Sustainable lifestyles and political economy of energy transitions

Discussion paper for the sustainable lifestyles workshop, Luxembourg, June 2015

The overall aim of my research is to develop mid-range theories of energy transitions. To this aim, I use insights from three mainstream social sciences: economics, sociology and political science which give rise to three distinct perspectives on energy transitions. In this essay I outline each perspective’s:

  • theoretical foundations, conceptual models of energy transitions, and use in policy-making;
  • contribution to understanding the role of lifestyle changes in energy transitions; and
  • limitations in informing and guiding policies and action for sustainable lifestyle changes.

Techno-economic perspective

This perspective rooted in natural resources, engineering and energy economics was originally developed to support national energy planning. It relies on concepts and methods of neoclassical economics which portray both past and future energy transitions as the evolution of energy systems in response to increasing demand constrained by gradually changing energy supply options. In terms of energy transitions, this thinking is embedded in global energy-economy-climate models (Integrated Assessment Models or IAMs) and shapes policy discussions on the energy “problem”. Through articulating the danger of global warming in the business-as-usual scenario and identifying cost-effective pathways of climate stabilization, this perspective has influenced climate mitigation policies and discourses worldwide (e.g. through shaping the IPCC reports and guiding national climate pledges and energy plans and 'roadmaps').

In this perspective, energy demand is a proxy for lifestyle changes. Under given GDP assumptions this translates into energy intensity. Results from IAMs point out that decline in energy intensity faster than at historic rates would increase chances of successful climate change mitigation. For example, the Global Energy Assessment constructed a special 'GEA-Efficiency' family of scenarios with very fast decline of energy intensity to show that under these assumptions nuclear energy, bio-energy carbon capture and storage and hydrogen-based fuels are optional for climate mitigation rather than mandatory as in higher-intensity scenarios. Other IAM studies have demonstrated that without faster-than-historic decline in energy intensity energy supply technologies would need to be changed at unrealistically fast rates to avoid a dangerous climate change.

Beyond demonstrating the importance of declining energy intensity and pointing at broad end-use categories where energy demand should be constrained (household and transport and indirectly industry and agriculture), the techno-economic perspective throws little light on desirable or expected lifestyle changes. This is first of all because most economic models are too aggregated (geographically and sectorally) to deal with a large number of heterogenous end-uses of energy.

Secondly, neo-classical economic models cannot properly depict certain aspects of households' and individuals' behaviour as well as certain types of political action that may be important for transition to sustainable lifestyles. The state of the art related to lifestyles in this field is to incorporate insights from empirical and non-linear modeling of consumer preferences in the development of energy demand.

Techno-social perspective

This perspective, rooted in sociology and science-technology studies with elements from evolutionary biology and complexity science, stresses the role of technological innovation, path-dependency, non-linearity, tipping points, as well as diffusion from core to the periphery in explaining historic energy transitions. It has informed innovation and R&D policies as well as 'transition management' and similar governance approaches.

The contribution of this perspective to understanding the role of lifestyles in energy transitions is two-fold. First, it points out that historic energy transitions were often triggered by end-use innovations (e.g. steam and internal combustion engines, the kerosene lamp, electric motor and light-bulb) which subsequently led to dramatic changes in energy supply and infrastructure. Second, it argues that these end-use innovations were initially developed in 'protected niches', thus prompting and justifying 'eco-communities', 'sustainable cities' and other protected lifestyle experimentation arenas.

The limitations of this perspective are that both the speed and the direction of lifestyle changes conceived as diffusion of 'niche innovations’ is hard to predict or govern. Only some of the many ’niches' - and not necessarily sustainable ones - survive and even fewer can affect entrenched locked-in regimes. Historic transitions have taken long time and were driven by convenience, cost and performance - but it is less clear what could be the driving forces of sustainable lifestyles.

Political perspective

The third perspective has its roots in political science (and its subfields political economy and international relations) and explains energy transitions in terms of deliberate political action shaped by ideas, interests and institutions.  It was successfully used to explain states’ responses to energy crises of the 1970s and it still generates much of mainstream energy policy advice, especially with respect to energy security and regulation of energy markets.

With respect to lifestyles, it highlights potential effectiveness of direct state interventions (e.g. in rural electrification) and explains when such an intervention occurs. In particular, it explains why energy efficiency is sometimes prioritized and sometimes underplayed policy measure despite its obvious economic benefits.

The limitations of this school is four-fold. First, it remains generally ‘under-theorized’ with respect to contemporary energy challenges and technological systems. Second, it lacks explanatory power with respect to ideas which are not sufficiently 'politicised', interests which are too dispersed  and solutions that are too small to attain visibility and attract public attention. Third, it focuses primarily on national level, where political power is concentrated, whereas lifestyle knowledge and solutions are much more granular. Finally, modern states lack the capacity to intervene in lifestyle choices. Historic political interventions in lifestyles (the US Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China) led to mass violence and cannot serve as models for the future political action.

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In summary, each perspective provides useful insights and yet is limited in explaining the role of sustainable lifestyles in energy transitions. To develop an understanding of this role an interdisciplinary academic effort is needed. The first step in should be constructing a meta-theoretical description of sustainable lifestyle changes that would be acceptable for all three perspectives.

References

  1. Riahi K et al. (2012) “Sustainable Energy Pathways” in Global Energy Assessment: Toward a More Sustainable Future, Cambridge University Press and the IIASA, pp 1203–1306. www.globalenergyassessment.org
  2. Grubler A (2012) Energy transitions research Insights and cautionary tales. Energy Policy 50:8–16.
  3. Hughes L, Lipscy PY (2013) The Politics of Energy. Annu Rev Polit Sci 16:449–469.
  4. Smil V (2010) Energy transitions. Praeger.
  5. Wilson, C, Grubler, A, Gallagher, Kelly, and Nemet, G. 2012. “Marginalization of End-Use Technologies in Energy Innovation for Climate Protection.” Nature Climate Change 2 (11): 780–88.