Energy for the future An overview of the new agenda

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Over 20 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987, p. 169) cautioned that 'the period ahead must be regarded as transitional from an era in which energy has been used in an unsustainable manner. A generally acceptable pathway to a safe and sustainable energy future has not yet been found. We do not believe that these dilemmas have yet been addressed by the international community with a sufficient sense of urgency and in a global perspective'. A significant international effort to find ways to tackle climate change has since been made, and a sense of urgency is taking hold in a number of countries. However, in terms of concrete actions taken, and certainly in terms of deliberately and effectively cutting GHG emissions, the 'transitional era' has barely begun for most of the world.

To date, it has proved extremely difficult to find a 'generally acceptable pathway to a safe and sustainable energy future', both within individual nations and for the world as a whole. There are a variety of technical solutions available, but these do not map on to a blank political and social canvas. In the OECD commitments to privatisation and liberalisation have created an emphasis on maximising the returns from existing capital assets, with the result that much of the energy infrastructure is ageing and in need of replacement. This trend has been reinforced worldwide through the competition and trade liberalisation agenda, thereby creating a variety of obstacles to meeting the new priorities and imperatives. While socio-political and technical legacies can create useful stability, they can also obstruct the initiative and leadership required for radical change.

Energy is an issue with uniquely long timescales and highly problematic political challenges. Premature attempts at urgent action will flounder in the face of insufficient legitimacy, potentially exacerbating such deficits in the longer term and threatening the urgent and radical action needed. Priority must therefore be given to building public support for such changes and enhancing the capacity for change across all sectors of society. This means finding ways to empower businesses, citizens and communities to engage in actions to reduce emissions.

An adequate response requires major changes in both policy process and policy substance. In terms of process, governments will need to develop popular consent for the radical policies needed, as well as broad engagement in initiating and taking action to reduce emissions. In terms of substance, governments will need to develop credible policies that encourage innovation and investment in low carbon technologies, together with substantial behavioural change. This book examines how both of these can be achieved and identifies the implications for industrialised countries such as the UK. The latter was a pioneer in energy market liberalisation, and now defines itself as a leader in the climate change agenda. It therefore provides a valuable case study in several of the chapters in this book.

OECD governments have so far failed to respond adequately to the threat of climate change, and global carbon emissions have continued to rise. The driving forces contributing to increased emissions are various, but include 'lock-in' to carbon-intensive technologies and lifestyles, long periods with relatively low energy prices, ongoing political commitments such as energy market liberalisation and the constraints imposed by business and public opposition to radical change.

A transition to a low carbon economy will require far-reaching changes in the institutions, processes, priorities and substance of policymaking and this task is made all the more challenging by the need to reconcile climate change objectives with those of supply security, economic efficiency and social justice. This book seeks to provide some guidance on how this transition may be achieved.

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