Book review: Lakshman Guruswamy, Global Energy Justice: Law and Policy (West Academic Publishing, St Paul, MN 2016) 214 pp.
Carmen G Gonzalez Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law, USA

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Nearly 3 billion people lack access to modern energy for cooking, heating, lighting, sanitation, transportation and basic mechanical power.1 Concentrated in the least developed countries of Africa and Asia, the energy-poor constitute one-third of humanity,2 but are largely forgotten in the international agreements that address climate change.3

Global Energy Justice provides a comprehensive yet succinct introduction to the ways that law and policy can address the interlocking problems of energy access and poverty. Written by Lakshman Guruswamy, the book examines the plight of the energy-poor and offers concrete proposals for promoting universal access to clean and affordable energy.

The energy-poor rely on biomass-generated fires (from the burning of wood, raw coal, animal dung and crop residues) as their primary source of energy.4 The inefficient combustion of biomass for cooking exposes women and children to hazardous levels of indoor air pollution, causing more than 3.5 million deaths per year due to pulmonary diseases.5 Lack of access to modern energy also impedes the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and their successor the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty eradication, food security, education, health, and access to water and sanitation.6 As Guruswamy explains:

Even the most rudimentary forms of rural agriculture need energy for water-pumping, irrigation, ploughing, harvesting, milling, grinding, and processing food. Water treatment plants that provide safe drinking water for communities and schools require energy. Polluted drinking water causes 3.5 million deaths per year, largely among children. The lack of energy impairs functioning of hospitals and schools. Hospitals need energy for refrigerating vital medications and vaccinations; education calls for energy for the lighting and heating of schools; and a lack of energy for illumination prevents women and children from studying at night and makes life dangerous after dark.7

The book is divided into seven chapters. Chapter one provides an overview of energy poverty and explains the importance of energy to the fulfillment of the MDGs. Chapter two draws upon both Western and Eastern legal philosophies to argue for a general principle of international law requiring assistance to the energy-poor regardless of the country in which they reside. Chapter three contends that the SDGs have moved away from the duty to assist vulnerable or burdened communities articulated in the MDGs by placing greater emphasis on global public goods (such as peace, sustainability and climate action), while relegating social and economic development to the margins. Chapter four discusses the three-pillar approach to sustainable development (which requires the balancing of environmental protection, economic development and social development), and explains how access to energy is essential to its achievement. The chapter advocates for appropriate and affordable sustainable energy technologies (ASETs), such as: clean cookstoves; photovoltaic lights; decentralized mini grids based on solar, wind and local biodiesel; and simple windmill-based water pumps, to bridge the gap between capital-intensive electricity and the traditional subsistence-based technologies of the energy-poor while reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

Chapters five and six break new ground by providing model laws that could be enacted by both developed and developing countries to combat energy poverty. Given the difficulty of negotiating large multilateral treaties, Guruswamy points out that the model laws give states the opportunity to harmonize national laws on energy poverty while maintaining the flexibility to make adjustments based on national circumstances. Unlike treaties, which require subsequent implementing legislation to be enforceable at the domestic level, the model laws are immediately enforceable. The model laws are premised on North–South cooperation based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, and are accompanied by section-by-section commentary and analysis. Chapter seven summarizes the conclusions of the preceding chapters.

Global Energy Justice is a slim but wide-ranging volume that will be of interest to scholars, teachers, students and policy-makers who want to understand the roots of energy poverty, the jurisprudential frameworks applicable to this challenge, and the practical legal tools that might be adopted to promote a more just and sustainable approach to energy production and consumption. The volume is scholarly yet accessible, theoretically rigorous but also practical. The book can be used in courses on energy law, climate law, environmental justice, international environmental law, law and development, and human rights and the environment as a supplement to the leading textbooks in these fields.

The book's greatest strength is its compelling arguments and model laws for decentralized renewable energy that can supply affordable energy to the energy poor without tying them to the existing fossil-fuel-based energy systems, which are expensive, cumbersome, polluting and vulnerable to capture by corrupt national elites or transnational corporations. These technologies, if widely adopted, can promote the local control of energy production while hastening the Global South's transition to sustainable energy.

The book's greatest weakness is its failure to address human-rights-based approaches to global energy justice. Scholars and activists are increasingly framing their demands for environmental justice (including climate and energy justice) in the language of human rights.8 Even though most human rights treaties do not expressly recognize the right to a healthy environment, regional human rights tribunals (including the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights) have concluded that a state's failure to protect the environment may violate rights to life, health, property, privacy and family life, and an adequate standard of living, as well as the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands and resources.9

To date, there are no human rights treaties that specifically refer to energy as a human right. However, energy is essential for cooking, heating, refrigeration, sanitation, health care, and the pumping of clean water for drinking, bathing and irrigation of crops. In other words, access to energy is necessary to fulfill the human right to food, water, health and an adequate standard of living, which are recognized in a variety of human rights instruments. Access to energy also promotes the right to an education by enabling children to study after dark. It advances gender equality by permitting women and girls to pursue educational opportunities and remunerative employment rather than spending countless hours collecting firewood. It also reduces the risk of sexual assault caused by lack of illumination at night or by the obligation to collect firewood far from home due to desertification and deforestation. It logically follows that failure to provide access to energy constitutes a violation of fundamental human rights.10

Grounding demands for energy justice in the language of human rights creates legal rather than simply moral obligations to address energy poverty. It also provides an opportunity to exert pressure on states through human rights institutions, including special rapporteurs, universal periodic review, and domestic and regional human rights tribunals. Finally, human-rights-based approaches to energy poverty are essential in order to ensure that renewable energy projects do not violate the human rights of the communities they ostensibly benefit. There are many examples of renewable energy projects that have violated the human rights of vulnerable communities, including wind farms that encroach on indigenous lands, hydroelectric dams and REDD projects undertaken without proper consultation with indigenous communities, and biofuels projects that ravage forests and peatlands, deprive local people of land for cultivation, and place upward pressure on food prices.11 As Guruswamy recognizes, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring universal access to clean energy. Approaches suitable for Sub-Saharan Africa are unlikely to be appropriate in the Arctic or in India. In order to promote bottom-up participation, collaborative decision-making, and local empowerment, it is necessary to incorporate human rights into the design, approval, financing and implementation of renewable energy projects.

The absence of a human rights analysis does not detract from the importance of Global Energy Justice. Sweeping in its coverage, this remarkable book provides a thorough analysis of energy poverty, practical solutions, and important tools for incorporating energy justice into national and international legal frameworks. The book serves as a valuable primer on global energy justice and an excellent resource for faculty eager to introduce energy justice into their courses.

  • 1

    International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2016, Energy Access Database, available at <>.

  • 2


  • 3

    While both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Decision Adopting the Paris Agreement make reference to energy poverty, these agreements do not impose any binding obligations to provide universal access to renewable energy or allocate funding for this purpose. See UNFCCC preamble (recognizing the need to increase energy consumption in developing countries ‘for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty’); Decision Adopting the Paris Agreement (acknowledging ‘the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, particularly in Africa, through enhanced deployment of renewable energy’).

  • 4

    Guruswamy Lakshman , Global Energy Justice: Law and Policy , (West Academic Publishing , St Paul, MN 2016 ) 15.

  • 5

    Ibid 90–92.

  • 6

    Ibid 22–9, 72.

  • 7

    Ibid 87.

  • 8

    CG Gonzalez, ‘Environmental Justice, Human Rights, and the Global South’ (2015) 13 Santa Clara Journal of International Law 151, 156.

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  • 9

    Ibid 156–7.

  • 10

    Gonzalez CG , '‘Energy Poverty and the Environment’ ', in L Guruswamy (ed), International Energy and Poverty: The Emerging Contours , (Routledge , New York 2016 ) 121 -3.

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  • 11

    See, eg,

    Baker S , '‘Project Finance and Sustainable Development in the Global South’ ', in S Alam, S Atapattu, CG Gonzalez & J Razzaque (eds), International Environmental Law and the Global South , (Cambridge University Press , New York 2015 ) 338 -55.

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    EA Kronk Warner, ‘South of South: Examining the International Climate Regime from an Indigenous Perspective’, in International Environmental Law and the Global South, ibid, 45190;

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    DN Scott and AA Smith, ‘The Abstract Subject of the Climate Migrant: Displaced by the Rising Tides of Renewable Energy Economy’ (2017) 8(1) Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 3050;

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    CG Gonzalez, ‘The Environmental Justice Implications of Biofuels’ (2016) 20 UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs 22974.

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