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In the first part I talked about the current challenge we are confronted with regarding the transformation of our economic system to fight climate change. I argued that we have to move from a linear take-make-waste economic model to a circular economy in which as many resources as possible stay within in the cycle, where they are re-used and re-“cycled”. I argued that this system changes will cause a shift in the roles of its actors. Rather than being focused on one single role with a limited set of objectives, private citizens, companies and the government have to widen their perspective and become much more strongly involved in every aspect of energy production and consumption. Glocalization leads to the civil society becoming prosumers – consumers and producers at the same time which requires a much stronger sense of personal autonomy amongst private citizens. In what follows, I want to continue by giving some ideas of why strong collaboration between actors is particularly necessary for moving on to a sustainable energy production system and which implications this might have for individuals, politicians and firms.
A rather simple but vital argument why citizens, businesses and governments must enhance their collaborative ties in order to transform our energy system deals with the necessity and importance of space, which already has been described extensively in energy-related and spatial planning academic literature. In a fossil-fuel based energy system, space is not a critical issue as most of the activity regarding extraction and storage happen underground - think about petrol stations. The new energy system is based on energy sources like solar, wind or hydro power, all of them above the ground, visible and highly space-consuming. To produce the amount of energy we need in a sustainable manner a much bigger area on the surface must be occupied in total by power plants than before, which in turn affects people who live in the surrounding. Solar panels on rooftops or windmills in the field are just two examples. Naturally, this will create controversies and induce public interest. NIMBY – not in my backyard – has become a dictum. Residents fight against energy plants in their backyards, especially when they do not enjoy economic benefit from it but have to bear with its visual effects. Therefore, it is more important than ever to include everybody in the decision-making processes, from private citizens over firms to the government.
A transformative change of that kind requires participation and shared responsibility of all actors to achieve acceptance and make it successful. A bundling of resources is necessary. Capital and technological resources are mainly possessed by companies and partly the government, whereas a decentralized production requires the use of space possessed (or controlled) by private citizens. This underpins the importance of a working democratic system. People must have the feeling of being included in the decision-making processes and must have a possibility to induce or prevent changes. Carolyn M. Hendriks from The Crawford School of Economics and Governance, who examined the accessibility of network governance in Dutch energy transition management is a proponent of more inclusion in the system and argues that “[i]nclusion of this kind requires the involvement of both functional representatives from affected groups, as well as descriptive representatives from affected populations. She argues that network governance can become more inclusive by providing “effective opportunities for policy actors, marginalized groups and citizens to participate in issues and decisions that affect them”. They must feel responsible for their own fate, or as Eyre states it, it is necessary to “reconceptualiz[e] […] the user role as an active shaper of markets “. The government has to juggle between its responsibility to ensure enough freedom for firms to make innovation happen and increasingly involve citizens in decision-making, but it must also have enough power to ensure that unpopular decisions are executed, like the abandonment of subsidies for fossil fuels and the resulting obsolescence of old business models or the construction of large power plants. This shows how difficult good governmental work with regards to the energy transition is and calls for a very strong sense of leadership and persuasiveness amongst political leaders. As every transition this one will also hurt some people – in every case in the short-term, hopefully not in the long-term. The often-cited coal industry is only one sector where people will have to be trained in different jobs. The government must work closely with the education sector and businesses to put people back to work who lost their job because of the energy transition - they must be trained in different jobs.
In conclusion, the transition to a sustainable energy system is truly transformative. It will affect everyone, and everyone will affect it. It is part of an even more comprehensive transformation, namely the transformation of our economic system to a circular economy. It will be organized bottom-up and decentralized instead of top-down. It requires different resources than we are used to in the old system which are provided by different actors, especially space. Therefore, it must reach acceptance in all parts of our society and different actors must work together closely. They have do develop shared values and responsibilities and they must be willing to achieve the same objective.
What does that mean practically? Politicians must show a different leadership style. They must emphasize the need for a renewed sense of self-responsibility of citizens. The extensive expansion of welfare systems in many Western countries over the last century has visibly led to a tremendous improvement of peoples´ lives. However, it appears that in this relatively short period of human history people got too used to being secured by the government in case of distress. As important a working social welfare system is – the transition of our economic system requires a shift in the thinking of all of us and an increased sense of personal autonomy.
The right education is in this context of utmost importance. People should be educated about the aspects of energy and the energy transition and they must also be trained in a way to be able to respond to instant changes in the economy. Teaching economic and entrepreneurial skills and knowledge in schools would be a fantastic way to do so.
Local co-organizing of energy projects should be promoted more strongly. A good example for how this can look like in practice is the German crowdfunding start-up Leihdeinerumweltgeld.de (“borrow your environment money”) which offers a financing platform for local energy projects. Citizens can, for example, invest in solar or wind parks in their city or municipality built by private companies. It seems obvious that this helps to achieve acceptance amongst private citizens as they are assigned a certain kind of ownership and benefit from the projects financially in form of an annual interest.
Lastly, there must be a full commitment of key political and business leaders to reach the necessary energy goals. Unfortunately, election cycles of four to five years often do not make it possible to sustainably execute the kind of responsible governmental leadership urgently needed which would provide guidelines for shared responsibility and inspiration for businesses and citizens.
Becker, S., Moss, T., Naumann, M. (2016). The Importance of Space: Towards a Socio- Material and Political Geography of Energy Transitions. In: Gailing, L., Moss, T. (eds.), Conceptualizing Germany’s Energy Transition, Palgrave Macmillan, 93-108.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). Concept. What is a circular economy? A framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. Accessed: 02.03.2019. Available at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept
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