Regime Resistance Against Low-Carbon Transitions

Geels, Frank W. 2014. “Regime Resistance Against Low-Carbon Transitions: Introducing Politics and Power Into the Multi-Level Perspective.” Theory, Culture & Society 31 (5). SAGE Publications: 21–40. doi:10.1177/0263276414531627.

The aim and central argument

In his 2014 article Geels aims to improve the treatment of regime in the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) by applying ideas from political economy. Through analyzing the UK's experience of clean energy transition in 2003-2013 he shows that the 'incumbents' in the regime (large energy companies) are not 'inert' and 'lock-in', but rather resist the transition through 'discursive', 'material' and 'institutional' means. This explains why they are not only retaining but also increasing their position in the UK and worldwide.

Defining low-carbon energy transition

In order to describe the incumbents' resistance, one must define its object, i.e. a 'low-carbon energy transition'. Though the paper does not contain an explicit definition, it starts and concludes with reference to the climate change as the main reason for an energy transition. In other words, clean energy transition is defined in terms of its intent: reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. For example, the article portrays bringing up non-climate policy goals (energy security and affordability) as attempts by the incumbents to distract public and political attention from climate change and thus resist the transition.

Curiously however, the bulk of the argument is not about climate stabilization, but about the battle between on the one hand small-scale renewable electricity and on the other hand coal and nuclear power. Interestingly, most of the contemporary global energy models calculate that saving the climate is impossible without massive deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for coal and nuclear energy. The paper dismisses these results as discursive tricks:

The coal regime has so far resisted climate change pressures through a ‘clean coal’ discourse and the innovation promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Nuclear energy actors also repositioned themselves as low-carbon energy, giving rise to a ‘nuclear renaissance’ iscourse (24-25).

Thus, innovations in coal industry and expansion of nuclear are not part of low-carbon transitions despite the fact that they reduce GHG emissions. Even large offshore windparks do not apparently qualify as transitions because they are 'large-scale technical options, which fit relatively well with the practices and interests of utilities and national governments' (31). In other words, what matters is not carbon neutrality, but rather 'regime (in)stability', 'system change':

incumbent regime actors in the UK have used instrumental, discursive, material and institutional forms of power to resist climate change-related pressures and to reposition themselves for low-carbon futures without fundamental system change (31).

Critical reflections and conclusion

The MLP defines low-carbon transition on its own terms: as destabilization of the incumbent regimes (coal, nuclear) by niche innovations (small-scale renewables) prompted by landscape pressures (climate change). This definition is problematic for serious analysis of energy transitions because of at least three reasons:

  1. It disregards non-climate motivations for energy systems transformations (e.g. energy security, energy access, employment, competitiveness) which are especially important in developing countries;
  2. It disregards scientific evidence from energy-economy modeling that large-scale systems including CCS, nuclear energy and concentrated (e.g. offshore) renewable energies are critical elements of climate stabilization pathways;
  3. It disregards potential political alliance between incumbents and newcomers (such as the red-green coalition between coal and renewable in Germany) to support large system changes (with various climate outcomes).

In conclusion, the MLP sees only those transitions it can explain in its own terms. Where niche innovations destabilizing the incumbent regime are not present, there is no transition from MLP's viewpoint. This narrows and limits the power of MLP to analyze real-life transitions where large changes in climate outcomes often occur with regime's active support and participation. Thus, we need other perspectives explaining energy transitions: those based on energy-economic modeling and on political-economic analysis.