Mapping visions of low carbon energy transitions

energy-2-1200115In a new 3S working paper Noel Longhurst and Jason Chilvers undertake a comparative analysis of twelve diverse visions of UK energy transitions. The paper draws on research undertaken as part of the EPSRC-funded Realising Transition Pathways (RTP) project. Within this project the role of the 3S team has been to develop further insights into actor dynamics, public participation in systemic change and the politics of energy transitions.

This latest working paper opens up to diverse visions of UK low carbon energy transitions by studying a corpus of twelve visions produced across different ‘settings’ of the state, market, science & technology, and civil society. Whilst research on energy transitions often focuses on dominant imaginaries within political cultures and centres of power, it is an explicit intention of this paper to also comparatively reveal distributed and diverse visions. In doing so, the paper provides a reflexive evaluation of the visions, framings and uncertainties of low carbon transition pathways developed within the RTP project.

Adopting a relational co-productionist perspective, the paper analyses similarities and differences between the visions in relation to four dimensions of socio-technical change: meanings, knowings, doings and organisings. The analysis shows that:

  • What is often presented as a primarily ‘technical’ transition is always normative in bringing forward particular forms of social and political order.
  • There is a distinction between more ‘centred’ and more ‘alternative’ imaginaries of the energy transition. The centred imaginary – associated with the state, business, and science and technology settings – envisages a techno-fix, market driven transition, motivated by the energy trilemma, and contributing to ongoing economic growth. In contrast, an alternative vision, originating primarily in civil society, is one that is motivated by a broader set of issues (e.g. equity, biodiversity, and so on), is facilitated by voluntaristic mechanisms, involves broader social and cultural change, and is economically oriented towards ‘degrowth’.
  • Civil society visions are therefore a key site of diversity across the four dimensions of socio-technical change and also tend to imagine more active and diverse roles for the public than visions originating from other settings.

The paper concludes with a call for more reflexive approaches to energy futures work, that can open up and account for the societal dimensions, politics and potential diversities rather than closing down around narrow top-down approaches to governing energy transitions.