I The Political Economy of Clean Energy Transitions

Introduction and Synthesis

Douglas Arent, Channing Arndt, Mackay Miller, Finn Tarp, and Owen Zinaman


Climate change is frequently referred to as one of the defining challenges of the twenty-first century. We concur. In broad terms, the climate challenge is relatively straightforward. Global average temperatures are rising as a consequence of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. In the absence of deliberate and global action to first substantially reduce and then eliminate (or even turn net negative) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, global temperature rise within this century is very likely to surpass two degrees Celsius (IPCC 2014), which is the (somewhat arbitrary) threshold set by the international community as a tolerable level of warming.[1] Continuation of current levels of emissions or (worse) continued growth in emissions throughout the twenty- first century could result in warming far above the two-degree threshold with very bad implications for the environment of the planet and for human societies, particularly poor people.

These observations constitute the core arguments for serious efforts to reduce emissions, called mitigation policy, at the global level. A principal element to mitigation policy relates to energy use. Specifically, energy use must transition from technologies that emit substantial volumes of GHGs to technologies with limited or zero emissions. A ‘clean energy transition’ refers broadly to a substitution of technologies and associated fuel inputs across the full set of energy subsectors and consumers of energy, both as intermediates and final goods. This is the ‘clean energy transition’ referred to in the title of this book.

While the broad contours of the climate challenge, of which the mitigation challenge is a subset, are well understood, the specificities of almost all aspects of the climate challenge are deeply complex. Enormous efforts have been dedicated to the science of global change (IPCC 2014, 2013). While much remains to be learned, climate science provides solid foundations to the core arguments for serious efforts to reduce emissions. The technical challenge of inventing low emissions energy technology has been absorbing the attention of some of the world’s top scientists and engineers for decades and has become increasingly commercial over the past decade. Further, a new wave of promising technologies is forming.

But, in the end, a solid foundation for action derived from climate science combined with an array of promising technologies for reducing emissions are not likely to be enough to catalyse a clean energy transition. A key phrase in the very first paragraph of this introductory chapter is ‘deliberate and global action’. A clean energy transition is highly unlikely to occur on its own. Policies must be put in place that will foment a clean energy transition, and these policies must be effective globally (as opposed to just shifting emissions from one region to another). The challenge, perhaps the largest of them all, is implementing policies and programmes that actually achieve the necessary global emissions reductions. Here, political economy considerations take a leading role. These perspectives motivate our focus on the political economy of clean energy transitions.

  • [1] A more ambitious 1.5-degree target has been set forth in recent negotiations arguingthat it is ‘a significantly safer defense line against the worst impacts of a changing climate’(UNFCCC 2015).
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