Lockdown Lifestyle: Does Working from Home Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Up until recently, only an estimated 9% of Americans have teleworked more than once a week. Slow adoption of teleworking has been due to a lack of consensus around its environmental benefits, the perception among workers that not being visible in the office may hinder career advancement, and fears among employers about potential drops in worker performance and efficiency.

In COVID-19’s wake, remote working across the globe has abruptly switched from a ‘perk’ offered by forward-thinking employers to a necessary practice for many workers. But before it became an integral part of public health policy, telecommuting was often seen as an employee-pleasing way to reduce energy demand and its associated carbon emissions. Emissions from daily commutes and office maintenance could be substituted by the lower emissions of home- or co-working space- based employment.

But is it really this simple? A study from SEG’s work for the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) has assessed the current research landscape to uncover the true capacity of teleworking for achieving energy savings. The results have been written up in their paper ‘A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking’.

The findings of the paper are derived from 39 studies across the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In their analysis, they try to make sense of how these individual papers vary between those suggesting teleworking can reduce emissions by up to 77% to others that suggest it could even increase emissions.

The table below summarises the results of the review, appearing to support the theory that teleworking reduces energy use, with two thirds of the sampled papers supporting that conclusion. However, due to the scope and variety of methodologies used across the papers surveyed, the evidence is not as clear-cut as it might first appear, as we will explain below.

Understanding teleworking’s energy savings

The premise that home working saves energy relies on a simple substitution effect: transport emissions from the worker’s commute are removed in favour of the typically lower emissions of ICT enabled remote working. However, by itself this provides an incomplete picture. The act of teleworking is surrounded by a variety of factors and influences on personal behaviour, which complicate the initially straightforward equation.

Attempting to untangle this issue begins by dividing end energy use into two types:

“Direct impacts” are defined as the energy used for the manufacture, operation and disposal of ICTs.

“Higher order impacts”, on the other hand, are changes in energy consumption stimulated by ICT use. These encompass the consequences of choices made around the initial decision to work from home.

Emission savings or rebounds?

While teleworking may eliminate or reduce energy consumption and associated emissions generated from the office commute, it may also lead to increased energy use due to homeworking, a so-called ‘rebound’ effect. This may be as a result of greater use of home appliances, heating, cooling, and lighting. Teleworking may also generate higher ‘non-work’ travel, as workers use their new ‘time savings’ to take more regulars holidays or breaks.

One psychological driver of the increase in non-work travel may be the simple desire to get out of the house; indeed, many people working under lockdown conditions could identify with the statement made within the paper that “another induced travel effect could be where the feelings of isolation and sedentariness generated by teleworking stimulate a desire for movement and mobility”. Alternatively, workers may purchase more consumer items online, contributing to higher society-wide energy consumption through increased production of goods and home delivery travel.

Where teleworking is only partial (say, two days a week), the overall travel distance per week may not be significantly reduced, especially if workers live far from the office (a phenomenon that has been, paradoxically, facilitated by teleworking). To take one example, a survey conducted as part of a Finnish study noticed teleworkers lived, on average, 3.7km further from the workplace. Their commutes were less frequent, but their average journey consumed more energy whenever it took place.

Overall, although workers may save money and gain time through their reduced or eliminated commutes on days that they work from home, increases in energy consumption in other areas (such as through non-work travel and home energy consumption) may mean that the net energy savings are minimal, or even negative.

Change of scope and methodology

The complexity and scope of the teleworking impacts will therefore need much further study. Many of the studies focus on comparing weekly work distance travelled, hence neglecting non-work travel. As a result, they may overestimate the total reduction in travel distance. One paper found “vehicle travel distance is 8% lower per month for teleworkers than non-teleworkers; whereas Zhu (2012), who also considers impacts on non-work travel, finds a negligible impact on total vehicle distance travelled.”

Dr Andrew Hook, one of the study’s authors, elaborates how differences in scope and methodology impact their findings below:

“While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings. Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption.”

Next steps for “teleworking” research?

The notion of teleworking itself is one that predates the internet, referencing a past where innovations like telecentres and the fax machine were seen as the answer to removing or reducing arduous commutes. These terms could be attached to outdated ideas of work, failing to account for the present day of Wi-Fi enabled work from libraries/cafes/trains, flexible working arrangements, and the increased proportion of the workforce on varying “zero hour contracts”. Future studies may need to address the fact that “modern modes of flexible or mobile work have become so non-linear and fluid (but also increasingly energy intensive in places) that it has become increasingly difficult to track their energy footprint, or to compare it with a dissolving notion of ‘regular’ work (Hopkins & McKay 2019).

The use of digital services, such as videoconferencing and cloud storage, may lead to higher emissions from home working when compared to older technological regimes. The evidence base tends to lag behind recent trends, with most studies pre-dating these technologies. When we examine the benefits of home working, we therefore need to make sure the analysis is of the modern reality rather than of systems which no longer exist. The paper therefore concludes that future studies may better account for modern work practices and the uncertainties of tracking energy savings by trying to account for the complexity of new working patterns:

“Studies interested in appraising the potential of more flexible, ICT-enabled work practices should therefore aim to combine a range of methods capable of capturing the dynamic new configurations of working conditions. As well as accounting for change in commuting travel, non-commuting travel, distance between home and office, and home and office energy consumption, these studies must also consider other factors, such as the mode of commuting transport in the region being studied and the ways that people choose to use their time when they no longer have to commute to and from work. As many of these realities can only be established through qualitative methods, modellers must work together with other social scientists in order to build a better picture of the changing patterns of work and the energy saving potential of new working practices (e.g. Hampton 2017).”

Popular coverage on working from home often makes the assumption that it provides unarguable environmental benefits. This work questions that assumption, hopes to indicate where future studies need to be focused in order to more accurately account for the rebounds inherent in these practices, and understand what sustainable teleworking should look like going forward.

Benjamin Sovacool adds a cautionary addendum to those seeing it as an easy win-win:

“A scenario after the threat of coronavirus has cleared where workers will want the best of both worlds; retaining the freedom and flexibility they found from working from home but the social aspects of working at an office that they’ve missed out on during lockdown, will not deliver the energy savings the world needs”.

This blog is based on the article: A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking – Environmental Research Letters by Andrew Hook, Victor Court, Benjamin Sovacool and Steven Sorrell.

Thanks to Andrew Hook and Ed Dearnley for feedback and corrections.

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Sussex Energy Group Launches Trio of Horizon 2020 Projects

Marquee climate events like COP 26 have been notably sidelined by this year’s dramatic public health emergency. However, research projects across the globe have persisted through the pandemic, continuing to conduct their necessary work tackling decarbonisation targets across the globe.

In the next two months, three more European Union Horizon 2020 projects will commence with the involvement of several Sussex Energy Group academics. Our researchers will contribute their expertise to help inform vital decisions on balancing emission reduction with social and economic goals, both within and beyond the EU.

CINTRAN (Carbon Intensive Regions in Transition – Unravelling the Challenges of Structural Change)

CINTRAN will investigate the effects of EU decarbonization efforts on coal-dependent regions. These regions are particularly vulnerable to the economic and social upheaval (and resultant inequality) that can be caused by the deep structural changes resulting from EU climate mitigation activities.

The project focuses on four of these fossil-fuel dependent regions: Western Macedonia (Greece), Silesia (Poland), Ida-Virumaa (Estonia) and the Rhenish mining area (Germany). To minimise harmful consequences to these areas and others like them, it is necessary to understand:

  • Patterns and dynamics of structural change in response to decarbonization at the regional level
  • Parameters determining the pace of transformation
  • The capacity of regional actors to cope, adapt and pro-actively create alternative structures.

Better understanding of these areas will produce insights about the patterns and dynamics of decarbonisation and corresponding structural adjustments. These insights have relevance for all carbon-intensive regions in the EU and neighbouring countries.

JUSTNORTH (Toward Just, Ethical and Sustainable Arctic Economies, Environments and Societies)

The development of the Artic has been historically characterised by inequitable practices, further complicated today by the adverse effects of climate change. JUSTNORTH combines justice theories with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in order to evaluate the true viability of economic activities in the Artic regions.

JUSTNORTH will provide policy makers with insights from indigenous communities, local businesses, state government and NGOs of the social, economic and environmental complexities of the Arctic. The project will carry out 16 case studies, covering topics as diverse as Icelandic fisheries, polar tourism, wind farming, reindeer herding and employment. These activities will inform the creation of a “JUSTscore framework”, aiming to create transparency, documentation and standardisation for sustainable development across the Arctic, and even further into the EU.

LANDMARC (LAND-use based MitigAtion for Resilient Climate pathways)

The Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector  is responsible for about a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in a wide variety of ways, for example through deforestation, drained peatland, the application of manure or burning biomass.  Land use based mitigation technologies (LMTs)  can contribute significantly  to the global efforts in climate change mitigation and meet the challenges of sustainable ecosystems management.  Despite the presence of LMTs in  most of the  submitted Nationally Determined Contributions  (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, doubt remains on the effectiveness of mitigation measures in reducing emissions. This project will assess the potential effectiveness of Land-use based Mitigation Technologies (LMTs) as net sinks for greenhouse gases.

LANDMARC is an interdisciplinary global consortium bringing together 18 partners from agriculture, ecology, engineering, climate sciences, satellite earth observation sciences, economics, social sciences and more. The partners are based in the EU, Africa, Asia and the Americas, providing a global perspective on this far-reaching concern. The consortium will carry out 8 work packages and 16 case studies in five continents,  covering LMTs in different land use systems including agriculture, forestry, reforestation, agro-forestry and peat soils. The project will achieve this through the creation of a suite of modelling tools and a model system to inform decisions by private sector stakeholders and policymakers.

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Making sure organisations’ climate change targets are not part of a zero-sum game

Dr Andrea Smith’s thesis, What factors – external and internal – influence a firm’s choice of voluntary greenhouse gas mitigation activities?, investigated the role of renewable electricity contractual instruments (green tariffs, renewable electricity certificates, etc) in businesses’ climate change strategies. In this blog, she explains the backstory to her research and discusses her thesis’s findings based on her work with 11 large UK and German firms.

The targets set by firms in the corporate Hall of Fame

Many of the biggest and the best-known firms across the world have set ambitious targets to tackle climate change – and this means tackling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity use which is a significant contributor to most organisations’ carbon footprint. Many big name brands have joined RE100, an organisation that encourages organisations to pledge to using 100% renewable electricity as part of the fight against climate change. Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Marks & Spencer, Virgin Media, Zurich: the 200-plus companies that have joined RE100 reads like a Who’s Who of the corporate world. The Crown Estate is listed among them too: renewable electricity targets are not limited to the business world.[i]

The electricity through your socket: you don’t get what you pay for

Wind Turbines Near Mountain

Buying renewable electricity (RE) is not as simple as it may seem. If an organisation has its own on-site wind turbines or solar panels, it is directly consuming RE. If it is taking electricity from the grid, then the origin of the electricity coming through its sockets is determined by whichever methods of electricity generation are sending electricity to the grid.[ii]

An organisation’s GHG emissions from electricity use can be calculated in two ways[iii]:

It can be calculated by finding out which grids it is connected to and the average emissions per unit of electricity on those grids. This is known as the location method because it is the location of the organisation which counts.

There is a second method of estimating emissions. The market-based method bases emissions on the contractual arrangements (known as instruments) an organisation enters for the provision of electricity. The instrument could be a green tariff with an electricity supplier, or a contract directly between the RE generator putting electricity onto the grid and the consumer organisation, or energy attribute certificates.

Energy attribute certificates document that 1 MWh of electricity has been produced by a particular electricity generation method (usually a renewable method). A common European certificate is the Guarantee of Origin. This was created by a European directive in 2001.[iv] The GO – or GoO depending on your sense of humour –  had a troubled upbringing. There was a wrangle at European level over the best means of public support for RE: a European-wide quota system or feed-in tariffs. The quota camp lost but the GO remained in the directive with a vague, residual role as a label of RE[v]. Organisations that want to claim they were using RE buy GOs. Sometimes they are packaged with electricity or they can be stand-alone purchases. Typically, organisations use them to cover part, or even all of their electricity consumption, and then say they have reduced their emissions from electricity use.

So, what’s the problem?

Prima facie, buying GOs is positive course of action. From conversations with firms, I am convinced that some staff apply neoliberal axioms related to supply and demand and genuinely believe that the purchase of energy attribute certificates or green tariffs will incentivise more investment in solar, wind farms and other RE generating capacity. Unfortunately, research on the impact of the GO (and European green tariffs which are usually backed by GOs) does not support this. Supply has consistently exceeded demand, in a large part due to the huge amount of decades-old hydropower. Figure 1 shows how hydropower GOs dominate the market.  Norwegian hydropower pumps out certificates that are exported all over Europe. Evidence suggests that new RE capacity has been driven by financial incentives from public policy that have significantly outweighed the tiny extra income that RE generators make from certificate sales. [vi]

Figure 1: GOs issued over the period 2010-2015 by generation method.

Note: The figure is taken from Dagoumas and Koltsaklis (2017) and is based on data from the Association of Issuing Bodies.

There is considerably less research on the US certificate – the Renewable Energy Certificate. However, what there is  shows that the price of RECs has been too low to make a difference to investment decisions for new wind power.[vii]

These situations create a zero-sum game. Organisations that use RE contractual instruments typically go on to report reduced GHG emissions as a result of their use. The emission rate of the electricity used by everyone else increases commensurately as organisations buying GOs and RECs lay claim to low-carbon electricity on the grid for a small fee. While these organisations typically report their RE use and GHG emissions on their websites and in their Corporate Social Responsibility reports, the emissions of organisations that do not use RE contractual instruments may go unreported or are reported using the location-based method, which means organisations use the same emission rate irrespective of their RE contractual arrangements. The result is no net change in emissions, but the public and politicians are potentially left with the impression that organisations are driving new RE capacity more than they actually are.

Is there a solution?

Some organisations try to address the issue of supply outstripping demand through only buying certificates from RE generation facilities less that a certain number of years old, thereby trying to create scarcity in the market and encourage new supply. Other organisations enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs) directly with RE generators, undertaking to buy a certain quantity of electricity at a certain price for a certain number of years. I expect it may be easier for RE project developers to find finance for new wind and solar farms and other types of RE if they have a guaranteed income from a PPA. However, neither tactic has been investigated by academics.

Would it be better for firms not to use RE contractual instruments?

Dr Matthew Brander, Dr Michael Gillenwater and Dr Francisco Ascui have been among the leading voices calling attention to the problems of the market-based approach as outlined above[viii]. They have also raised the further question of whether use of RE contractual instruments may actually divert organisations from measures that reduce GHG emissions i.e. electricity efficiency. They argue there could be a reduced incentive to cut electricity consumption if there were no reported emissions from electricity. This question was one of two addressed by my PhD thesis.

My thesis looked at the factors influencing the GHG mitigation strategies of 11 large German and UK firms as they evolved typically over more than a decade. I focussed on the interactions between RE contractual instrument use and efficiency improvements in all types of energy use, although the effect on other mitigation measures is assessed. I found that RE contractual instrument use did not always entail any cost for these firms. Even if it did, the cost was small compared to other operating costs. Where there was a cost, a re-allocation of funds to internal mitigating activities e.g. energy efficiency might have only led to small, on-going emission reductions, although if the money had been spent on offsets instead, there would have been substantial, but one-off reductions.

I also found that the use of emission rates based on RE contractual instruments[ix] use had led to a change in focus or a potential change in focus on other GHG mitigation activities in very limited instances. I characterised the circumstances in which I found a change or a reduction in focus on energy efficiency/saving or the potential for this. This outcome depended on the intersection of circumstances (all three were necessary conditions):

1. where a reputation/moral motivation was driving RE contractual instrument use[x];

2. where energy efficiency/saving were not being driven solely or strongly by cost-saving;

3. where staff did not prevent a reduction or change in focus on energy efficiency/saving activities.

I have suggested some simple reporting requirements that could be introduced to prevent this change/reduction in focus from occurring (see this briefing).[xi]


In summary, the use of RE certificates and green tariffs has not been shown to have a positive effect on RE investment. However, if the firms I studied are typical of other organisations, any negative impact on other GHG mitigating activities is very limited. I would prefer that organisations spent any premium that they pay for RE certificates and green tariffs on good quality offsets instead, as they offer more certain benefits. However, offsetting’s poor reputation may make organisations wary, and carbon footprinting rules discourage this course of action.[xii]

A more promising course of action is to steer organisations towards ensuring that their use of RE contractual instruments draws on new investment. PPAs look like the contractual instruments most likely to achieve this as they offer RE generators a guaranteed income usually over several years. This may be especially useful in the era of Covid-19 where public financial support for RE may be diverted to other purposes. However, this needs to be checked by research on the efficacy of PPAs in incentivising extra investment[xiii]. Organisations need to know what characterises an effective PPA or any other RE contractual instrument. We do not have time in the battle against climate change to go down any dead-ends.

[i] Alarcon, C., and M. Reynolds. 2019. ‘Going 100% Renewable: How Committed Companies Are Demanding a Faster Market Response’. RE100 Annual Report Progress and Insights. http://media.virbcdn.com/files/5c/aa8193f038934840-Dec2019RE100ProgressandInsightsAnnualReport.pdf.

[ii] Monyei, C.G., and K.E.H. Jenkins. 2018. ‘Electrons Have No Identity: Setting Right Misrepresentations in Google and Apple’s Clean Energy Purchasing’. Energy Research & Social Science 46 (December): 48–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.06.015.

[iii] Sotos, M. 2015. ‘GHG Protocol Scope 2 Guidance – An Amendment to the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard’. World Resources Institute, Washington D.C., USA. https://wriorg.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Scope_2_Guidance_Final.pdf.

[iv] European Parliament and European Council. 2001. Directive 2001/77/EC. http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/energy/renewable_energy/l27035_en.htm.

[v] Lauber, V., and E. Schenner. 2011. ‘The Struggle over Support Schemes for Renewable Electricity in the European Union: A Discursive Institutionalist Analysis’. Environmental Politics 20 (4): 508–27., Nilsson, M., L. J. Nilsson, and K. Ericsson. 2009. ‘The Rise and Fall of GO Trading in European Renewable Energy Policy: The Role of Advocacy and Policy Framing’. Energy Policy 37 (11): 4454–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.05.065.

[vi] Wüstenhagen, R., and M. Bilharz. 2006. ‘Green Energy Market Development in Germany: Effective Public Policy and Emerging Customer Demand’. Energy Policy 34 (13): 1681–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2004.07.013.

Markard, J., and B. Truffer. 2006. ‘The Promotional Impacts of Green Power Products on Renewable

Energy Sources: Direct and Indirect Eco-Effects’. Renewable Energy Policies in the European

Union 34 (3): 306–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2004.08.005.

Raadal, H. L., E. Dotzauer, O. J. Hanssen, and H. P. Kildal. 2012. ‘The Interaction between Electricity

Disclosure and Tradable Green Certificates’. Energy Policy 42 (March): 419–28.


Hast, A., S. Syri, J. Jokiniemi, M. Huuskonen, and S. Cross. 2015. ‘Review of Green Electricity Products in the United Kingdom, Germany and Finland’. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 42:


Hufen, J.A.M. 2017. ‘Cheat Electricity? The Political Economy of Green Electricity Delivery on the Dutch

Market for Households and Small Business’. Sustainability (Switzerland) 9 (16).


Mulder, M., and S.P.E. Zomer. 2016. ‘Contribution of Green Labels in Electricity Retail Markets to

Fostering Renewable Energy’. Energy Policy 99 (December): 100–109.


Dagoumas, A.S., and N.E. Koltsaklis. 2017. ‘Price Signal of Tradable Guarantees of Origin for Hedging Risk of Renewable Energy Sources Investments’. International Journal of Energy Economics and Policy 7 (4): 59–67.

Hamburger, A., and G. Harangoz. 2018. ‘Factors Affecting the Evolution of Renewable Electricity Generating Capacities: A Panel Data Analysis of European Countries’. International Journal of Energy Economics and Policy 8 (5): 161–72.

Hamburger, Á. 2019. ‘Is Guarantee of Origin Really an Effective Energy Policy Tool in Europe? A Critical Approach’. Society and Economy 41 (4): 487–507. https://doi.org/10.1556/204.2019.41.4.6.

Jansen, J. 2017. ‘Does the EU Renewable Energy Sector Still Need a Guarantees of Origin Market?’ No

2017-27. CEPS Policy Insights. CEPS – Energy Climate House.


———. 2018. ‘Should All Producers of Renewable Energy Automatically Receive GOs?’ Centre for

European Policy Studies. 12 March 2018. https://www.ceps.eu/publications/should-all-producersrenewable-energy-automatically-receive-gos.

[vii]Gillenwater. 2013 ‘Probabilistic decision model of wind power investment and influence of green power  market’, Energy Policy, 63, pp. 1111–1125. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2013.09.049.

Gillenwater, M., X. Lu, and M. Fischlein. 2014 ‘Additionality of wind energy investments in the U.S. voluntary green power market’, Renewable Energy, 63, pp. 452–457. doi: 0.1016/j.renene.2013.10.003.

[viii] Brander, M., M. Gillenwater, and F. Ascui. 2018. ‘Creative Accounting: A Critical Perspective on the Market-Based Method for Reporting Purchased Electricity (Scope 2) Emissions’. Energy Policy 112 (January): 29–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2017.09.051.

[ix] I also investigated low-carbon electricity contractual instruments, specifically GO certificating the production of electricity from high-efficiency Combined Heat and Power plants.

[x] What businesses said about their motivation was taken at face value as to assess these statements was beyond the scope of this research.

[xi] See also section 12.3.1 (page 439) of my thesis.

[xii] Sotos, M. 2015. ‘GHG Protocol Scope 2 Guidance – An Amendment to the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard’. World Resources Institute, Washington D.C., USA. https://wriorg.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Scope_2_Guidance_Final.pdf.

[xiii] See also concerns raised by Monyei and Jenkins (2018) about the wider implications of PPAs.

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This blog post has been reposted with permission from the STEPS Centre at the Institute of Development Studies. The original post, published 7/04/2020 can be found here.

Andy’s discussion of the ‘myth of control’ at the heart of Modernity, that is being overturned by this pandemic, has crucial implications for the restructuring of energy systems: from supply-driven to demand-led, from hierarchical to interactive and from centralised to distributed.

With so many self-appointed pundits (like me!) currently locked down with their laptops, the present rush of commentary on how to pivot to the coronavirus crisis is hardly surprising. Beyond the general news and commentary, scores of articles are exploding across the media, diagnosing what this global catastrophe means, and prescribing how it can be turned to variously-held positive ends.

Understandably, dozens of these contributions focus on renewing – or reversing impeded – action on climate change. But other strongly-pursued aims include reforming academic orthodoxiesreimagining universitiesenhancing scientific collaborationde-globalising infrastructuresaccelerating energy transitionsbuilding resilienceadvancing conservationmobilising political movementsimproving social justicereducing consumptionachieving the Sustainable Development Goalsrejuvenating democracyreorienting capitalismrestructuring the economybuilding a greener worldresisting ecofascism; and generally steering possible futures to save the planet. All eloquently voiced, several of these agendas coincide. I would strongly support many of them.

But there is another point that also emerges. In many cases, the changes that authors assertively prescribe specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, look very similar to those they would have advocated beforehand. In this particular sense, for all the transformational language and ambition, it is ‘business as usual’.

So, if some of this effort is not to risk being seen later as opportunistic – or inadvertently (in its familiarity) potentially reinforcing of lock-in – then maybe there’s a need for as much dislocation, surprise and reorientation inside the commentaries, as many rightly call for in the outside world?

After all, the main significance of this pandemic lies not in lofty platforms for pre-entitled, indulgently-curated identities. The issues are instead about many very real further devastations of already-vulnerable lives and livelihoods, of those without the same chances to air their views. If this is ignored, then even where motives are laudable, this colossal juncture risks becoming captive to just another campaigning message, media trope, academic vanity, or expediently manipulated ‘policy storyline’. The implications are far too important to be reduced to these baubles in the usual salons.

In fact, there really seems only one clear truth so far, amidst the ever-present – now brutally-revealed – uncertainties. Incongruously neglected in the many confident pronouncements and predictions, this truth is that nobody knows the historic implications of this moment. A radical diversity of futures are possible. In each of these futures, a plurality of views will likely clash as much as they do now.

For whatever happens next, what is already evident is that: expert advisers and scientific institutions found themselves so wrong; commentators and policy-makers so short-sighted; affluent societies so poorly resourced; macho demagogues and plutocrats so indecisive; and democracies and autocracies alike so ill-prepared.

There is of course no shortage of apparently effective instruments available to seemingly controlling ‘cockpits’: dispassionately assured experts; precise scientific metrics; rigorous technical models; massive hierarchical agencies; apparently all-seeing monitoring; seductively informative graphics; compellingly captivating dashboards; reassuringly evidence-based plans; commanding policy levers; invisibly nudging techniques; formidable military capacities; all presided over by our ‘natural leaders’ in the same old ‘seats of power’. But in reality, what the pandemic already seems to show is not only that there is no pilot… but that the ‘cockpit’ itself has been built largely in our imaginations.

After all, what else can reasonably be concluded when even the most powerful, respected and self-confident authorities in the world manifestly fail so badly not only to control, but even to predict, even a single parameter of one specific disease? With this understood, how much harder is it to believe other hubristic aspirations to anticipate, let alone heroically lead, entire collective futures?

So, if this unruly open-ended indeterminacy of the world cannot be acknowledged at a time like now – when the gyres of history are turning most tumultuously – then when can it ever be recognised? And the salience of all this bites doubly hard, not because of some further confident projection of what this all will mean, but in light of what can (from many sides) already be seen to be unravelling.

However things pan out – and whatever modesty-preserving fig-leaves are later hastily installed – at least one global hegemonic casualty has already surely been revealed. This involves not just a single specific certainty of how the world is – or should be. What is now becoming devastatingly undermined, is the general credibility of any confident performance of predictive control.

This unsettling tremor cuts across many (contrasting and contending) political, cultural, religious and corporate tectonic plates. With it are subverted the shaky foundations of multiple familiar kinds of assertiveness – including those with which any of us (any ‘we’) might identify. Comforting certainties and commanding actions are not how the world is ‘controlled’: they are stories through which contingent forms of privilege that are actually unable to control, nevertheless maintain their status.

Take, for example, the repeated mantras of ‘evidence-based policy’ – and ‘science-based decisions’. Evidence is of course crucial – but it is necessary, not sufficient. Actions cannot be purely ‘based on’ data or analysis, only illuminated by it. That these well-worn claims are so ironically false, is about as informative as evidence gets. ‘Control by science’ is an expedient fiction in service of power.

What the pandemic shows, then – in short – is that in the wider, long-run ‘real world’ of human affairs, control does not exist. And this is not a criticism. It is simply a fact. To criticise for lack of control is to be as misguided as to claim it.

But doesn’t this fly in the face of common sense? Control seems undeniably important. It is a potent experience, for instance, in our relations with machines. Where these work, people around the world have become very familiar with what it can mean (at least before gremlins, rust or wear take their toll) to control something – like a light switch, a water-pump, a bicycle, a mobile phone or a laptop.

As an example of control: a car steering wheel turned lightly to the left determines this single aimed-for effect and no other. The windscreen wipers don’t come on. The wheels don’t fall off. Nobody by the wayside faints. We know very well what control feels like: fully achieving the particular intended result, and only this. This is how control is imagined in the core cherished paradigm of Modernity.

But whatever instruments of control are directed at it, this is manifestly not how this pandemic is playing out. In country after country, initial reactions – whether of authoritarian suppression or complacent exceptionalism – have proven either highly ineffective or problematic in other ways.

And the story is still far from over. Unintended side-effects of control are, to some, already looking potentially even more serious than the disease. What will be the economic impacts on health? What other presently-unknown factors may yet become evident? How will the virus itself bite back? With so much already going wrong, falling short, happening by mistake, or yet to emerge, we’re very far from the familiar experiences of ‘control’ that current failing efforts are claimed to emulate.

But despite these lessons (not only from the present crisis, but from a multitude of earlier ones), the idea of control still shapes the globalising imaginations of Modernity. Just as a hammer can condition its holder to see every problem as a nail, so unfolding Modernities around the world are ironically enslaved by their perennial aspirations to control.

Indeed, once you start looking for them, imaginations of control drive every aspect variously recognised to define ‘Modernity’ itself: control by individuals of their lives; control by governments of nations; control by ‘the people’ of politics; control by bureaucracy of organisations; control by science of reason; control by industry of production; control by capital of labour; control by colonialism of empires; control in ‘the Anthropocene’ of an entire world. This is why the resonance chimes of ‘taking back control’!

And it is in each of these spheres that control has also not only failed to live up to expectations, but yielded so many perverse kinds of backlash as to often be seriously counterproductive. So what is distinctive about this global pandemic is not its novelty, but its intensity. A familiar cycle of disappointment has unfolded over weeks rather than centuries. The spectacle is too acute to ignore.

However it plays out, what this pandemic already shows is that (outside comforting machine-like moments) the ‘real world’ tolerates no control. Events appear orderly for a while. And, like a bull in a china shop, impacts can surely be exerted. But what history also teaches well is that, no matter how massive the effects (on lives or the Earth), these are always less exacting than control. Beyond and between the domesticated interludes lies an under-determined nonlinear mess of cause and contingency; intention and accident; influence and reaction; association and surprise; and collateral effects, feedbacks and shocks.

murmuration of starlings
Starling murmurations / Chris Lovelock / cc by 2.0

So what conclusions to draw from this diagnosis? Is it a counsel of despair? Does the coronavirus pandemic simply herald a new intensification of already-overgrown fatalism, cynicism and nihilism?

Or are the signs exactly the opposite? Is the present cacophony of over-confident prescriptions more important for its vigour and diversity than for any specific strand of content (including this)? Perhaps each of this multiplicity of energetic visions constitutes a ‘necessary fiction’, provoking into life dormant political hopes and critical faculties that have been lulled into complacent acquiescence by burgeoning electoral oligarchies?

Perhaps this collectively-enacted murmuration is more important than any individually-stated aim? (Indeed, is this why ‘murmurations’ have always linked distributed dissent with exuberant flocking?) Perhaps this is why the word ‘moment’ has always quietly signalled an axis of possible movement?

Perhaps this is how ‘the medium is the message’ – when encompassing actions speak louder than any ostensibly controlling words? If so, then now is a time, less for the blinkering tethers of ‘evidence based policy’, and more for an emancipating politics when knowing is doing, and it is the doing that makes the knowing?

If ratcheted well, perhaps even these fictions, fallacies and fantasies of control may themselves be inflected in new – less hubristic – directions? After all,  where driven by values of peace, equality, or the environment, urges to change the world are not just commendable, but deeply necessary. Here, perhaps it is the very futility of control that can be positive, offering – in its inevitable failure – a ‘civilising hypocrisy’ to provoke something far more modest, caring – and serious about the real world?

Again, the answer has to be that no-one really knows. What the coronavirus pandemic might mean is not a matter to be diagnosed in advance, but to be struggled for in its aftermath – and beyond!

My main concern, then, about some of the current commentaries with which I began, lies not in any particularity of the changes they variously call for. It is that so much of this apparently critical discourse reproduces such a similar style to the incumbent interests that are ostensibly challenged.

In ways that also clash starkly with the little that we do know so far about the coronavirus crisis, many of the critics are as single-mindedly certain, as confidently predictive, as assertively prescriptive and as aspirationally controlling as any incumbent technocrat, autocrat or demagogue. And it is through such tacit support for the underlying mythology of control, that progressive intentions can nonetheless inadvertently reinforce the regressive status quo.

This is why the challenge is not to drown out with alternative certainties, the present vacuous claims of a control-beguiled Modernity. The pathologies of control could hardly be more reinforced, than if they snare even critics into their own controlling efforts. No! The responsibility is not to control Modernity – to stop it, replace it, erase it – but to revolve it in new directions. And here, for the controlling emperor even so briefly to be seen without imaginary clothes is arguably a pivotal moment in itself.

Either way, whatever futures may struggle into being, the present pandemic suggests these will likely turn out better if shaped in opposite ways to this failing reflex of control. This recasts ‘democracy’ not as a codified intermittent managerial procedure, but as multiple continual struggles for ‘access by the least powerful to capacities for challenging power’. So (also inevitably grounded in its own pre-existing enthusiasms!), it is in this spirit that another voice can join the clamour– directly challenging the pervasive control culture of Modernity.

What is needed now is more: humility (not hubris) about what is known; hope (not fear) about what is possible; diversity (not singularity) in what is held to count; mutualism (not hierarchy) as ways to organise; equality (not superiority) as driving values; precaution (not calculation) to protect the vulnerable; flourishing (not growth) as guiding aims; and care (not control) as the means by which so many kinds of better – but preciously unknown and uncontrollable – worlds may yet be realised.


Book: The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation (available for pre-order, publication date: July 2020 as paperback / Open Access download)

Theme: Uncertainty
Resources on the STEPS Centre’s theme for 2019

Resources: COVID-19: Resources and research on epidemics and pandemics
Selected resources from the STEPS Centre’s work on infectious disease

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Using academia to influence policy: reflections on one year at the Energy Saving Trust

Our FAIR Research Fellow Max Lacey-Barnacle shares his experiences working in policy, and how the experience interlinks with academia.

After moving from academia into policy work after completing my PhD, my time at the Energy Saving Trust (EST) as a Policy Officer has been nothing short of fascinating. Working on EST’s three core policy areas of energy efficiency, community energy and low-carbon transport has greatly expanded my knowledge of the research-policy interface as a result of this experience.

I have had numerous exciting opportunities to travel across the UK and Europe to meet with civil servants, policymakers and researchers working to address core energy and climate policy challenges. In addition, I’ve been able to work closely on fuel poverty and low-carbon transport policy with Welsh government, whilst also devoting time towards a Horizon 2020 project focused on energy efficiency (‘ENSMOV’) and the role of European energy agencies in the EU’s low-carbon transition through the European Energy Network.

The passion, commitment and intelligence of the individuals and organisations I’ve been involved with has been immensely inspiring in the face of the worsening global climate crisis. Moreover, I have learned (and still have much to learn) much from the brilliant staff at the EST and their dedication to tackling climate change. After my year at EST, I’ve transitioned back to academia in a Research Fellow role at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), working primarily on the innovative FAIR project, led by Dr Mari Martiskainen at SPRU. FAIR is investigating the links between fuel and transport poverty in the UK’s energy transition and will seek to understand how low-carbon energy transition processes may exacerbate and/or alleviate these forms of inequality. I’m excited to be working on such a pertinent project with strong research and policy relevance to low-carbon transitions, particularly after working in policy.

The FAIR Team

Acclimatising to policy

Coming from the academic world of researching, writing and publishing original work, the change of pace was one of the first challenges I had to acclimatise to when confronted with navigating the policy world. Policy certainly moves at a much faster pace than academia. Indeed, keeping up with the dynamic changes of government policy at multiple levels of governance (e.g. local, regional, devolved and national) requires a keen eye for how multi-level policy shifts influence the shape and trajectory of the low-carbon economy.

Seeing the temporal disparity between the two worlds of academia and policy led me to ask; how can the policy world be influenced by the academic world, when critical changes occur and core outputs emerge at such different paces and timescales?

Getting original research published in academic journals can take anywhere from three months to two years, whilst policy outputs such as blogs or briefings – or even consultation responses to influence policy –sometimes take just a matter of weeks. However, in spite of this disparity, it’s clear that both worlds ‘speak’ to each other and this is evidenced through increasing engagement concerning the links between social inequality and climate change policy responses.

Areas of convergence between academia and policy

Issues such as ‘energy poverty’ and concepts such as ‘energy justice’ and a ‘Just Transition’ have begun to take centre stage in the policy world, whilst academics have arguably been writing about these concepts for many years. This year alone we have seen the European Green Deal integrate energy poverty concerns and a ‘Just Transition’ mechanism into its future plans, whilst the steady emergence of Just Transition commissions across the world demonstrates the importance of continued academic and policy engagement in how low-carbon transitions are governed and managed.

Being familiar with these concepts, I sought to integrate these ideas into many aspects of my policy work at the EST. What stood out the most during my time there, was the willingness of the devolved governments to embrace the critical work and ideas of academics, potentially more so than the UK government. For example, both the Welsh and Scottish governments seem to show more progressive attitudes towards tackling climate change and social inequality together e.g. via innovative Welsh legislation (Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) and Scottish legislation (Fuel Poverty (Scotland) Act 2019). Additionally, Scotland has already established a Just Transition commission and Wales has announced intentions to set up a ‘Climate Justice Advisory Group’ that would perform broadly similar functions – monitoring the economic and social impacts of decommissioning fossil fuel power plants and what this means for fossil fuel industry workers. In addition, Just Transition commissions can be tasked with analysis of the social impacts of new low-carbon energy infrastructures and services. Currently, there are no equivalents in England, Northern Ireland and at the UK level.

Wales are monitoring economic and social impacts of decomissioning fossil fuel powerplants

The contribution of social science to energy and climate policy

Connecting these research-policy interactions forced me to think broadly about what social science research intends to achieve when analysing policy: do social scientists want to influence new policies or critically deconstruct the performance of existing ones? Is it possible to successfully do both? In many ways, the ultimate aim is to do both, particularly for policy oriented researchers.

However, one of the core goals of academic research is to shed new light on areas that have been neglected or ill considered. While academics may not see the immediate impact of their research on unexplored policy areas, patience may be a virtue if long-terms trends give rise to a renewed focus on their chosen area of research.

In addition, social scientists rightly feel compelled to highlight the potential exacerbation of social inequality by various policy responses to climate change, and to ask challenging questions in new contexts. For example, academic work on fuel poverty and ‘transport poverty’ shows a strong involvement of academics and researchers on the fuel poverty side and less so on the transport side. This is because the idea of transport poverty is a particularly novel idea in UK policy.

There is therefore room to expand the concept of transport poverty and issues of social equity in low-carbon transport innovations. However, it will be some time before such as concept becomes the ‘norm’ within mainstream policy discourse.

Whilst my year working in policy has shown me that the diffusion of such concepts into policy takes time, it is comforting to know these ideas are not falling on deaf ears – particularly in Wales and Scotland. As policy responses simultaneously addressing issues of social inequality and climate change intensify, policymakers will increasingly be forced to listen.

This article is based on an earlier 2020 blog post published by the RIPPLES research group, the original article can be found here.

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