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International Institute for Innovation in Governance

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climate change

The overlooked role of discourse in breaking carbon lock-in

Over the last 15 years, research on carbon lock‐in has investigated why decarbonization evolves so slowly in Western industrialized countries. In this paper, we argue that the role of discourses has been overlooked in the literature on carbon lock‐in. We argue that discourses are both part of lock‐in mechanisms and, using the concept of discursive turning points, important factors in explaining change. This implies that we need to carefully investigate the dominant discourses that constitute and justify the very technologies, institutions and behaviors of the status quo. For the case of the German energy transition, we demonstrate the importance of discursive turning points for overcoming carbon lock‐in, based on a literature review. Germany’s long‐standing lock‐in of fossil fuels and nuclear power was undermined by the rise of the energy transition discourse. This discourse transitioned from a very marginal position to dominance through a number of factors, winning against the energy mix discourse. Over time the energy transition discourse became de‐radicalized. Coal has been able to defend its role in the German energy mix in the name of affordability and energy security. While renewables continue to grow, this happens alongside a remaining carbon lock‐in. We conclude that discursive lock‐in and discursive turning points are useful analytical tools that help to explain how the transition to renewable energies unfolds. In future research, the interaction between discursive lock‐ins and other types of lock‐in should be investigated.

Buschmann, P., & Oels, A. (2019). The overlooked role of discourse in breaking carbon lock‐in: The case of the German energy transitionWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, e574.

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Community power and institutional dependence in the renewable energy sector

The speed and progress of transitions towards renewable energy systems varies greatly between European member states. Among others, these differences have been attributed to the emergence of grassroots initiatives (GIs) that develop radical ideas and sustainable practices. The goal of this paper is to understand the differences in the emergence of GIs for renewable energy in relation to the institutional characteristics of Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. We analyze the possibilities of GIs to emerge and act within three dimensions: the material-economic, the actor-institutional and discursive dimension. We conclude that conditional factors lie within the material-economic dimension in terms of the biophysical conditions, the structure of the economy, energy dependency and the energy market. Within the actor-institutional dimension, we conclude that the presence or absence of fossil fuel incumbents, such as regional utilities, strongly influence the possibilities of GIs. Within the discursive dimension, openness for alternative discourses proved to be enabling for GI-activities, as well as democratized knowledge production. In addition to these conditions of possibility, GIs can also act despite dominant institutions, albeit limited. Finally, GIs need a strong network with knowledge institutes, technology developers and political parties in order to achieve institutional change that enables GIs to flourish. Without institutional space, GIs remain subjected to the dominant power-relations, and cannot exert much influence upon the energy system.

Henk-Jan Kooij, Marieke Oteman, Sietske Veenman, Karl Sperling, Dick Magnusson, Jenny Palm, Frede Hvelplund (2017) Between grassroots and treetops: Community power and institutional dependence in the renewable energy sector in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Energy Research & Social Science, 37: 52–64

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