Researching climate and energy justice

Dr Ankit Kumar discusses his fieldwork assessing energy consumption in the different cultural contexts of India and the UK, and how he brings that research into the classroom.

A TV set is given pride of place in a rural home in India
A TV set is given pride of place in a rural home in India

The patterns of climate change and energy provision are heterogeneous on global and regional scales. Their far-reaching implications on society and livelihoods form a key agenda of modern geographical enquiry. This has been my longstanding research focus. I ask: given different cultural contexts, knowledge systems and levels of politics, how do we progress ‘climate and energy justice’ for different populations?

This problem calls for an interdisciplinary approach combining cultural geographies, development geographies, postcolonial geographies, and environmental geographies vantage points — a fascinating crossroad for me. My work has taken me to India, where I undertook multiple projects, from assessing the impacts of solar lanterns and micro-grids providing sustainable energy access in rural areas to understanding the deployment of smart grids in urban areas.

A key realisation is that identities like gender, caste, and race can help or hinder people’s access to sustainable energy. Equally fundamental is how social and cultural practices propagate and are propagated by particular meanings of energy, and how these make people’s energy use more, or less, sustainable. I have found that the social and material infrastructure like availability of spare parts, skills, and money for maintaining sustainable energy access systems in faraway places deeply affect their long-term viability. When exploring these issues, one immediately finds striking geographical contrasts, say, between India and the UK, and between rural and urban.

But how do we understand these issues? What tools do we use? To investigate these concerns I conduct solo and collaborative fieldworks of different lengths in India, starting with 9 months in 2012-13, and 1-3 months every year since then. For understanding cultural meanings of energy, ethnographic methods like interviews and home tours are useful. I often do fieldwork at night, which has helped me visualise cultural meanings and usages of energy and compare patterns in different spaces of people’s everyday lives across India and the UK.

These research interests and work enter my university classes, where I teach topics like climate justice and politics, energy transitions and energy justice, and energy cultures — often tackling issues, materials and reading informed by my fieldwork. Learning in and through real-life contexts is the soul of geography and as an avid fieldworker, I have worked with my students on fieldtrips in Sierra Leone on projects inquiring impacts of solar energy, healthcare systems and mining.

How does one end up doing what I do now? My research on climate and energy justice is informed by my earlier career as a carbon markets and renewable energy consultant, and speaks back to a lot of that experience. I frequently interact and exchange ideas with old colleagues and friends who stand to learn from this field for its practical applications. More importantly, these overlapping worlds of research and practice that I inhabit have opened opportunities for students to learn and explore varied career pathways.

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