Energy leadership

Fortunately, resource distributions and interdependencies are not immutable. When sufficient political will combines with public authority and widespread legitimacy, then powerful actors can be challenged, and resources redistributed towards other policy goals. Change comes about when the legitimacy of practices, often underpinned by powerful, economically, and technologically resourced actors, is widely called into question. Under such circumstances, the importance of the incumbents is no longer considered to outweigh the problems caused by their practices. New problems, like climate change, and new ideas, like sustainable energy systems, cast the status quo in a troubling light. They throw open possibilities for change, but it remains change that is mediated through the distribution of resource interdependencies. In order to challenge the prevailing distribution of economic and technological resources further political resources are needed, such as broad-based public awareness and secure legitimate authority, in order that public policymakers can intervene effectively.

A (marginal) illustration is provided by the UK's New Labour government's actions when it first took office in the UK in 1997. With a large popular mandate, it was able to place a hefty, one-off 'windfall tax' on the energy (and other privatised) utilities in 1997. The utilities were regarded by New Labour, and its voters, to have profited unreasonably from privatisation, and it was considered sufficiently legitimate for the state to claw back some of these financial resources in order to fund new youth training programmes. For the UK this was a rare instance of revenue hypothecation. More importantly, what this small, relatively straightforward measure illustrates is that one has to consider the circumstances under which actors possessing key resources can be persuaded or forced into redistributing them towards sustainable energy goals. The 'windfall tax' is a poor example because it involved the relatively straightforward legislative redistribution of financial resources (though there were complex and controversial governance issues around the subsequent organisation of youth training). But it does emphasise the issue of securing political legitimacy to make drastic governance interventions. Intervention requires a constituency of support behind sustainable energy that has the political resources and legitimacy to challenge the economic interests powerfully committed to incumbent energy systems. Government is the only body that can make such interventions, and it requires skilful political leadership.

Leadership on sustainable energy will have to operate through complex networks, and actually be supported by key constituencies in those networks. Political leaders and government institutions have authoritative resources in their hands. But they need the consent of many other actors to make change work. Political will has to be turned into concrete action in millions of day-to-day decisions taken by venture capitalists, energy utilities, office managers, households, educators, manufacturers of consumer durables, and so on, and so on. On a more specific level, one need only consider the extended and intricate networks of influence, decision, and action lying between UK political leaders' commitment to nuclear energy and the eventual commissioning of new nuclear power stations.

This raises the question: how is energy leadership made? How do leaders get into influential positions? Leadership of an army, for example, works through a disciplined and regimented social unit. Perhaps a society at war with another enjoys a similar level of consent. Business leadership ultimately relies on contractual obligations and incentive structures that align employees' interests with those of their employers. Political leadership by contrast has a double edge. First, there is leadership through parties and party discipline. The second form of political leadership, even harder to achieve, is that which influences and carries an argumentative electorate.

Under the latter kind of political leadership, perhaps it is society that makes the leaders. Someone with a bit of talent and self-belief fills a space that social processes have opened. Historic changes, such as the abolition of slavery, popular emancipation, workplace safety, and so on, were driven as much by social movements as inspired leaders. Perhaps there are so few effective sustainable energy leaders to date because mass society has not created the conditions for them: the space does not yet exist. In talking about sustainable energy leadership, we have to think about the conditions for that leadership and its basis. The ability to help identify and guide a new direction for energy suggests a historically rare kind of leadership: one that has to nurture a mass movement for change while simultaneously needing such a movement to go about that very task.

Meanwhile, it is in the mass of society where one glimpses a very different, quieter, but no less important kind of sustainable energy leadership. These 'leaders' are all the individuals, groups, and businesses that are actually trying to 'do' sustainable energy today, who are demonstrating a practical viability that can inspire others, including political leaders, and which can, hopefully, contribute to a ground-swell for change. Repeatedly, policy documents feature approving pictures of initiatives such as low-energy housing: UK ministers often launch policy initiatives there, or cut the ribbon on their formal opening. High-level political leadership has to use its authority to enable more of this practical leadership among communities and business, and it must empower them so that they can have greater influence and reach (Smith, 2007).

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