How long will it take to decarbonise the global energy system, which currently depends so heavily on fossil fuels? This was the central question of the debate in the last December’s volume of the journal Energy Research & Social Science. The debate was started by an article that had been published previously in the same journal [1]. The provoking key message of this article was that the much-needed energy transition may take less time than mainstream academic literature on energy transitions suggests.

By highlighting examples such as the rapid deployment of improved cook stoves in China or the fast diffusion of flex-fuel vehicles in Brazil, the author of the article challenged the frequently expressed view that energy transitions take many decades or even centuries to unfold. Whereas these examples refer to so-called prime movers (i.e. end user technologies) that can be substituted more easily, the author also gave examples for rapid system changes in underlying energy infrastructures, such as the fast development of the Dutch natural gas system in the 60s. Within a decade, the share of natural gas in the Dutch energy mix increased from less than 2% of the prime energy supply to more than 50%.

The article triggered strong reactions among experts and the above-mentioned debate in Energy Research & Social Science probably best reflects the disagreements that currently exists with respect to the question of how long it will take to decarbonize our energy systems. The debate consisted of 6 short communications in which leading transition scholars expressed their viewpoints on the article [2-7]. These viewpoints diverged substantially ranging from strongly sceptical on the one side to clearly agreeing on the other. For instance, while one of the scholars regarded the article’s optimism as ‘wishful thinking (…) contradicted both by indisputable statistics and by the imperatives of energy conversions’ [2], another scholar acknowledged the optimism by highlighting that ‘the modern energy space [with its readily available zero-carbon replacement technologies] is capable of rapid energy transition’ [3].

Because it is beyond of the scope to this post to expand on all important arguments that have been made in the debate (and because everyone who is interested in this topic should read through this truly interesting debate anyway), I want to focus here on one of the most important differences between optimists and pessimists, i.e. between those who believe that a rapid transition is possible and those who don’t: while the pessimists focussed rather on the techno-economic aspects of energy transitions, the optimists paid particular attention to socio-institutional factors and argued that the pace of the low-carbon transition strongly depends on the underlying social structures and associated institutions (i.e. the formal and informal rules that govern social behaviour). Moreover, the optimists believed that these social structures can change rapidly. Particularly the political will to change the current ‘rules of the game’ was mentioned frequently in this context, but also measures such as awareness creation or framing of the cultural discourse that is in favour of low-carbon technologies.

Without doubt, the shift of attention towards social processes and associated institutional mechanisms that underlie technological change represents an important step and is crucial to gain a better understanding of transition processes. And I also totally agree with the idea that it is these processes and mechanisms that mainly determine both technological and economic processes. But I am still not totally convinced whether this means that we can be optimistic. Quite the contrary, I think that nothing is more difficult than changing established social structures. However, even the optimists never said that such a social transformation would be easy…

References:

[1] Sovacool, B.K. (2016): How long will it take? Conceptualizing the temporal dynamics of energy transitions. Energy Reseach & Social Science 13, pp. 202–215.

[2] Smil V. (2016): Debating energy transitions: a dozen insights based on performance. Energy Research & Social Science 22, pp. 194-197.

[3] Bromley, P.S. (2016): Extraordinary interventions: Toward a framework forrapid transition and deep emission reductions in the energy space. Energy Research & Social Science 22, pp. 165–171.

[4] Kern, F.; Rogge K. (2016): The pace of governed energy transitions: agency,international dynamics and the global Paris agreement acceleratingdecarbonisation processes? Energy Research & Social Science 22, pp. 13-17.

[5] Grubler, A.; Wilson, C.; Nemet, G. (2016): Apples, oranges and consistent comparisonsof the temporal dynamics of energy transitions. Energy Research & Social Science 22, pp. 18-25.

[6] Fouquet, R. (2016): Historical Energy Transitions: Speed, Prices and SystemTransformation. Energy Research & Social Science 22, pp. 7–12.

[7] Sovacool, B.K.; Geels F.W. (2016): Further reflections on the temporality of energy transitions: A response to critics. Energy Research & Social Science 22, pp. 232–237.

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