PROFESSOR PETER NEWELL

The Political Economy of Low Carbon Energy Transitions
POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH FELLOW: SEPTEMBER 2018 – AUGUST 2019

Peter Newell is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. His research focusses on the global political economy of climate change and energy. He is a member of the board of directors of Greenpeace UK, sits on the board of the Brussels-based NGO Carbon Market Watch and the advisory board of the Green think-tank Greenhouse. He is author and co-author of numerous books on environmental politics including Climate for Change, Governing Climate Change, Climate Capitalism, Globalization and the Environment and Transnational Climate Change Governance.

His ISRF Political Economy Fellowship develops an innovative interdisciplinary approach to the pressing question of how to accelerate transitions towards a lower carbon economy. With commitments from governments and the private sector falling well short of what is required to avert dangerous climate change, the question of how to accelerate decarbonisation is urgent. By introducing neglected political and historical dimensions it seeks to provide a richer account of the necessary enabling conditions for the sorts of transformations in energy production and consumption now required to tackle climate change. It does so by combining empirical and theoretical work on technology and innovation studies, historical economics and (international) political economy to analyse when such transformations have occurred before and how far insights about them can shed light on our current predicament in relation the need to drastically and rapidly decarbonise the global economy. This will improve our understanding of the politics and prospects of delivering such an energy transformation on the scale now required to tackle climate change and enhance energy security.

Abstract

How can we understand and engage with the political economy of a transition to a low carbon global economy? This project brings an innovative interdisciplinary approach to the pressing question of how to accelerate transitions towards a lower carbon economy. With commitments from governments and the private sector falling well short of what is required to avert dangerous climate change, the question of how to accelerate decarbonisation is urgent. By introducing neglected political and historical dimensions it provides a richer account of the necessary enabling conditions for the sorts of transformations in energy production and consumption (including shifts in institutions, finance, infrastructure, technology and behavioural change) now required to tackle climate change. It does so by combining empirical and theoretical work on technology and innovation studies, historical economics and (international) political economy to analyse when such transformations have occurred before and how far insights about them can shed light on our current predicament in relation the need to drastically and rapidly decarbonise the global economy.This will improve our understanding of the politics and prospects of delivering such an energy transformation on the scale now required to tackle climate change and enhance energy security. This both challenges the predominantly apolitical focus on theories of socio-technical transitions and will provide evidence of how to address the pressing need to disassemble the high carbon economy in order to realise the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Research Idea

How can we understand and engage with the political economy of a transition to a low carbon global economy? The premise of this proposal is that much of the policy debate so far, as well as existing academic scholarship, has failed to provide a fuller political analysis of historical precedents of when organised large-scale socio-technical and economic change has occurred in the past and what lessons might be deduced for the current challenge of drastically and rapidly decarbonising the global economy. It is precisely such a political and historical analysis of transition that is proposed here. This requires the novel fusion of insights from technology and innovation studies, history, economics and international political economy about how rapid shifts in systems of production and consumption can occur and be accelerated by political action. This is vital to appreciating the political enabling conditions for the much-feted new industrial or energy revolution now required to tackle climate change and enhance energy security. Rather than focus just on technology or finance in isolation, however, this project addresses the neglected political dimensions of energy transitions. The heavily inter-disciplinary, engaged and critical nature of this enquiry, and the methods and theories upon which it rests, means it falls between the focus and mandate of existing research funding calls since it combines historical and social science methodologies and touches upon sensitive issues which some private funders and foundations are more reluctant to address.

Background

The question of whether and how we can collectively steer our economy and society onto a lower carbon development trajectory is among the most pressing the world currently faces. But despite rhetorical embrace of the concept by governments, businesses and international organisations, applied analysis of what a dramatic shift in the structures of production and consumption and the alignments of political and economic power that would be required to achieve and sustain a low carbon economy would imply, is sorely lacking. In its place a literature on transitions and transitions management has developed (Geels 2005; Loorbach 2007). While useful in exploring historical cases of discrete technological innovations and the role of niche technologies and policy regimes, it lacks attention to questions of politics and power beyond specific management strategies and governance practices (Shove & Walker 2007; Scarse & Smith 2009). The literature is also both very Eurocentric, making assumptions about the nature of states and the functioning of markets that apply poorly in large parts of the world, and technocratic in its overwhelming focus on innovation while failing to look at the deeper political enabling environments that have enabled disruptive change historically and whether relevant insights can be gleaned for today’s world.

The Focus

The deeper, more explicitly political, global and historical analysis proposed here is vital to allowing us to move beyond glib statements about ‘green growth’ and ‘win-win solutions’ without probing the conflicts, trade-offs and compromises that are implied by such fundamental re-structuring of the economy and the relations of power which will determine which pathway is chosen. The ‘incumbent’ regime of existing actors and interests that benefit from on-going reliance on a fossil fuel economy and that have played such a decisive role in the development of capitalism over the last century, will not give up their position easily. Nor in all likelihood will governments and international institutions that have, so far, shown little appetite for initiating structural change in a context of financial austerity. Since energy use, in particular, is closely correlated with growth, there is tremendous political sensitivity around proposals to transform its provision and distribution. So what will it take politically to create powerful coalitions of the ‘winning’ and the ‘willing’ that are able to shift the balance of political and economic power in favour of those that stand to benefit from a low carbon economy? What historical precedents are there for this and what can we learn from them? Which historical, political and economic conditions appear to be necessary for such change to occur and, more importantly, can they be replicated given the current alignments of power in the global economy? These are the central questions addressed by this fellowship project.

Theoretical Novelty

Though recent research has sought to extend the predominantly European and technocratic focus of scholarship on transitions (Power et al 2015), and to pay greater attention to the role of institutions (Kern 20ll; Geels 2014), we lack analysis of the deeper politics of transition in terms of the distributions of power and re-casting of state-market relations required to bring about transformations in energy production and consumption, informed by historical analysis of the conditions in which this has been achieved before. There is an urgent need to bring existing theoretical and conceptual tools from different strands of political economy to bear on the question of transitions to a lower carbon economy, while at the same time revisiting and sensitising these existing approaches to what is different and unique about energy and its politics, history and political economy. These need to take seriously the centrality of the relationship between energy and growth, and the role of energy in producing different forms of capitalism, as is required again now at this historical moment. The need is urgent because of the acknowledged neglect of energy questions in (international) political economy and the equally problematic neglect of politics in innovation studies and economic history. Work in political economy on varieties and histories of capitalism (Hall and Soskice 2001), for example, when combined with work in innovation studies and economic history, will enrich our understanding of which combinations of institutions and actors, finance and technology are best placed to address these challenges of energy transformation.

Methodology

This project is highly inter-disciplinary, drawing on insights from innovation studies on socio-technical transitions (Geels 2005; Loorbach 2007), historical economics (Perez 2002,  2012; Pearson & Foxon 2012) and theoretical and conceptual insights from international political economy (Cox 1987; Rupert 1995) and political economy more broadly to guide the empirical enquiry by highlighting key historical moments, actors and initiatives that warrant further investigation. Case selection will informed by criteria of (i) the speed of transition (ii) the scale and significance of its impact (iii) the extent to which it generated social co-benefits (iv) availability of sources to study it further. The research will draw on a mix of methodologies including historical analysis to uncover the political conflicts and negotiations that attended previous major social-technical changes in energy systems, and semi-structured interviews with key contemporary actors involved in both financing and delivering low carbon solutions, and those involved in the political work of assembling alliances, networks and associations that are seeking to build a low carbon economy. It will draw in the first instance upon contacts I have developed with actors in each of these areas over 25 years and then require further snow-balling to identify further relevant interviewees in government, international organisations, business and civil society. Being based at Sussex, home to the world leading Science Policy Research Unit, as well as the STEPS centre, whose work is highly relevant to this project, will provide precisely the sort of inter-disciplinary environment necessary to nurture and refine a project such as this.

Work Plan

The research will firstly involve an identification and refining of relevant theoretical and empirical literatures during months 1-3 of the fellowship. These will used to suggest historical and contemporary empirical case studies of relevance to the research that can be pursued through historical analysis and interviews with key actors during months 3-7. The empirical content and theoretical foundations of the project will be built interactively and iteratively so that the combinations of literatures used will be determined by the key political economy dynamics revealed by the empirical work and not pre-determined at the outset. The project will result in a monograph worked on throughout the fellowship, but written most intensively in months 7-12. In line with ISRF priorities, two articles highlighting key theoretical and methodological innovations will also be produced for leading academic journals showcasing the benefits of fusing innovation studies, economic history and international political economy. Alongside this, policy briefings targeted at different actors and blogs and commentaries will be produced in the latter stages of the fellowship on key empirical findings that challenge existing orthodoxies about the possibility and nature of energy transitions. These will be presented at side-events at the UNFCCC climate negotiations and to government agencies working on energy transitions. The applicant has access to separate funds to cover travel to these events and the production of the briefings.

Outcome

The longer term outcome of the fellowship would be creation of a network and community of researchers and practitioners whose work is informed by, and builds upon, these empirical insights and theoretical innovations; with the aim of challenging orthodox policy and academic thinking about the nature and possibility of accelerated energy transitions towards a low carbon economy. Through the briefings, engagement and communications work, the work will be used to shift the terms of debate about energy transitions in the UK and more broadly through the global networks described below. The fellowship would also provide the basis to seek further funding for more comparative and historical work, deepening and broadening further the research undertaken as part of the fellowship, organised around the new theoretical and conceptual innovations outlined above. In a very practical sense, the applicant is also seeking separate funding from a Foundation to build over a number of years a ‘Rapid transitions Alliance’ of NGO, community and business actors to serve as a platform and network for the sharing of positive experiences, resources for action research and support for events and media work aimed at shifting the terms of debate about what types of energy transition might be possible within the timeframes required by the Paris Agreement. This would involve actors in Asia, Africa and Latin America and provide a key vehicle for global dissemination of the findings of this fellowship.