Radical realism: energy policy options for changing times

26 September, 2022

Sarah Darby, Environmental Change Institute

Reading time: 4 minutes

Our CREDS in Conversation international webinar on ‘realistically radical policy options’ was timely in light of current government energy strategies.

The recent CREDS in Conversation international webinar on the theme of ‘realistically radical policy options’ was timely.

It occurred in a week when UK citizens saw the arrival of a new prime minister with a stated commitment to reaching net-zero by 2050 but no obvious plans for achieving this, her appointment of a Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with a record of support for fossil fuels, and the announcement of a second cap on domestic energy pricing that would be paid for in the short term by Government borrowing and in the longer term by energy customers and their descendants. There were no new initiatives to support demand-side measures for energy security and affordability, the price cap would disproportionately benefit wealthier households, and any form of energy rationing was ruled out.

From contraction & convergence to sufficiency

Such a radically supply-focused and equity-indifferent policy context made it all the more reasonable to take time to consider ‘realistically radical’ policy options for low-impact, resilient living in a zero-emissions world. The speakers at the CREDS webinar took us first through a consideration of the case for ‘1.5o lifestyles’, with a reminder of the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ framework for global equity. Magnus Bengtsson, policy lead at the Hot or Cool Institute and speaking from Japan, showed how such a framework points towards policies such as choice editing, rationing carbon-intensive materials and activities, and universal basic services – sufficiency for all. Yamina Saheb, senior energy policy analyst at OpenExp in Paris, pointed out how energy sufficiency is increasingly valued as a guiding principle, notably in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. (That is, measures and practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing, within planetary boundaries.) Our decarbonisation choices lie between sufficiency and reliance on unproven technologies.

Sufficiency respects ecosystem limits, and it provides for basic needs. Personal Carbon Allowances (PCAs), combined with national caps on emissions, are proposed as a way of working towards both these aims and they were taken seriously enough, 15 years ago, to be the subject of a UK government pre-feasibility study, pdf. The study acknowledged potential equity and environmental gains, and drawbacks that could be addressed, but concluded that PCAs were ‘an idea … ahead of its time in terms of its public acceptability and the technology to bring down the costs.’ PCAs were effectively set aside as radical but not realistic.

Support for climate action grows – as long as it’s fair

That was then, though, and Yael Parag, Deputy Dean of the School of Sustainability at Reichman University in Israel, argued that much has changed since that time. Global heating is far more obvious, public support for climate action is stronger, and the current gas-centred energy crisis cries out for radical actions to minimise suffering while moving us away from reliance on fossil fuels. And, as we had been reminded, sufficiency and its French version, sobriété, are making their way into everyday policy conversations.

Where does this take us?

My takeaways were first that yes, it is vital to keep researching and testing sufficiency-related practices in real-life conditions, with plenty of citizen participation, to add to the options open to policymakers. As Stuart Capstick, Deputy Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST), pointed out, this needs doing ‘ahead of the politics’, to be ready when the time is ripe. And second, that there are still plenty of fairness issues to be considered in relation to any system that involves trading. Most of the questions from webinar attendees focused on fairness, and pilot PCA schemes have shown how essential a sense of fairness is if people are to accept any form of rationing.

One more thought on radical realism: energy systems rely more and more on distributed assets and we need to catch up with that. Our energy consumption has always related to our ownership and/or management of assets such as the buildings we live in, our appliances and vehicles. Now, our environmental impact may also relate to our ownership and/or operation of PV installations, batteries and chargepoints. These have more to do with wealth (stocks) than with income (flows). A PCA will mean one thing to a comfortably-off homeowner who is able to invest in efficiency, generation or storage, but something different to a tenant with little or no spare cash or ability to change their living conditions. This webinar strengthened the case for approaches that address physical and social capital along with infrastructures – this could include work along the lines proposed by capability studies. Realistic, radical, and running with the tide of support for sufficiency.

If you’re interested in this subject, please look out for the podcast, Realistically Radical Policy Options, which will be released in early winter.

Banner photo credit: Adobe Stock