Social science tools and practitioner experiences help to understand relations of democratic processes to low-carbon energy transitions in the Global South. This requires interrogating Euro-centric assumptions about participation, national development, and infrastructure models in conditions of inequality and state capture. Issues of historical extractive energy injustice and the asymmetries of Southern climate vulnerability, as compared to Northern GHG emission sources, drag this topic into political focus for questioning the models of mass consumption that have driven economic development for over two centuries. Can democracy be reinvented with renewables?

The UK Low Carbon Energy for Development Network (LCEDN) has since 2012 pooled expertise across disciplines involved in energy research in the developing world in order to enhance the ability of renewable energy systems to address poverty and gender inequality issues off-grid. The LCEDN has come to constitute an overarching community of practice linked to other communities of practice formed by the NGOs, businesses, and policy community committed to low-carbon transitions and centered on energy development justice. The LCEDN and associate communities have determined to widen an agenda of acquiring evidence from case studies, critical participatory approaches, and research into grassroots and municipal initiatives, thereby identifying weaknesses in the standard depoliticized discourse of energy-for-development.

Faced with manifest failure to control climate change, the LCEDN’s attention to energy decentralization reveals the critical importance of formal and informal institutions for democratic renewable energy services to counter the unconscionable and disastrous waste inherent in centralized systems and the political economy of incumbent energy supply and distribution mechanisms. Low-carbon energy transitions imply decentralized governance structures working positively with sociocultural change, particularly but not exclusively toward gender equitable coping strategies, to reverse existing infrastructural priorities that exacerbate disempowerment.