Event Report: “The arduous transition to low-carbon energy” #Manchester #climate

geelsseminarProfessor Frank Geels of the Sustainable Consumption Institute gave a seminar last week.

Professor “of System Innovation and Sustainability,” he moved to Manchester last year and (to quote his biog), “is chairman of the international Sustainability Transitions Research Network (www.transitionsnetwork.org), and one of the world-leading scholars on socio-technical transitions, which entail co-evolutionary interactions between technology, consumer practices, firms, markets, policy, cultural meaning, and infrastructure.”

He mentioned his background as innovation studies, science and technology studies, economics, institutional theory and, more recently, social movement studies. Of particular note of late, he says, is work published by Fligstein and McAdam “A Theory of Fields” (Oxford University Press, 2012), which is looking at how things change (or don’t!) at the “meso-” (middle) level, how incumbents sometimes defend their turf, how challengers sometimes overcome those defences and become the new incumbents for a while. Social sciences, according to Geels, have been (overly)-focussed on the “micro” level.

He started by making reference to Government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan (and mentioned other big problems – like biodiversity – which aren’t going away).

Specifically around energy, he said, there are lots of academic papers on “win-win” strategies, on electric vehicles, wind turnines and solar panels, but not so many on the struggle between these new technologies and the resilient regimes around – largely – fossil fuels.

His seminar was divided into five sections.

In his intro he pointed to the fact that emissions are rising fast, and that business as usual will give us a 4 to 6 degree warmer world by the end of the century, and that electricity is only one player in these emissions (see also transport, agriculture). He referenced a recent International Energy Agency report on tracking progress that said on only two out of ten indicators are things heading in the right direction (developing countries and renewables).

In his second section he outlined (briefly) the multi-level perspective that looks at how existing systems (be they of transport, sewerage, food production, energy production – you name it) are configured to resist change, and how the struggle for change is not just economic, but also political, cultural and so on.

Here’s a quick diagram (taken from my scribblings) of some of the actors in the transportation game.

transport system and actors-page001

So, you have firms and industries, policy makers, “civil society” , industry associations etc. They have shared/overlapping belief systems, and there are moves and counter-moves all the time.

[See also Path dependency, punctuated equilibrium, Thomas Kuhn and all that stuff)

On the economic side you’ll have vested interests, sunk investments, scale advantages (big actors can “loss-lead” to stop challengers getting a foothold) etc.

On the “social” side you have what he describes as “cognitive routines” (i.e. that’s the way we’ve always done things around here), alignment between social groups, user practices, values and life-styles.
Politically, you’re looking at opposition to change, uneven playing fields, policy networks, politicians wanting to be able to say “we’ve created/saved this many jobs.” Who can pick up the phone and talk to the President? Who doesn’t get past the gatekeepers?

Prof Geels was at pains to say that transitions DO happen.

Niches are places where “hopeful monstrosities” spring up and may succeed if they are protected from mainstream market competition. These are carried out by entrepreneurs, outsiders, small social networks (see also Joel Mokyr)

Finally, at the “landscape” level, you’ve got the wider context, slow-changing secular trends (industrialisation, population growth etc). For change at this level, you need internal momentum, and the avoidance of what he calls “interpretive closure.” And of course, there are also external shocks like wars and oil shocks that create opportunities/drivers for change.

Thirdly,  coming back to energy (!) he says there is a current upsurge of renewables but there is NOT an opening up of the regime.

Economically – learning by doing, increasing returns for adoption of new techs, some “strategic games.”

Socially, there is an expansion of social networks and “bandwagon effects”, positive discourses and visions creating cultural enthusiasm

Politically, new innovations are gaining political salience (especially around jobs)

Technology is important, but there are multiple dimensions that matter (i.e. you can’t just read off a transition happening ‘inevitably’ because of a given invention.)

Globally there is a growth in installed technology, especially wind power (a six fold increase 2004-2—11 worldwide increase in investment).

This is being driven by price/performance improvements and the new political discourse around “green growth.”

Prof Geels then pointed to how media coverage has decreased markedly over the last couple of years (and has had some impact on public concern). This has lead a weakening of drivers, i.e. declines in public attention on climate change, decline of global investment and a general weakening of green policies (no successor to Kyoto, the European Emissions Trading Scheme in the doldrums)

Fourthly, he then turned to the resilience of the existing regime, looking at

a) shale gas (China, UK, US, Poland) and its immediate risks, the wipe-out of investments in renewables, locking us into a fossil fuels, cheap US coal flooding the world market)
b) the “nuclear renaissance”
c) coal’s expansion and its self-defence (“clean coal“, the promise of Carbon Capture and Storage and the “capture ready” rhetoric around new-build power plants.)

He concluded that fossil fuel regimes are resilient and adaptive, and renewables are currently “additional” and do not replace them.

To hit carbon reduction targets, therefore “we need accelerated diffusion of green niche innovations and managed decline of “grey” regimes. Transitions research should therefore be looking at the destabilisation of existing regimes.”

In conclusion he said that transitions complex, multi-level processes, the Multi-Level Perspective is a useful heuristic [rule of thumb] but not a “truth machine”, that substantial progress has happened in Europe with greening electricity, but that renewables face a (very) uphill struggle. “We should not (only) study greens but also the existing regimes and pay more attention to political economy.”

There was then lots of time for questions and comments which ranged from the Big 6 energy companies to transition towns to Heidegger and then the fear of the nanny state. It was that kind of session!!

Marc Hudson

Disclaimer: If the seminar had been dreadful, I probably wouldn’t have sledged it because a) I am getting too old for some of this stuff and b) I am looking into leaving the wonderful world of [redacted] and doing some Higher Education in the good Prof’s field…

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Event Report: “The arduous transition to low-carbon energy” #Manchester #climate

  1. Pingback: Off-topic video: “Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model” for beginners #theory #socialchange #statusquo starring #Manchester Uni academic | manchester climate monthly

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