Political Economy of Energy Transitions (POLET)

a project within the Central European University’s Energy and Society Intellectual Theme

POLET@CEU is motivated by two profound questions: a theoretical - why do societies change how they produce and use energy? and a practical - will we be able to avoid a catastrophic climate change, dangerous tensions over scarce resources and crippling energy poverty in the 21st century? These questions trigger a heated debate mixing arguments from various social sciences, normative views and political ideologies.

The academic side of this debate is dominated by global energy-economy models, which are based on neoclassical economics and actively used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other international organisations. In these models, energy production and use change over time to achieve pre-defined goals as cheaply as possible. Such models convincingly show that the cheapest way of meeting the enormous projected energy needs of Asia and Africa is by providing them with massive amounts of coal from the U.S. and Australia, thus drastically warming the climate and changing the world order. This is called the “business as usual” scenario.

These models can also explore goals other than economic growth. For example, in the ”20C climate stabilisation” scenario, there are limits on carbon emissions which force coal to stay in the ground and instead stimulate renewable energy and energy efficiency. As a result, economic development requires less energy which can be supplied by cleaner technologies without wrecking the global climate. Contemporary models can generate many additional scenarios, for example for a world with slow economic growth, or without large international energy trade, or without nuclear power. However, the models are much better in providing detailed information on energy sources and technologies in a given scenario than in judging which scenarios are more likely. This is because energy-economy models do not explore or explain why societies adopt certain goals and how capable they are of seeing these goals through.

The social processes of defining goals and priorities for energy systems extend beyond pure economics, to the domain of political science which links them to interests of various actors and different political ideas. For example, rural electrification is linked to the idea of modernization, investment in nuclear power - to national independence from energy imports, and fossil fuel subsidies - to either poverty alleviation or to oil and gas lobbies. However, the heyday of political science’s interest in energy was the 1970s and 80s when the world energy order was much simpler and there were a lot fewer global energy challenges and choices. Though this research provided some excellent insights, it does not easily connect to the ‘new’ politics of energy. As a result, modern political science fails to explain why and when societies choose to embark on clean energy transitions. We still have a poor understanding of the driving forces and likely outcomes of the ‘new’ political processes, such as the recent climate agreement in Paris.

But even if we understand why policy makers proclaim certain energy goals and could model how to achieve them, we are still far from solving the puzzle of energy transitions. This is because the real world is not only inhabited by policy makers and rational economic actors. Instead, there are billions of people whose lives are intertwined with inventing, manufacturing, maintaining and operating machines that capture, transform and use energy. These people and technologies form complex socio-technical systems which are the subject of science, technology and society (STS) studies, a field disciplinarily distinct from economics and political science and closer to sociology. STS explain why societies sometimes resist change and keep producing polluting energy (for example using coal) even in spite of cheaper and cleaner alternatives. STS can also explain why energy technologies in some cases change very quickly, for example when horses are replaced by cars. Despite these insights into past changes, STS studies cannot tell whether future energy will be “locked-in” into dirtier conventional technologies or instead disrupted and transformed by clean tech innovations. It is clear that the outcome depends on economic and political factors and thus on insights from the other two disciplines: energy economics and political science.

POLET@CEU is based on a simple idea that understanding energy transitions requires a dialogue between these three scholarly communities: energy modellers, STS scholars and political scientists. However, since these are fundamentally different social disciplines such a dialogue is quite difficult to organise: there are no appropriate journals, conferences, or associations.

POLET@CEU builds CEU’s its interest in social transitions, its ambition to advance social science and humanities, and its focus on major problems of the 21st century. CEU will use its expertise in Political Science and connect to the global energy modelling networks through a partnership with IIASA, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna. We involve the School of Public Policy and the Business School with its focus on clean energy innovations and we plan to engage with the Sustainable Transitions Research Network (STRN), the main association of STS scholars working on energy transitions.

POLET@CEU also takes advantage of CEU’s expertise in energy history through involving the History Department and the Science Studies Program. History is indispensable for understanding energy transitions by making it it possible to ground-truth some of the key findings about future energy. For example, it is only through looking at history that it was possible for energy modellers to establish whether the rates of technological change observed in their models have ever occurred in reality. And it is only through the lense of history, that STS scholars can establish under which conditions technological innovation leads to social change.

In practical terms, POLET@CEU includes several components:

  1. Data infrastructure and capacity development component includes accessing and analyzing large datasets on energy systems.

  2. The Research and writing component includes three research projects/papers: on transitions in electricity supply, transitions in energy end-use and the public choice of energy transition policies.

  3. In the International academic networking and outreach component we will continue maintaining the Polet.network website and organise an international POLET workshop in 2017.