Energy Systems and Climate Change

Authors:  Strauch, Yonatan, Truzaar Dordi, and Angela Carter
Publication:  Climatic Change (2020)

This article traces how the notion of finite limits to emissions based on 2 °C carbon budgets was applied to increase the credibility of a carbon-constrained future in two very separate realms, social movements contesting fossil-fuel development and the financial sector—a process yet to be described in the relevant political and financial literatures. For each realm and sub-areas within them, we apply a three-wave taxonomy to trace the application of 2 °C carbon budget based concepts—including stranded assets, the carbon bubble, divestment, and anti-pipeline campaigns—from the fringe to the mainstream in under 10 years. We do so by drawing on relevant primary documents and peer-reviewed literature, complemented by a quantitative textual analysis of relevant discourse from news sources. The article establishes how, in efforts to shift expectations, climate proponents used 2 °C carbon budgets to frame a stark choice between a safe climate with strict carbon constraints and growth-oriented fossil-fuel interests. The article also demonstrates that these concepts, and efforts inspired by them, contributed to constraints on fossil-fuel developments and interests, arguably further enhancing the credibility of a carbon-constrained future. We conclude with a discussion of the potentially self-reinforcing nature of such expectation dynamics and by highlighting overlapping implications for actors across finance, where investors reorient risk assessment around climate, and social movements, where activists disrupt states’ entrenched commitment to fossil-fuel expansion.

Author:  Strauch, Yonatan
Publication:  Energy Research & Social Science (2020)

Scholars are interested in the potential of positive feedbacks between market and political progress to accelerate a shift to low-carbon energy systems when new industries gain momentum and contest incumbents. However, the literatures on climate-policy feedbacks and sociotechnical transitions feature minimal consideration of the essential role of scaling processes and scalar differences (e.g. between photovoltaics and concentrating solar power). This article addresses the role of scaling processes by characterizing the tipping points (or key thresholds) involved in a shift from “niche scale” to “regime scale.” It introduces indicators of “regime scale” as applied to the global cases of wind, photovoltaics, and lithium-ionbased electric-vehicle (EV) industries. The indicators highlight “feedback-friendly” characteristics that help power transition-accelerating feedbacks. The results show the shift of photovoltaics and wind towards regime scale tipped circa 2008 and circa 2015 for EVs. The discussion considers the new social and political path-dependencies produced at regime scale and explains why political programs to accelerate energy transitions like a Green New Deal should consider technology scale and leverage technologies with “feedback-friendly” characteristics.

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