Rethinking energy governance for sustainability

Advocates of sustainable energy systems challenge the preoccupations that have led to this energy mix. Conventionally, energy policymakers remain concerned with least cost energy production, supplied from centralised, large-scale power stations and sources to meet predicted growth in demand. Put crudely, this is the work of liberalised energy policy mentioned earlier. Energy efficiency has always been the Cinderella of energy policy, receiving scant policy attention and limited financial support when compared with energy supply. Again, put crudely, this is the brief for the weaker sustainable energy policy hub. Some visions of sustainable energy, by contrast, try to overcome this supply-demand split, by focusing on ways to deliver the services of motive force, appliance operation, lighting, mobility and warmth using considerably less energy per unit of service, and from sources that are much more diffuse and diverse and do not degrade the environment (Patterson, 1990). As Amory Lovins argued over 30 years ago, we need to learn how to live with ambient energy flows rather than running down finite stocks of fossil energy reserves (Lovins, 1977).

While 'low carbon' energy services dominate visions of sustainable energy futures, it is important to remember that there are other energy-related local and regional issues affecting communities and ecosystems, such as acidification, particulate emissions, and the impacts of producing biomass energy crops. Moreover, sustainable development has important social dimensions that imply equitable access to clean energy services, both within generations globally and between generations over the long term. The energy system can no longer be solely about supplying fuel and electricity. The overall sustainability of energy services has to become a policy priority.

This means energy governance must continue to extend beyond the classic concerns of energy resources, power stations, distribution networks, and energy markets. Ideally, energy governance must attend more forcefully to the thousands of technologies and behaviours that generate and supply the demand for energy services in homes, businesses, the public sector - indeed throughout society and the economy. Obviously, policymakers cannot direct each and every decision, but they can influence the processes that frame such decisions, such as setting energy standards for appliances, and developing regulations that influence day-to-day business, consumer and citizen decisions. As Bob Jessop argues in his work on governance, central government maintains the dominant strategic line through governing the rules of the game (J essop, 1998). While UK energy efficiency policy has been attempting to do some of this for many years, there remain questions about the degree, scope, and approach needed in the future if rapid and deep decarbonisation and sustainability is to be pursued.

Market-based approaches that work through the price mechanism have an obvious appeal to policymakers. Carbon emissions trading and taxation are favoured instruments. Without politicians having to explicitly intervene, they send a signal highlighting and influencing the many millions of everyday energy decisions, such as leaving lights switched on, installing air-conditioning as standard in commercial office designs, developing appliances that must be left on standby, or dispersing product manufacture around the globe. The price mechanism appears to overcome the limits of state capacity to comprehend and reach all these decisions. But such simplification overlooks some important contextual factors that explain energy behaviours, and which restrict and reduce the response to price signals. Sustainable governance involves governments enabling civil society and business to better appreciate and work with these contextual details and complexities.

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