Energy is a Right Shaping the Transition

Expert Articles

Marine Cornelis is the Executive Director at Next Energy Consumer

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Energy is a Right Shaping the Transition 

by Marine Cornelis

There are two fundamentally different ways to look at energy: as a commodity that needs to be traded and as an enabler—a Human Right. Far from being mutually exclusive, these perspectives intertwine, forming the cornerstone of the energy transition. This understanding invites a paradigm shift in how we approach energy policy and market operations. 

Without energy, little is possible. Medicine and food storage, transport infrastructures, and digital services all need modern energy. Like water, energy is one of the essential components for living a dignified life and meeting basic needs such as health, well-being, education, work, and social inclusion. For many, modern energy is a Human Right, necessitating concrete actions to ensure universal access. 

However, energy is also the main culprit in climate warming. Thus, substantial investments in low-carbon solutions and the creation of supportive regulatory frameworks are crucial. As the sector continues its decarbonisation journey, how do we align environmental stewardship with social and economic development requirements? Energy 

Rights at the Heart of Sustainability 

The right to energy underscores the energy trilemma: security, sustainability, and affordability. It permeates the legal, social, and ethical frameworks guiding the energy sector, enhancing empowerment, protection, affordability, supply, and governance. 

The 'right to energy' principle encompasses a holistic approach to energy access, sustainability, and the transition to renewable sources to achieve a decarbonised system by 2050. Although the 'right to energy' is not explicitly recognised in international treaties, the concept of reliable and sustainable energy access has become pivotal. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 underscores the centrality of energy to addressing current and future global challenges (2015). This centrality is necessary when around 733 million people worldwide completely lack access to modern energy – and as many live in areas where the supply is unreliable. Today, nearly 80% of Africans continue to cook their meals over open fires and traditional stoves, relying on wood, charcoal, animal dung, and other polluting fuels. Lack of modern energy has severe repercussions for health, gender equality, and the environment, disproportionately affecting women and children.  

In the European Union, people have the right to connect their homes to the local electricity network and be supplied with electricity. But despite this, around 10% of the EU population cannot meet its needs. People have to go hungry, suffer from the cold or the heat, or make dangerous trade-offs for their comfort and resilience in the face of climate change. They suffer from energy poverty. This is why addressing energy poverty and enforcing consumer rights have been long-standing objectives in the EU. Beyond, energy is recognised as a fundamental right alongside water and health, as outlined in the European Pillar of Social Rights (2017), a non-binding charter. 

Countries like France and Spain have incorporated explicit energy rights into their legal frameworks, recognising energy as a fundamental right crucial for social and territorial cohesion. 

How does the right to energy materialise? 

The right to energy does not imply free access but ensures legally safeguarded privileges. It forms the basis for political and technical strategies aimed at sustainability, increasing renewable energy shares, enhancing energy efficiency, and managing infrastructure. Specific mechanisms, such as capital leverage, are built with private actors and market mechanisms to build, produce, modernise, and monitor the distribution and supply processes.  

Many stakeholders must work together to deliver, strengthen, safeguard, fulfil, and protect individual rights to energy. Policymakers, leveraging insights from thinkers like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, establish conditions for realising these rights through laws and policies that define roles, responsibilities, and protections. For example, public authorities put in place instruments to keep prices affordable, ensuring that all people are in the conditions for using energy. This includes social tariffs for vulnerable groups or standards to protect against disconnection — thus enabling people to use energy in the first place. Public authorities monitor implementation and compliance with the parties' obligations and provide access to redress in case of infringement.  

The right to energy can, for instance, be linked to contained prices for a “subsistence minimum” calculated according to families' standard needs. In Spain, researchers have estimated that a family requires between two thousand and four thousand two hundred kilowatt-hours per year to meet its electricity needs. Beyond those levels, the tariff, or taxation, could be applied by tranche. Such an approach could encourage energy savings and be both socially fair and environmentally sound. 

Towards a Just Net-Zero Transition 

There must be more than ensuring everyone can access reliable, affordable, sustainable energy. Energy systems continue to be dominated by non-transparent processes, hindering trust in the necessary transition and feeding NIMBYsm. A decarbonised future requires investing in the other three drivers: decentralisation (producing closer to people), digitisation (using technology to monitor electricity flows), and democratisation.  

In a sector as critical and essential as energy, building the capital, technology, regulation and fostering the participation of citizens in decision-making, not just as consumers but as active participants with rights and responsibilities, whether direct or indirect, is paramount. Diverse voices and viewpoints must be heard to redesign the value chains around environmental considerations.  

The EU exemplifies multi-stakeholder governance, with energy companies, regulators, consumer representatives, and governments collaborating to foster a transition that leaves no one behind. 


The energy sector encapsulates the complex interactions between social needs, economic interests, and environmental concerns. Energy is essential to humanity's well-being and development. Accessing and using it are moral and legal imperatives. Therefore, energy is both a right and a commodity. 

Recognising its dual nature requires a paradigm shift in how we approach energy policy and market operations, which is already underway in the energy transition process. But to truly deliver, a diverse range of stakeholders, including those from marginalised communities, must be involved, too. Ensuring everyone is on board fosters creativity, agency, and trust in the energy transition.