage locally-based justice claims to sink the policy, while proponents over-relied on arguments of international responsibility. The former crackles with tension and emotion by speaking directly to peoples’ lived experiences. The latter feels sanitized and even sanctimonious, expecting the public to care more for people they have never met than for their own families and communities. Bailey concludes that "the proficiency of climate-policy opponents in constructing spatially and socially recognizable discourses about the injustices of climate action creates major impediments to low-carbon transitions and climate justice’s influence on political agendas" (52).

A socially recognizable discourse speaks to people’s everyday experiences; it tells a story in which people see themselves and their families. Justice claims like those described above reach deep into peoples’ guts, igniting their sense of unfairness. They are motivating.

The rhetoric against Australia’s carbon tax in many ways closely mirrors the conversation that is taking place in Canada over its own carbon price, which came into effect for provinces that did not already have their own systems beginning in 2020 (Government of Canada 2019). Some rural Canadians argue that the carbon price affects them more than urban Canadians because they have longer commutes and less access to public transit (Sharp 2019). Further, just as there is a divide in Australia between states that produce coal and those that do not, there is a stark divide between Western Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and to some degree, British Columbia), which holds the majority of oil and gas resources, and the rest of Canada, which benefits from the tax revenue of Western energy extraction. [12]

Western alienation refers to the longstanding exasperation that Central Canada happily accepts the riches of Western energy extraction without adequately representing Western views in federal policymaking (Braid 2019). For many Westerners, the carbon price is just one more example of that long-standing pattern (Katz-Rosene 2020). This perspective ignores basic facts about how government transfers are distributed throughout Canada (Coyne 2020), but it is the perception of injustice here that matters, not the actual existence of unfairness. Whether or not these justice claims are true, decision-makers must predict them ahead of time and chart a course around them to ensure the success of climate policy. The Trudeau government has certainly charted the course more ably than the Labour Party in Australia, perhaps with the latter’s failures in mind: Trudeau never publicly mentioned the carbon price when campaigning during the 2019 federal elections without promising that it would “put more money back in the pockets of Canadians” (Liberal Party of Canada 2019). Yet the Trudeau government has largely avoided arguments of national or international responsibility, with the underlying takeaway of their message being: “We have to do something about climate change and it will not make a difference to your household financially.” This argument is rather weak compared to the opposing rhetoric that blames Liberals for the economic pain that Alberta has experienced since the oil and gas crash of 2014 (Johnson 2015).

A rhetorical position matching the intensity of the latter would celebrate the potential of Western Canada to contribute to the clean energy transition. A recent upsurge in “petro-patriotism” (Markusoff 2019) in Alberta illuminates the pride that Albertans feel in their oil and gas economy. There is communalism in this “patriotism,” a pride for place. This reveals something important about how revenue from the carbon price could be used more strategically: to escalate the growth of the clean energy economy so that it provides a robust alternative to oil and gas.

Currently, the Government of Canada administers revenue from the carbon price for provinces that have not developed their own system, reserving 10 percent for the Low Carbon Economy Fund, which grants funding to clean energy projects across Canada (Government of Canada 2021c), and distributing the other 90 percent directly to households on a per capita basis (Government of Canada 2021a). Although these payments to households, around $1,000 per year for a family of four, will be crucial for lower- and middle-income households to compensate for higher consumer prices, their relative value will decrease for households with increasingly higher incomes. In other words, rebate checks may yield limited returns in terms of improving higher-income Albertans’ opinion of climate policy. Payments are set to increase annually as the carbon price increases (Government of Canada 2020a). Instead of continuing to increase them for higher-income households, the Trudeau government could divert those funds to the Low Carbon Economy Fund and make larger and more meaningful investments in clean energy projects for Alberta. These projects should illuminate what a decarbonized Alberta could look like: stable prosperity and well-paying jobs distributed around the province, instead of the boom-and-bust cycle of the fossil fuel regime.

Projects such as the geothermal electricity generation plant that received $6.7 million CAD of investment from the Government of Canada in 2019 are a good start (Government of Canada 2019). Other grants could support the growing number of companies seeking to extract minerals that are vital for the clean energy transition, such as lithium, vanadium, nickel, and copper, from Alberta’s vast oil sands tailing ponds (Roth et al. 2017). These sorts of projects harness Alberta’s homegrown skills and natural resources. Increased investments in renewable energy projects would provide reliable, exciting opportunities for people whose careers are dead ended in a fossil fuel industry that cannot make any long-term promises. This strategy may very well exceed the mild approval of a well-off family receiving a check that makes little difference in their quality of life. Further, investing in niche renewable technologies in Alberta could reinstate the province’s prestige as a critical provider of natural resources and a hub of well-paying jobs.

Rather than emphasizing how much people have to lose, clean energy transition proponents’ best counter tactic is to show them how much they can win. This slight shift in strategy is the difference between a dry boardroom conversation and an electrifying rally.

It is possible that the 49 percent of Albertans opposed to the carbon price (Anderson and Coletto 2018) will continue to loathe it. Capping rebate check amounts at 2021 levels for higher-income families may increase this opposition to the carbon price or push some of the 31 percent of Albertans who are on the fence (Anderson and Coletto 2018) to dislike the policy. However, it is hard to say how Albertans who feel proud of the oil and gas industry would react if the clean energy industry began to offer the level of opportunity that the former offered in its heyday. Nonetheless, the Liberals were able to form a minority government in the 2019 election without having won a single seat in Saskatchewan or Alberta (CBC News 2019), and the carbon price’s constitutionality has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada (Leach 2021). As neither the Liberals nor the carbon price seem particularly vulnerable to Albertan opposition, increasing that opposition in exchange for longer-term buy-in to the clean energy transition may be the real Grand Bargain that Trudeau is searching for.

Although defenders of the fossil fuel regime try to thwart the niche by convincing people that this transition is unjust, Canadians would more readily see through that argument if they had the chance to experience firsthand how just and fair it could be. Rather than emphasizing how much people have to lose, clean energy transition proponents’ best counter tactic is to show them how much they can win. This slight shift in strategy is the difference between a dry boardroom conversation and an electrifying rally. The latter barely holds peoples’ attention. The former gets their blood pumping, makes them feel like they are a part of something, and rallies support for the cause. Going forward, decision-makers who wish to price carbon or implement other meaningful climate policy would do well to not go to battle in their business suits: they must match, or even top, the passion with which the fossil fuel industry defends itself.


Stealing the Genie from the Lamp: How Energy Democracy Can Spread Magic

Since winning a majority in Canada’s House of Commons in 2015, the Trudeau government has both taken very substantive action on climate policy (Government of Canada, 2020a) and bought a pipeline at the public’s expense, claiming that the proceeds would fund climate action (Tasker 2019). [13] Essentially, the Trudeau government has attempted to craft a depoliticized rhetoric in this most political of arenas by “promoting a vision of a Canada that is simultaneously reducing domestic GHG emissions and increasing oil and natural gas exports” (Dagg, Lippett, Masters, and Toner 2018). Dagg et al. point out that both sides perfectly understand the paradox. Yet this is how the Trudeau government has chosen to navigate a complex political landscape that boasts both a very powerful oil and gas regime and a growing movement that demands action on climate change (Perreaux 2019). Further, that landscape includes a complex patchwork of provincial, territorial, and First Nations governments that make up Canadian federalism, all of which bring their own beliefs, values, and needs around energy policy and climate change (Chahal, Jacques, Quintaneiro, and Toner 2017). It comes as no surprise then, that the Trudeau government plays such a conciliatory game. Yet by attempting to appeal to everyone, it has coddled and defended the very industry responsible for climate change, avoiding direct confrontation with the fossil fuel regime to avoid a dangerous backlash. Indigenous land defenders and local communities across the world have taken up this mantle themselves, using direct action to stop fossil fuel extraction in its tracks, a growing international trend that Naomi Klein refers to as “Blockadia” (2014). The Indigenous land defenders and local communities of Blockadia are more responsible than anyone for slowing climate change, sometimes sacrificing their legal records and even physical safety in the process of protecting their homelands. Yet this sort of direct confrontation is not for everyone. Is there a way to engage people in the transition who are conflict-averse? In other words, is it possible to fight a battle stealthily and strategically, instead of standing atop the hill and hollering a war cry? This section will argue that it is possible, to some extent, through the thoughtful application of energy democracy.

A protestor holds a sign that says "No Consent, No Pipeline" in at a Kinder Morgan rally in Vancouver in 2017.

A protestor holds a sign that says "No Consent, No Pipeline" in at a Kinder Morgan rally in Vancouver in 2017. Image by William Chen licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Energy democracy is a subset of energy justice, echoing its call for a critical examination of the negative upstream impacts of energy extraction. Szulecki (2018) explains that while energy justice explores the moral and ethical sides of energy, energy democracy concerns itself with the politics of energy decisions, including who makes those decisions and how they are made. The current energy system is operated largely by technical professionals who rarely have to directly engage the public. The complexities of electricity grids and thermodynamics are largely lost on average citizens, despite a growing interest in the energy system. Energy democracy speaks to this complexity by arming citizens with a cursory understanding of “the way the energy system functions, the impacts it has, and their role within it” (Szulecki, 2018, 32). Szulecki argues that this understanding is important because, without an educated public, the technocrats who run the energy system tend to define its problems based on the needs of the system itself, rather than the needs of the humans it serves. Szulecki proposes to build this informed public by increasing civic ownership of energy infrastructure. [14] The theory goes that holding ownership in something motivates people to understand how it works so that they can ensure that it is well-stewarded.

As energy justice scholars often point out, it is possible for the renewable energy niche to ascend to regime status without dramatically changing the relationship between the public and the energy system (Jenkins et al. 2018; Sareen and Haarstad 2018). Indeed, Healy and Barry (2017) caution against overcoming carbon lock-in at the expense of injustice lock-in. Energy democracy proposes a kind of “niche-niche” in which communities enjoy ownership over small- to medium-scale renewable energy plants. This radical new ownership model, in which communities and individuals directly own the means of energy production, could be packaged in a depoliticized wrapping to topple a regime that can be difficult to confront directly.

The Canadian federal government could create more prosumers (consumers of energy who own the means to produce it) across Canada with targeted funding, for example by providing grants or low-interest loans for disenfranchised communities to develop their own energy generation projects. Such public investment would “fly under the radar” of the usual climate policy opponents, who expend their energy on hotly contested policies like carbon pricing. This could stealthily undermine the regime without expending more political capital, fortifying the niche with new supporters. The Trudeau government’s Green Infrastructure program, which invested $26 billion CAD in matching grants to communities across Canada to develop public transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, and regional electricity infrastructure, partially accomplishes this goal, although the funding did not specifically seek out disenfranchised communities.

Another federal initiative more closely hits the mark. The Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities (CERRC) program targets off-grid communities in Northern Canada that depend on diesel for all of their energy needs (Government of Canada 2020b). Diesel generators create toxic fumes (Health Canada, 2016); produce a harmful amount of noise; deposit black carbon on glaciers, which accelerates climate change (Shindell et al. 2012); and lead to energy poverty because the electricity they create is very expensive (Quitoras 2020). In other words, dependence on diesel generation is a classic case of energy and climate injustice. CERCC funds the community energy planning process, which is an in-depth process to get everyone on board and imagine which renewable energy technologies could best meet the community’s needs. It subsidizes 100 percent of demonstration projects and 40 percent of full deployment. The CERCC program is an example of energy democracy in that it not only corrects energy injustice but builds a community’s literacy and engagement with its energy system while investing it with ownership. Currently, CERCC only seeks to fund around 60 communities in Canada. This program should be expanded to communities across Canada to increase its impact.

If we know that the fossil fuel regime must crumble, then pulling Jenga blocks from beneath its already teetering structure could prove a key tactic in creating the conditions for it to topple.

Another tactic to seed energy democracy across Canada would be to provide funding for historically marginalized people to invest in renewable energy through schemes like community solar, which allows for a group of people to own a share in a solar farm, and virtual net metering, which allows people to invest in a noncontiguous solar farm distributed on roofs across a city (EnergySage 2019). Community-owned energy is nothing new, but it is inaccessible to people who can barely meet their own needs, let alone find extra cash to invest. By providing credit to people with low incomes, particularly women, as well as other marginalized groups in Canada who hold a much lower share of wealth, the government could empower them to identify and invest in a project that fits their values and energy needs, granting them decision-making power over the project as shareholders. The funds might even be the same ones that the Government of Canada otherwise grants to Low-Carbon Economy Fund projects with no strings attached. Instead of giving this funding away to provinces, companies, and cities, the federal government could grant it in the form of shares given to marginalized groups, who would then choose a pre-approved project to invest in. [15] Project shareholders could access live data on the amount of energy produced and the resulting carbon offsets. The combination of ownership and live information would make the clean energy transition applicable, accessible, and exciting. The Trudeau government could invigorate an entire section of the electorate who might not otherwise pay attention to climate politics or care where their electricity comes from, converting them into advocates for climate action.

If we know that the fossil fuel regime must crumble, then pulling Jenga blocks from beneath its already teetering structure could prove a key tactic in creating the conditions for it to topple. Giving those blocks to previously unconsidered actors (such as impoverished communities, First Nations, etc.) could address some of Canada’s most wicked problems, like intergenerational poverty and the persistent effects of colonialism. Regardless of its current place in climate policy, if energy democracy theorists are correct, starting to transfer energy assets from the fossil fuel regime to individuals, communities, and First Nations across Canada could cultivate an informed public that understands how the energy system works and demands responsibility and accountability from its operators. In other words, by spreading the ownership of Canada’s energy system more broadly, public investments in community-owned renewable energy could literally empower the niche to topple the regime. If this seems like a tall order for something as simple as making public investments so that disenfranchised communities can own their own solar panels, consider the foundational role of the energy system in structuring society. Because of its role in powering every other activity, energy is like the mythical Genie in the Lamp, ready to grant incredible clout to whoever controls it. It is Aladdin, not the Genie, who is the protagonist of the story. In our version, the fossil fuel regime controls the Genie. By slowly transferring the Genie’s loyalty to more and more mistresses and masters, the regime could look around one day and realize that it has lost its source of dominance.



In attempting to strike a Grand Bargain, Trudeau has not unified the Canadian people but instead further splintered them: although the 59 percent of Canadians who feel that the clean energy transition should happen at a faster pace may be satisfied, the 45 percent of Albertans who feel the transition is intended to punish Alberta workers are only further alienated (Abacus Data 2020). Meanwhile, Trudeau’s attempts to appease and coddle the fossil fuel regime have only further oppressed Indigenous peoples impacted by extreme extractivism. This paper has sought to chart a more feasible pathway forward for the Trudeau government, and the governments that follow. Instead of propping up Alberta’s diminishing fossil fuel economy by defending pipelines, the Liberals should confidently create a seat at the transition table for Western provinces who have much to offer in terms of skill and renewable resources. Further, adding even more seats at the table for marginalized communities across Canada by imbuing them with the direct ownership of energy generation would be like taking blocks of ownership from the regime’s tower. One by one, these blocks could be distributed to a broader base of Canadians until the regime topples like a well-played game of Jenga.

Although this paper focuses on Canada as a case study, the dynamics of fossil energy injustice are the same across the world: the most marginalized bear the burden, the most powerful extract the wealth, and the regime will stop at nothing to halt any reconfiguration that would depose it. Every dollar of public investment is an opportunity to build buy-in for this transition if it is strategically spent. Giving higher-income households dividends from carbon pricing schemes may well be a less efficient way to build political will for climate action than accelerating the growth of the renewable energy niche to allow it to increasingly offer exciting and rewarding opportunities. For those with vast amounts of disposable income, a thriving economy is probably more interesting than an annual check. Another strategy would be to build the wealth of historically oppressed groups by providing them with funds to invest in renewable energy projects, thus creating a cadre of advocates for the clean energy transition. Indeed, this “strategy” is a means to begin to repair past colonial wealth-grabbing by investing Indigenous and other marginalized communities with ownership of the energy system.

In a similarly designed scheme, the Global North should help fund the Global South’s clean energy transition through grants to endow marginalized communities in the Global South with ownership over energy generation. It is time for the countries that have driven climate change to pay that debt to the countries that are already suffering from its impacts, and, in so doing, return some of the wealth that the Global North has stolen from resource-rich, low-income countries of the Global South. If poor communities around the world were empowered and enriched with control over the means to generate energy, they would have more reason, and more resources, to stand against further fossil extractivism.

Although this essay argues that the savvy student of public policy should pay close attention to the dynamics of justice claims in climate change politics, no one should wait on the sideline, calmly observing the angry stampede of players back and forth. We must all develop our conceptions of justice and root out our internalized biases so that we are aware when injustice takes place—and more importantly, so that we care enough to do something about it. Although I have rendered justice as a tool to speed up the transition, the underlying reason for considering justice in climate change and energy transitions is that the world is profoundly unjust. Any study of justice, energy, and climate change should be rooted in a sincere wish to create a world in which justice reigns.

*This article was edited by Rocio Cara Labrador (Princeton University), Nadine Lombardo-Han (Princeton University), and Daniel Guelen (Columbia University).

About the Author

Lauren Johnson graduated in the spring of 2021 with a Master of Arts in Sustainable Energy from the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Westminster College and a Master of Science in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. Lauren’s work and research revolve around using justice and equity as lenses to consider the efficacy of energy- and food-systems policy.


The author would like to express sincere gratitude to Nadine Lombardo-Han, Daniel Guelen, and Rocio Cara Labrador for their meticulous and thought-provoking comments and to acknowledge that this essay was written on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin and Mohawk peoples. Any omissions or inaccuracies remain the sole responsibility of the author.


1. For example, see (Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners Network 2019) for a review of energy poverty rates across the Canadian provinces and for various marginalized communities.

2. For example, see (Allan et al. 2020) and Parlee, Sandlos, and Natcher (2018) for analyses of the impact of extraction projects on Indigenous subsistence food systems.

3. For example, see (Kershaw et al. 2013) for a distance-based analysis of air pollution toxicity exposure of low-income and communities of color in Toronto, Ontario.

4. For example, see Kulchyski and Bernauer (2014) for an analysis of the neocolonial implications of modern treaties between First Nations in Canada and the parties who wish to extract resources from their ancestral lands. In another Canadian example, Ritsema et al. (2015) explore the approval process for a mine in an Inuit community in Nunavut. Even with a modern land claims agreement in place, meant to protect the interests of Nunavut in the face of resource extraction, local communities have almost no influence over whether or not an extraction project goes ahead.

5. See Bernauer (2019) and Allan et al. (2020) for quantitative analyses of the distribution of financial benefits to Indigenous communities in Nunavut and British Columbia from resource extraction projects. Both find that these communities do not reap nearly as many rewards as extractive corporations promise at the outset of projects.

6. See “A Healthy Environment and a Health Economy: Canada's strengthened climate plan to create jobs and support people, communities, and the planet” (Government of Canada 2020) for a comprehensive overview of Canada’s plan to address climate change and recover from COVID-19. 

7. For example, see British Columbia’s CleanBC plan (Government of British Columbia 2018).

8. The International Energy Agency (2020) has forecasted that GHG emissions in developed countries need to reach net-zero by 2050 in order to limit warming to 1.5°C in 2100. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018) presents a detailed analysis of the vast differences in risk between limiting warming to 1.5°C and to 2°C—essentially, the latter would further expose the world’s most vulnerable populations to the worst impacts of climate change, while the former promises a much better chance of maintaining livable, stable conditions for all of Earth’s people. In other words, setting emissions reductions that would allow us to keep warming below 1.5°C is a much more just and equitable goal.

9. Canada is the loosest federation of sub-national jurisdictions in the world, and the 13 provincial and territorial governments hold much more authority than American states. Provinces hold jurisdiction over natural resources, but the federal government regulates the interprovincial movement of energy, such as through pipelines or electricity transmission.

10. The three mega-projects are the Trans Mountain Pipeline, the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and Site C Dam. Although Site C will generate energy without fossil fuels, its construction will have huge impacts on surrounding First Nations. The federal government actually bought Trans Mountain for $4.5 billion CAD in 2018.

11. See Klinsky et al. 2017 for a rebuttal of common arguments against equity.

12. Canada’s constitution gives the federal government the majority of taxation power; the federal government then redistributes this income through transfer and equalization payments so that each province more equally benefits from natural resource wealth across the country. Along with Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta pays more than it receives (Government of Canada 2021b).

13. Recent analysis has shown that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will not yield economic benefits to Canadian taxpayers, and that oil transported through the pipeline may have to be sold at a loss (Hughes 2020).

14. For a fairly comprehensive analysis of the policies that energy democracy scholars propose to accomplish this goal, see Burke and Stephens (2017).

15. An important component of program design would be to only include projects that are relatively low-risk.


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