In 2001 the Dutch government announced in its Fourth National Environmental Policy Plan that structural change in its energy system is necessary to solve persistent environmental problems such as climate change. The plan aims for a 40-60 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. It recognises that such change comes about through 'long drawn-out transformation processes comprising technological, economic, socio-cultural and institutional changes' (VROM, 2001, p. 30).
To work towards this goal Dutch policymakers adopted a 'transition management' model (Rotmans et al., 2001b). The starting point was an ambition for a future sustainable energy system, defined as one that is clean, affordable and secure. This was fleshed out in an intensive scenario study drawn up in 2000. The government initiated a stakeholder consultation process to identify vital elements of a Dutch sustainable energy system, such as biomass, energy efficiency and renewables. The government then set up 'transition platforms', in which business and NGO stakeholders, researchers and government officials come together to deliberate about technological options, regulatory changes and barriers to innovation.
These platforms developed strategic visions for 2030, such as making biomass account for 30 per cent of the total final energy consumption. Backcasting exercises then identified possible pathways to achieve these goals (VROM, 2003; EZ, 2004). To explore these pathways further coalitions of stakeholders are now conducting concrete experiments to facilitate learning about 'how a new energy system behaves in a specific practical situation and how the surrounding area reacts to this new system' (EZ, 2004, p. 19). Experiments include using residual heat from industry in the Rotterdam Harbour District to provide a residential area with heat, trial projects with micro heat and power units in households and a project aimed at cutting lifecy-cle energy use in paper production by 50 per cent.
To be eligible for government funding these projects have to be part of a 'certified' transition path, and must have explicit learning goals for each of the stakeholders involved (EZ, 2004, p. 29). This reflects the underlying transition management theory, which 'strongly emphasises the importance of formulating explicit learning goals for transition experiments' (van de Kerkhof and Wieczorek, 2005, p. 734). In theory, the specific results of a transition experiment may be less important than the lessons learned. The decisive question is: 'What have we learned and obtained, and how do we continue from there?' (Rotmans et al., 2001b, p. 24).
As an innovative way of setting up such deliberative learning processes the Dutch example has inevitably highlighted some key difficulties. There is some controversy over who selects the participating stakeholders and the criteria applied. The question of participation is crucial for the legitimacy of the process, as structural change will need wide societal engagement and support. In the Dutch case the process is dominated by the incumbent energy companies (Kern and Smith, 2008). The dominance of regime incumbents is likely to exclude the viewpoints of less prominent actors. This may limit learning and innovation (van de Kerkhof and Wieczorek, 2005, p. 738), which are crucial for the transformation of the energy systems.
Scenarios can also be instrumentally useful in clarifying the technical, institutional and behavioural problems which will need to be resolved, assuming various transition pathways. For instance, a scenario involving a large share of distributed electricity generation would have very different requirements in terms of the technologies needed to control the electricity networks than a structure that relies predominantly on centralised generation. A multi-criteria assessment conducted within the Tyndall Centre study (Anderson et al., 2005) showed a clear preference among the participants for the low-demand scenarios, because of the substantial infrastructure associated with high-electricity demand scenarios.
Scenario exercises can reveal many policy implications that CBA or forecasting do not address. Economic growth, production patterns, technologies and lifestyles associated with energy pathways can be explored, regardless of whether they are 'likely' or can be reduced to monetary values. Rather than seeking 'efficient' changes under existing technical and institutional arrangements, scenario exercises encourage consideration of radical system-level changes that could significantly reorder the relative competitiveness of various technologies. Moreover, as the WBGU (2003) exercise demonstrated, scenarios can be used to identify limits for acceptable social and environmental impacts, rather than to internalise such impacts in an economic cost-benefit calculation.
Political vision has been vital in national projects to develop energy infrastructure, and to introduce novel technologies such as nuclear power. A vision of independence from imported oil drove forward the Brazilian bioethanol programme, as a response to the 1970s oil crises (Borges et al., 1985; Sandalow, 2006). In contrast with ideal deliberative scenario exercises, however, this vision was very much guided by the options advocated by powerful actors in society. Scenarios constructed through an inclusive process of public deliberation can foster legitimacy and public acceptance for policies that are in the public interest, but that are controversial or lack such powerful advocates. For instance, energy taxes are likely to be far more acceptable if seen as an instrument to achieve a commonly agreed-upon objective, rather than as another means to raise government revenue.
Building consensus around a shared vision has vital symbolic and practical value in the political challenges of realising that vision. A commonly understood narrative or set of metaphors can reduce conflict over the distribution of resources, by orienting people towards shared ambitions. On a more practical level, long-term objectives can be broken down into short-term targets, providing a common point of reference and a basis for monitoring progress. Consensus, however, should not be sought by unduly narrowing down future options. Having a single, deliberatively negotiated vision of a particular sustainable energy system should help to create momentum in a certain direction, but working with a provisional 'basket' of visions may be more appropriate to deal with future uncertainty, and diversity of interests, values and worldviews. Sometimes learning and other process functions may be more important than achieving political consensus for action, for example where there is significant risk of the process being manipulated to serve a narrow set of interests.
To focus only on the instrumental and political functions of scenarios would miss the point that the deliberative ideal is, above all, about policy process. The value of visioning and scenario-building lies not only in its outputs and policy outcomes but also in the process through which we arrive at visions (Rotmans and Loorbach, 2008). Experience with assessments and evaluations has repeatedly demonstrated the value of the process as a source of learning (Webler et al., 1995; Saarikoski, 2000; Forss et al., 2002). Going through an evaluation exercise, for example, often has lasting impacts through participants reflecting upon their own objectives, and by promoting networking and capacity building (Patton, 1998; Forss et al., 2002).
Energy scenario exercises can help participants learn about available options, build organisational competence (Wiek et al., 2006, p. 746) and support strategy building. Ideally, through deliberation, stakeholders will reflect on their own positions and problem framings, come to understand where their differences lie with other stakeholders and arrive at a common way to frame the issues and move forwards. These types of learning effects make scenario exercises particularly useful at the early stages of policy development (Kallis et al., 2006).
The value of 'honest brokering' and scenario exercises for learning is undermined if the process fails to break away from technocratic principles and appraisal tools. For example, the UK Energy White Paper 2007 (DTI, 2007a) employed various types of scenario planning and modelling, but the adopted approach placed its main emphasis on technical sophistication of modelling (rather than on maximising openness in problem framing and inclusion of a broad range of stakeholders). It is evident that the traditional forecasting approach has not been rejected in the UK. The DTI (2007a, p. 113) states, 'energy suppliers need to be able to anticipate changes in energy needs sufficiently far in advance to provide the necessary supply capacity and delivery infrastructure. Energy consumers need access to reliable and credible information about future trends in energy, so they can make informed decisions about the terms under which they purchase energy supplies'. It further argues that it is 'possible under certain assumptions to reduce the UK's carbon emissions by 60% by 2050 without new nuclear power stations. However, if we were to plan on this basis, we would be in danger of not meeting our policy goals' (relating to energy security and GHG emission reductions) and '[o]ur modelling indicates that reducing GHG emissions without nuclear would be more expensive' (DTI, 2007a, pp. 16-7). Forecasts and modelling, with unclear underlying assumptions, appear to have been used here to justify a policy decision to support new nuclear power. As a result the process looks very much like an exercise in rationalisation, rather than a serious effort to build legitimacy for policy change.
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