Caroline Kuzemko, IGov Team, 24th June, 2013
Those of us who are interested in sustainable energy transition need to develop deeper understandings of how and why change of a profound nature takes place. Looking at our complex world from a climate change perspective, however, inclines us to focus on new knowledge about anthropogenic climate change as the principal driver for change to current energy governance institutions. For example, we often cite this knowledge as underpinning international and domestic targets for reducing carbon emissions as well as related energy policy solutions such as demand reduction, improving efficiency and producing more energy from renewable sources.
A new book, The Energy Security-Climate Nexus, suggests however that in order to understand how and why energy policy has been changing in the UK, and elsewhere, we need to broaden our scope to also consider other approaches to energy policy and what collective goals it should achieve. One claim in the book is that ideas about energy security, of a somewhat geopolitical character, have been as strong a driver for change to energy policy as new knowledge about climate change. This is not a new claim, in his book on ‘The Politics of Climate Change’ Anthony Giddens suggests that energy efficiency and/or renewable energy programmes initiated by countries as diverse as Japan, Sweden and France were initiated in response to the 1970s oil shocks. What emerges here is a coming together of energy security arguments for change with energy polices that are positive in climate mitigation terms. As such energy policy changes motivated by a desire to insulate national energy supply from external shocks resulted in improved efficiency and/or emissions reductions. This is one example of an energy security-climate nexus.
Another more recently example is the way that some climate change campaigners have made strategic use of the re-emergence of energy security as an important issue within political circles, in the mid to late 2000s, to argue for more support for UK renewables. This combination of arguments is actively now used by climate campaigners to prompt greater political change in support of climate change policies – as well as within UK and OECD policymaking circles. And it still has effect: the new Tongan Energy Roadmap with its 50% renewable energy target by 2015 was initiated in response to the oil price spikes of 2008.
The advantage of understanding energy policy change as being driven by multiple perspectives on energy, and its role in society, is that this partly explains the convoluted and complex system of energy governance that has emerged in the UK over the past 10 years or so. Its complexity is closely related to the fact that policy is now being driven towards climate change, energy security and energy poverty objectives – but without suggesting any formal hierarchy between these objectives. A further layer of complexity is added by the degree to which the UK government clings on to market structures and instruments – almost afraid to let go. What the book further claims is that little political attention appears to given to some of the tensions that can and do emerge between energy security, climate change and social and affordability objectives within this market oriented political context.
Tensions, however, do exist – and each argument is open to capture in support of particular interests. Most climate change perspectives on energy state a clear preference for renewable energy whereas a security perspective, in that it emphasises only the domestic element of production, can also be utilised in support of nuclear technology (a strategy well utilised by EDF in the UK). As such an energy security-climate approach, if nuclear is pursued, can produce hugely sub-optimal results for climate campaigners. Other tensions clearly exist between the objective of addressing energy poverty at the same time as allowing the near term costs of energy sector restructurings to be passed on to consumers. By maintaining a structure within which the Big 6 energy companies are central to the delivery of both energy services but also of energy policy outcomes the UK is limited in its ability to meet multiple social goals with energy policy.
It is in understanding how and why policy is changing, and in recognising the tensions that are emerging as a result of the multiplicity of drivers for change, that we can perhaps help to make useful suggestions as to how these tensions can be resolved. And without solutions that take account of these complexities it appears unlikely that we will be able to transition to an energy system that is ecologically, economically and politically sustainable.