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Why Affordable Clean Energy Is Not Enough. A Capability Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals

Rafaela Hillerbrand ()
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Rafaela Hillerbrand: Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) & Institute for Philosophy, Karlsruher Institute of Technology (KIT), 76021 Karlsruhe, Germany

Sustainability, 2018, vol. 10, issue 7, 1-14

Abstract: This paper reflects on criticisms raised in the literature on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These have been criticized as creating a dichotomy between the environment and human beings that fails to address the multiple interconnections between the two. This paper focuses on SDG7—“affordable and clean energy”—and suggests that there is in fact a tripartite distinction between the environment, human beings and technology underlying the SDGs. This distinction, we argue, does not adequately represent the multiple interconnections among the various SDGs and hampers their implementation. We contend that the formulation of SDG7 produces a circular definition of sustainability, a difficulty that is currently resolved at the level of the targets and indicators in a way that regards energy technologies primarily as artifacts. By contrast, the literature on ethical aspects of energy systems largely agrees that energy is a paradigmatic example of a sociotechnical system. We contend that, by not considering this sociotechnical nature, the SDGs run the risk of implicitly defending a certain variant of technological optimism and determinism. We argue that this is disadvantageous to the environment, human well-being and technological development. In line with recent critical evaluations of the SDGs, we argue that these (and other) shortcomings can be addressed by better connecting the SDGs to human well-being. Building on recent literature that expands the scope of the Capability Approach as an alternative measure of well-being so as to include considerations of sustainability, we articulate a framework that allows us to elucidate this connection and thus to take advantage of synergies between human well-being and the environment. On the basis of the Capability Approach, we argue that equating sustainable energy with renewable energy—as is done in the transition from SDG7’s goal to its targets—is indefensible because, as part of the overarching energy systems, energy technologies cannot be classified as simply right or wrong. Rather, the indicators and targets within a framework focused on sustainability need to be (more) context sensitive, meaning that, among other things, they may vary by country and with the available technology.

Keywords: energy; justice; capabilities; capability approach; sustainability; SDG; environment; ethics of technology; sociotechnical system; engineering ethics (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: Q Q0 Q2 Q3 Q5 Q56 O13 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2018
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