Exploring the Politics of Low Carbon Energy Transition
By: Caroline Kuzemko
Presented at: Innovation, technology and regulation – Exploring new modes of energy governance. At 7th ECPR General Conference, Sciences Po, Bordeaux, 4 – 7 September 2013
Profound structural change is an area of active and current debate within the political sciences. A variety of different conceptualisations of how and why change as a process occurs have been offered, albeit usually constructed with the benefit of hindsight. We are currently, however, living within a period of profound crises within, and changes and challenges to, existing political institutions. There are a range of current crises ongoing, economic, financial, hegemonic, welfare and environmental, but this paper is concerned in particular with the growing political recognition of anthropogenic climate change and of the need to act to mitigate its effects. Since the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 environmental questions about climate change, and policies to address these issues, have been debated. At the international level what has resulted in terms of agreement has been limited largely to an agenda of target setting around the agreed 2˚C limit to global temperatures from pre-industrial levels. Given the close relationship between energy use and climate change emissions transition to a low carbon energy system is widely understood to form a central part of the solution to climate change. This paper provides both specific and contingent explanations of the politics of low carbon energy transition from the starting point that, despite varying degrees of political debate and activity in this area, fossil fuels still provide 87% of global energy consumption and are predicted to dominate significantly for decades to come (IEA 2012).
Explanations of the politics of low carbon transition are provided here by conceptualising energy systems as being made up of interactions between a variety of social and material factors (cf. Lovell et al 2009) and by applying concepts from two broad disciplinary areas, socio-technical transitions (STT) and sociological institutionalism. These concepts have been chosen in that they do much to explain processes of profound change and in that both have evolved using insights from multiple conceptual disciplines. The paper marks, as such, one attempt to move beyond the application of single paradigms for analysing problems in our complex world (Katzenstein 2009). STT formulates understandings of transitions based on the notion that energy systems are both social and technical in nature – specifically that firms, infrastructures and technologies are embedded within wider social and economic systems (Rip and Kemp 1998). A wide range of STT scholars highlight the unprecedented nature of, and the importance of politics to, low carbon transition. Despite these observations political aspects of energy system transitions have remained under explored (Kern 2011b; Meadowcroft 2005). There persists, therefore, a lack of consideration of the complexities of energy politics and policy, of the multiple ways in which energy policy is contingent upon other political institutions and, indeed, of how and why policy changes.
This paper constructs a framework of analysis that can flesh out some of the complexities of energy policy for transition and explain the ways in which these have constrained, enabled and coloured energy system transition so far. It explains why setting climate targets, and including them as objectives of energy policy, has not produced the desired results. Insights from sociological institutionalism explain why energy policy is changing in certain ways, but not in others, thereby providing further insight into the nature of energy and climate policy change (Blyth 2002; Hall 1993; Hay 2002; Schmidt 2002). Energy policy is characterised here as containing elements that are contingent upon broader political ideas and institutions as well as aspects that are specific to the politics of energy within different socio-economic contexts.
By combining insights from these two broad conceptual approaches we can construct a framework that takes account of the complexity of energy and climate policy but that maintains the importance of other important actors and infrastructures within the process of low carbon transition. Climate policies may be pursued but these do not always result in significant change to other areas within energy systems. Technologies and infrastructures are emphasised, therefore, as important to understanding transition but on the understanding that, like policy, they need to be explained as social constructs developed within ‘…the context of particular structures of political economy’ (Hayward 1998: 81; cf. Lovell and Liverman 2010). This approach in that it emphasises energy system transition as a means of limiting global warming, and following Newell and Paterson, accepts that climate change mitigation is proceeding within current socio-economic structures (2010: 6-8). Such acceptance comes partly because the urgent temporalities of climate change do not allow for nothing to happen now and no revolutionary alteration to the current international political economy is apparent. This approach does, however, allow that the nature of low carbon transition may well offer further challenges to current models of capitalism, some more than others, and may colour how capitalisms operate in practice.
Presentation: CK ECPR presentation-Sept13