Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions

Peter Newell

How to transition to a zero carbon economy in a timely and fair fashion is one of the greatest challenges the world faces. Bill Gates spelt out his vision of how to do it in his recent book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. The answer for him is technological innovation and getting ideas to market by mobilising private capital. He admits coyly, “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist, and I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change”. He is not alone in that. For Sir Nicolas Stern, author of the famous review on the economics of climate change, the problem is one of pricing such that ‘climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has seen’.

In a new book, Power Shift, I make the argument that it is power that needs to shift if we are to successfully address this crisis. It is not for the lack of good technologies or pricing mechanisms that we are facing climate chaos. It is the concentration of power in actors and institutions that benefit from unsustainability and over whom we have limited control. This includes power over production, finance, technology and institutions. But it also refers to power between and within nations; among social groups; the power of capital over labour; and of the state over citizens. Without shifts in these things, the technologies may change and the markets might look different, but the roots of the current crisis in an unsustainably organised global political economy will remain untouched. We might get accelerated decarbonisation, but without social justice or deeper sustainability.

Moving beyond dominant socio-technical accounts, Power Shift develops a more historical, global, political and ecological account of key features of energy transitions: from their production and financing, to how they are governed and mobilised around. This is applied to contemporary and historical examples of energy transitions from around the world. Informed by personal experience and direct engagement in projects of energy transition, the book explores the real-world dilemmas we face in accelerating just transitions to a low carbon economy. It argues for rethinking how we produce energy and how much we produce, including putting down limits on production and supply. It argues for a different model of financing energy with a greater role for patient capital, different ownership structures and much stronger and more effective governance of finance for the common good. Bold and interventionist state regulation will be required alongside stronger global and regional energy governance. But we also need democratisation: downwards control of energy and stronger participation in deliberation around energy policy, underpinned by principles of precaution and respectful of limits. This brings to the fore key dilemmas around squaring equity with urgency.

Mobilisation is vital to shifting power and re-shaping energy pathways. The future success of energy activism will depend on broader alliances with labour, environmental, indigenous groups and human rights activists to challenge dominant energy systems on a range of fronts. Without greater social and democratic control over the ownership, direction, regulation, production and consumption and financing of energy, the power to determine energy pathways will remain in incumbent hands. Technologies may change, systems of transmission and distribution may be altered, or even revolutionised, and modes of service delivery overhauled. But if the purposes of energy policy and assumptions about whose energy needs take priority and who pays the social and environmental price of conventional energy pathways are not up for discussion, we will miss the opportunity to advance a more meaningful just transition.

About The Author

Peter Newell

Peter Newell is a professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. He has worked on the political economy of the environment for over twenty-five years as a resear...

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