The political saliency of the sustainable energy question

In the longer term, radical, environmentally sustainable change to the energy system will require new institutions. Sustainable energy governance means building new institutions in tandem with alternative energy systems, while 'keeping the lights on'. As we shall see, it requires many things, but above all it needs considerable political will from policymakers which, in the field of energy policy historically, has not been available in concerted and continuous amounts over the long timescales necessary.

Energy policy has historically been a largely technical policy issue in developed countries, operating in the backwaters of politics. Over long periods it receives little attention from politicians, in the media, or in civic debate compared to the enduring priorities of the economy, law and order, health, and education. Energy is not the sort of issue upon which political careers are built. However, problems in the energy sector can puncture this political obscurity. When the energy system functions well, then it is taken for granted: it becomes an invisible underpinning for modern life. It is only when that system fails, and modern life risks disruption, that the importance of energy suddenly becomes visible and leaps up political agendas for a time. Recent energy blackouts in Europe and parts of the US were typical profile raising events. During these periods, the mainstream of public life takes an intense, if transient, interest. Arguments over how best to alter the energy system, for example, and restore energy services, can become very heated. Campaigns for and against large wind farms today, nuclear power stations a generation ago, or the construction of pylons to carry the national grid a generation earlier all attest to the highly political nature of this 'technical' issue.

We are currently in a high-profile period. Climate change presents an urgent need to change our energy practices, but with considerable uncertainty and ambiguity over how best to respond. A sense of crisis is compounded by arguments that energy supplies are also becoming insecure; a concern heightened by declining sovereign stocks of gas and oil. The key question is: can political leaders use this sense of urgency wisely and help bring about a more resilient and sustainable energy system? This raises several more issues. Can the political attention devoted to energy at present set in place institutions that will ensure continued large investments, restructuring of infrastructures, technology development, and adequate behavioural change for a transition to a sustainable energy system? Can new governance arrangements be designed with sufficient resilience to withstand a withdrawal of political and public interest, or widespread frustration at the difficulties along the way? And is such resilience desirable?

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