October is Women’s History Month in Canada. To celebrate, every week SPI’s Researcher Spotlight will feature a different team of Women Making History Now. These women are all members of Smart Prosperity’s Research Network and conduct world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. In this edition, we spoke with Aline Coutinho, a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Research Associate at Smart Prosperity Institute in Ottawa.

Hi Aline. As an economic sociologist, you bring a unique skillset to Smart Prosperity Institute. Can you tell us a bit about your field of expertise and how it relates to the advancement of practical policies and market solutions for a stronger, cleaner economy?

At Smart Prosperity Institute, I am conducting policy-oriented research at the intersection of social justice and the net-zero carbon economy, geared towards identifying and removing systemic barriers to an inclusive low-carbon transition.

As an economic sociologist, I view the economy as a social system embedded in ongoing patterned relationships and networks, cultural values, and institutional structures. As such, to understand how an economic system works and changes, I consider more than market forces. I’m particularly interested in investigating how power dynamics, systems of beliefs and social expectations, and the intersection of race, gender and other identity factors inform the experiences of individuals and communities, as well as their access to socioeconomic opportunities as we transition to a low-carbon future.

In a word, economic sociology allows me to identify and understand the structural barriers and systemic challenges that stand in the way of achieving green economic growth that is equitable and fair, that advances an inclusive and sustainable green economy.


You’re currently in the process of laying the groundwork for the development of a research program at Smart Prosperity Institute that looks specifically at examining, understanding, and advancing inclusion and justice in the transition to a greener, net-zero carbon economy. While these are still early days, could you tell us about the analyses you’ve done on this so far?

I depart from two very specific questions: what do we know about the intersection of social justice and the green economy, and how can we ensure that environmental and climate policies are inclusive and fair?

My initial objective was to identify conceptual and theoretical frameworks that are commonly used to investigate inclusion and justice in energy transitions and in broader reference to the green economy. So far, I’ve mapped out thematic and conceptual clusters in the existing literature, identified main research questions, and examined how the conversation at the intersection of the green economy and social justice has developed over the years.

My initial findings suggest the existence of marked research streams: 1) studies that examine justice outcomes (for example, analyzing the distributional impacts of environmental issues or policies), 2) studies on just transitions (such as the socioeconomic consequences of decarbonization in carbon-intensive communities or investigations on energy justice and access to energy services), 3) studies on energy democracy and procedural justice (this includes power diversification and participatory processes in energy systems and environmental policies), 4) studies on nature-based solutions (these tend to focus on the socioeconomic consequences of land use and ecosystem services, usually in urban settings. A major concern here is on population displacement and on the politics and governance of nature-based solutions), and finally, 5) studies on circular economy, in which discussions about equity are still in their infancy, but are usually framed through the concepts of sustainability and human well-being.

My research is in its infancy. However, I’ve written at SPI about equity, inclusivity, and social justice on a number of topics, ranging from green and inclusive recovery policies, the clean tech sector, inclusive climate action, gender inequities in the transition to a greener economy, and reconciliatory environmental policies.


So what are some of the gaps or big questions that are emerging from this work?

Albeit insightful and robust, many studies within the clusters I've identified tend to be normative, theoretical or case studies whose findings are difficult to transfer or generalize. They provide many insights on what an inclusive green economy should look like (or not look like!), but despite some policy implications, we are still left with a pressing question: Okay, there are systemic inequalities. But what can or should be done in terms of policy?  There is no clear guidance on how to design environmental policies that are inclusive and reconciliatory, in a way that leads to green economic growth that benefits all Canadians. This is not to point out deficiencies in the existing body of work - the field has only flourished in the past decade - but it raises some interesting who, what, and how questions:

  • Vulnerability is a recurring concern across the identified research streams. We need to develop a better understanding of the multiple drivers of vulnerability. Are there patterns of vulnerability across the research streams identified? Who has been systematically (dis)empowered as we transition to a net-zero carbon economy? What barriers to equity and inclusion are unique to each local context, and what barriers appear frequently across different settings?
  • How should we design and implement environmental policies so they can advance inclusion and justice in low-carbon transitions? Is it a matter of simply introducing accompanying mitigation social policies (e.g., improving social safety net programs or alleviating the regressive impacts of policies) or completely reimagining the way we design policies? What are the minimum standards of procedural justice?
  • How can we empower, elevate the voices, and build capacity of equity-seeking groups in environmental policy and decision-making?


Clearly, there is no shortage of unanswered questions and work to be done within this emerging field. Do you consider there to be priority areas that should be researched first? And relatedly, is there a specific area that you are particularly excited to delve into further?

There is some really exciting research happening in Canada but there are also many knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. One is on the distributional impacts of command and control policies. Another one that has caught my attention is the lack of focus on non-urban areas when it comes to nature-based solutions. It is necessary to improve our understanding of ecosystem services and nature-based solutions in rural communities, and the sorts of socioeconomic impacts they might have, especially in terms of equity and inclusivity.

As for me, I am particularly interested in advancing policy-oriented research in two areas: the first is on the intersection of social justice and retrofit programs. I’m keen to understand the bottlenecks for access and participation in retrofit programs. How do vulnerable households become aware of retrofit programs? What barriers keep them from participating in these programs, and which ones did they have to overcome to participate?  My other interest is advancing discussions on social justice, equity and inclusivity in the circular economy. How can we advance circular models of resource use and goods production that can be good for the environment, for the economy, and that can expand socioeconomic opportunities for equity-seeking groups?


So what comes next in the development of this new and exciting line of work?

It is time now that scholars conducting research at the intersection of social justice and net-zero carbon economy consider how to bridge the gap between scientific research and policy. In other words, we need to increase our efforts to ensure that the knowledge produced or co-produced leaves the ivory tower of academia, to question ourselves how to best put all this knowledge into practice. What does that involve? A stronger effort in operationalizing concepts? Engage in better practices of knowledge mobilization? Or do we need to reconceive research and policy-making altogether?

I believe the first step is to bring scholars together, to facilitate the exchange of ideas that could not only break the silos between diverse groups of researchers that consider different aspects of justice and inclusion in energy transitions and the broader green economy, but that could also connect research and practice. While the literature grew exponentially in the last decade, we are not necessarily aware of each other’s contributions and inquiries, and we are yet to discuss the implications for policy-making in a systematic way. The way I see it, building partnerships, both within and outside academia, is the best way to advance our knowledge and envision better forms to design environmental policy that will lead to an inclusive greener economy.


Thank you Aline!

For more on the Smart Prosperity Research Network, click here. For recent Working Papers produced by the Research Network, click here. For other Researcher Spotlights, click here.