Low carbon energy and national security: why incoherent policy risks delaying energy transition in Europe

An offshore rig

Energy transitions are progressing at increasing speed, stimulated by more ambitious climate policies in Europe and beyond. However, these positive gains are under constant threat from conflict and governance failures, heightened by the global geopolitical and economic importance of energy.

In a new article published in Energy Research & Social Science, we analyse the degree of policy coherence and integration between low carbon energy policies and security policies in three European countries, and find that incoherent policy risks delaying the energy transition in each.

Instead of seeking a balanced approach, national security is too often prioritised over energy transition, while a focus on securing fossil fuel resources fails to reflect the increasing importance of renewable energy in energy security. Meanwhile, the new and different security threats faced by renewable energy sources too often go unrecognised.

We argue that, to reduce barriers for speedy emissions reductions and to increase the future resilience of societies, we must acknowledge two things: that traditional security policy may be hindering energy system change and that the energy transition is changing the security implications of energy systems.

Connection and conflict

Energy and security are connected in many ways. Connections include the need to safeguard energy supply and to defend critical energy infrastructures against attacks and environmental disasters. At a global level, energy resources influence the balance of power between states and relate to other security risks because of their climate change effects.

There is a functional overlap between energy and security policies, but conflicts arise as low carbon energy transitions require new ways of safeguarding energy supply. These conflicts are shaped by countries’ energy profiles and attitudes towards the energy transition.

It is therefore likely that policy strategy addressing low carbon energy transitions on the one hand, and national security on the other, may not be coherent. This is problematic for several reasons: incoherence is likely to create conflicting policies, it reduces the efficiency of public spending, and it may slow down the energy transition.

Overhead power lines at sunset

Out of line? Policy coherence and integration in Finland, Estonia and Scotland

Our study examines both policy coherence and integration. Policy coherence implies attempts to reduce conflicts and promote synergies between different policy areas. Policy integration, a related concept, means that specific policy aims – such as climate change mitigation – are integrated across policy areas.

Looking at Finland, Estonia and Scotland, we reviewed 72 policy strategy documents published between 2006 and 2020.

Although Scotland’s security and energy policies are administered in Whitehall, Scotland’s independence efforts brought an interesting angle to the analysis. Unlike UK energy policy, Scottish energy policy has opposed new nuclear power due to security risks caused by radiation and terrorist attacks. Our security policy analysis mainly drew on UK National Security Strategies, apart from Scotland’s focus on cyber resilience.

Our analysis of the policy strategy documents from these countries identified key themes and findings across all three, the wider implications of which are summarised below.

First, sufficient policy coherence and integration between low carbon energy policy and national security policy is lacking in all the studied countries.

Policy strategies contain conflicting statements regarding fossil fuels, renewable energy, energy security and carbon emissions. For example, UK security policy has contained objectives to safeguard oil platforms in its territorial waters and abroad, while aiming for low carbon transition in the economy. National security is generally prioritised and there is no balanced consideration of low carbon energy transitions and national security. Traditional energy security thinking still dominates.

Second, the advancing energy transition combined with various global developments has led to an increasingly complex landscape for climate and energy policy. There is increasing global competition for energy. Climate change is creating new risks, including disruptions to energy supply, and tensions and conflicts which may cascade elsewhere. Electrified energy systems are at risk of cyberattacks. Russia’s use of energy for geopolitical means in international relations has not diminished. Melting ice in the Arctic has given access to new oil and gas reserves, which only risks worsening climate change in the future.

In this policy landscape, pursuing coherence between energy and security policy is harder than before. Thus, policymakers will need to undertake more careful and detailed assessments of how policy coherence can be advanced in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

Third, while the energy transition is advancing, we were surprised by how little attention the policy documents paid to the potential security implications of renewable energy and other new sustainable energy developments.

Renewable energy was seen to increase security of supply, but the policy documents addressed few of the security issues identified in academic literature. Issues ignored include the availability and supply of critical materials and rare earth minerals for renewable energy, the impacts of renewable energy on peace and conflict, and potential reactions of the far-right to climate policy and renewable energy.

To improve future policy coherence and societal resilience, both the positive and negative security implications of the energy transition must be openly acknowledged and prepared for.

It is therefore vital policymakers pay more explicit attention to the security implications of new low carbon technologies and smart energy systems in their official strategies. Furthermore, it should be noted that security risks are not similar across different energy niches and in different countries and, thus, require more specific analysis beyond the scope of this study.

New ways of thinking about energy and security policy

Our analysis highlights a significant risk; that by giving stakeholders conflicting signals and neglecting the security implications of renewable energy, the current national security framing that prioritises fossil fuels is likely to delay the energy transition. An increasingly complex policy landscape serves to heighten this risk and the challenge it presents, and increases the need for careful consideration of policy coherence.

To meet emissions targets and address the climate emergency as well as improve future resilience, new ways of thinking about energy in national security and security in energy policy are urgently needed.

This blog is based on the article Interplay between low-carbon energy transitions and national security: An analysis of policy integration and coherence in Estonia, Finland and Scotland – Energy Research & Social Science, Paula Kivimaa and Marja H. Sivonen.

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Make Renovation in Housing a Green Deal Priority (Repost)

Wooden Toy Houses and trees and chart

This is the first blog in the Green New Deal Blog Series, first published on the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium website, discussing the TIP perspective on the green new deals that are happening worldwide. 

The editors of this blog series are Fred Steward, Emeritus Professor, School of Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster, London; and Jon Bloomfield, Systems Innovation Policy Advisor, Climate Innovation Ecosystems, the European Institute of Technology’s Climate Knowledge & Innovation Community (EIT Climate-KIC).

“It is clear that a top down commitment to substantial investment in a green deal renovate programme is only the start . It must be accompanied by an effective transformative model of implementation, in order to enable a successful transition.  A systemic place-based approach, which engages local stakeholders and citizens is essential.”

The renovation of the housing system for sustainability figures in the post-Covid recovery programmes being developed across Europe. They promise to ‘build back better and greener’. System transitions to sustainability need a new type of transformative policy and politics. This is quite different to the austerity- led, market-oriented innovation policies of recent decades. It needs renewed ‘hands-on’ public purpose with new coalitions of individuals and communities as well as business.

The emerging programmes show a welcome focus on near-term exploitation of what we know in order to address two major short-term challenges: substantial emission reductions before 2030 for the climate emergency; and massive job creation from 2021 to repair the Covid crisis. Green Deal style decade long programmes can meet these twin challenges. Renovating our built environment is a programme, which a raft of recent expert studies have shown, can deliver both desperately needed targets.

All the advantages of focusing on building refurbishment are clearly laid out in the latest European Commission document A Renovation Wave for Europe – greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives.’ Renovation works are labour-intensive, create jobs and the investments are rooted in local supply chains. They help local economies since this is a sector where more than 90% of the operators are small companies. The design, installation and operation of low-carbon solutions often require good levels of technical knowledge, thereby offering new skilled jobs within local economies. This offers apprenticeships, and other forms of work-based learning like day release, to help young people into the labour market with green, vocational training courses geared to the renovation agenda.

Most informed policy experts agree that this is needed, though there are significant differences between them as to its priority.  Bill Gates’ ‘Green Manifesto’ places much more emphasis on the search for technologically driven solutions for the ‘hard to decarbonise’ energy intensive sectors, such as steel and concrete.  There is no doubt that the future promise of such solutions, like ‘green hydrogen’  deserve policy investment and attention. However, they fall in the comfort zone of traditional, supply-side industrial and innovation policy. A serious ‘new deal’ style of buildings renovation programme does not fit this space.  It is user oriented, addresses energy efficiency, and transforms a place-based system not an industrial sector. There remains a political argument to be won about the centrality of such programmes. While EU Commissioner Frans Timmermanns, who leads on Green Deal policy and implementation recognises its crucial importance, many politicians and policy-makers give it a lower priority.  Furthermore, a close look reveals disturbing policy confusion as to how speedy refurbishment and renovation programme can be achieved.  The patchwork in pace and the variability of progress in the built environment transition is deeply troubling given its crucial importance.

The contracted out, top down, individualistic ‘householder as consumer’ model has a poor record. The UK government is irredeemably attached to this approach. At the start of the last decade, the Cameron coalition government’s flagship scheme, the grossly misnamed ‘Green Deal‘ aspired to be  ‘Europe’s most innovative and transformational energy efficiency programme’[1]  Its annual target of 2 million retrofitted homes only struggled to reach 6,000 (<1%). Its model of private loans through an independent finance company did not deliver. The Green Homes Grant scheme launched in Boris Johnson’s 10 point ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ plan was contracted out to the US global consulting firm ICF.  Of the £1.5billion promised in its first year, only £71million (<5%) was spent. In contrast, the far more successful German buildings transition, with its  large refurbishment and retrofit programmes involves  a coalition of actors representing building workers, city authorities, community and tenants’ organisations, banks and supply companies.[2] Recent discussions on the recovery programme in France seek to combine the merits of a ‘one-stop shop’ access to funds with innovations in ‘territorial platforms’ and ‘energy information spaces’.

There is a crucial policy lesson here. Centralised, top-down methods are not the answer to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change. Central to green recovery should be transition programmes which set national sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs, in partnership with local stakeholders. That means looking to develop neighbourhood schemes so that entire streets are renovated together, rather than sole reliance on individual owner-occupiers to apply for a single grant for their own household. A community approach would bring economies of scale; permit accredited programmes with approved contractors; enable retrofit to be undertaken along with boiler replacements and renewable energy installations; introduce smart, digital appliances; and on-street vehicle charging infrastructure.

It is clear that a top down commitment to substantial investment in a green deal renovation programme is only the start. It must be accompanied by an effective transformative model of implementation, in order to enable a successful transition. A systemic place-based approach, which engages local stakeholders and citizens, is essential. This is necessary to achieve full takeup, the minimal goal of any programme. It also offers the prospect of local innovation and experimentation  to deliver the community and employment co-benefits central to the green deal policy paradigm.

Fred Steward, Jon Bloomfield

[1] Greg Barker. 20 June 2011;  Domestic Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation in Great Britain, Monthly report. Department of Energy and Climate Change; Jan Rosenow & Nick Eyre A post mortem of the Green Deal: Austerity, energy efficiency, and failure in British energy policy Energy Research & Social Science 21 (2016) 141–144

[2] Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Energy Efficiency Strategy for Buildings 2015; Fred Steward Action oriented perspectives on system innovation and transitions, EEA Report 25/2017 Perspectives on Transitions to Sustainability European Environment Agency ISSN 1977-8449 Ch 5 pp96-118 (2018)

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Why ‘rebound effects’ may cut energy savings in half

Earth from space, showing clusters of electric lighting

This blog was originally published by Carbon Brief as a guest post from Dr Paul Brockway and Prof Steve Sorrell.

Improving the energy efficiency of everything from the lights in people’s homes to the cars they drive is a key component of global climate action.

Such efficiency gains, which are included in many influential computer models, can lower energy use and, therefore, make it easier to decarbonise the global economy. 

At the same time, they can improve quality of life, boost productivity, increase competitiveness and contribute to growing the economy.  

However, counterintuitively, gains in energy efficiency can also encourage behavioural change towards more energy use, meaning some of the anticipated energy savings may be “taken back”. This is known as the “rebound effect”.

In a new paper, published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, we examine the economy-wide impact of these effects and find they may erode more than half of the potential energy savings from improved energy efficiency.

We also find that these rebound effects are not adequately included in the global energy and climate models used by organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), which means they may underestimate the future growth of global energy demand.

As a result, there is a risk that global climate action relies too heavily on energy savings that may not materialise.

Climate scenarios require unprecedented decoupling

Historically, GDP and energy use have been closely linked. Evidence suggests that energy demand typically increases as economies grow, while restricted access to energy can limit economic growth.

Between 1971 and 2015, global GDP rose by an annual average of 3.1% as global primary energy use rose by 2.1% each year. This is known as “relative decoupling”, where both variables increase but GDP increases faster than energy use. 

Organisations such as the IPCC use “integrated assessment models” (IAMs) to answer questions about climate change and changes in the future energy system. Similar models have been developed by the IEA and other organisations.

Most of these scenarios project little or no growth in global energy use over the next few decades, due to a combination of structural change, such as deindustrialisation and improved energy efficiency throughout the global economy.  

Several of these scenarios anticipate near-term “absolute decoupling”, where GDP rises while energy use falls. This is despite the need for large-scale investment in energy-intensive infrastructure and heavy industry in developing countries.  

This greater level of decoupling can be seen in the chart below, which shows GDP plotted against the world’s final energy demand – that is to say, the total energy consumed by end users. Energy demand falls in some of these scenarios while GDP increases, indicating absolute decoupling.

However, there is no historical precedent for absolute decoupling at the global level – and only limited experience at a national level. 

Historical trends and future scenarios for global final energy use and GDP from 1971 to 2050. Scenarios are divided into four groups: International Energy Agency models (orange), green 1.5C integrated assessment models (IAMs – green), 2C IAMs (purple) and other models (blue). SSPs are “shared socioeconomic pathways”, which are used by modellers to examine how global society, demographics and economics might change over the next century. The Shell 2018 Sky scenario sets a pathway to meet the “well-below 2C” goal of the Paris Agreement. Source: Brockway, P.E. et al. (2021).

Growing evidence of large rebound effects

A possible reason for the close links between energy use and GDP in the past is the presence of large “rebound effects” – a variety of economic shifts that offset some of the energy savings from improved energy efficiency.

For example, energy efficient lighting saves energy, but also makes lighting cheaper, which, in turn, encourages people to light up larger areas to higher levels over longer periods of time.  

Widespread adoption of energy-efficient lighting may also bring down the price of electricity, which could further encourage increased consumption.  

Another example, namely a more fuel-efficient car, is illustrated in the figure below, with examples of the direct and indirect pathways that can lead to increased energy use.

Illustration of rebound effects resulting from a more fuel-efficient car. Source: Sorrell, S. et al. (2018).

The economy-wide rebound effect is the net result of multiple adjustments of this type throughout a nation or the world. 

It is usually expressed as the percentage of the energy savings that would be achieved if none of those adjustments occurred. A 0% rebound means that all of the potential energy savings are achieved, while a 100% rebound means that all of these savings are “taken back”. 

Economy-wide rebound effects are extremely difficult to measure, but the evidence has grown substantially over the past decade. 

In our paper, we reviewed 21 studies that used ‘computable general equilibrium‘ (CGE) models to estimate the size of these effects from a variety of energy-efficiency improvements in different countries and sectors.  

These CGE model studies gave a mean estimate of 58% rebound, with a median estimate of 55%, implying that more than half of the potential energy savings from the modelled efficiency improvements were not achieved.  

We also surveyed 12 studies that used a variety of other methods to estimate economy-wide rebound effects and found a mean estimate of 71% rebound.  

In total, more than two-thirds of the studies found rebound effects larger than 50%. Six found rebound effects of 100% or more, implying that in some instances the energy savings may be eliminated altogether.

The studies varied widely in terms of methods used and types of improvement investigated, and their results were often sensitive to uncertain assumptions.  

Nevertheless, taken as a whole, they provide a consistent message of economy-wide rebound effects eroding more than half of the potential energy savings from improved energy efficiency.

Examining models

A key question is whether these rebound effects are properly factored into global energy models. 

To explore this, we examined four of the IAMs used by the IPCC, together with the models used by BPShell, the IEA and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).  

We found that most of these models relied upon external assumptions for key variables and were unable to capture many of the mechanisms contributing to rebound effects. 

Two of the models (REMIND and MESSAGE-GLOBIOM) included more detailed modelling of the macro-economy, but did so in a simplified manner that left out important mechanisms such as changes in the relative size of different sectors.

Moreover, several of the models calibrated the magnitude of energy-efficiency improvements to an assumed outcome for energy consumption, rather than modelling the impact those improvements actually had on consumption. This precludes the investigation of rebound effects.  

We conclude that these models could result in global energy scenarios overestimating the potential for energy savings and underestimating future global energy demand.

Implications for climate action

We do not question the importance of improved energy efficiency, since it can deliver multiple economic benefits alongside real energy savings. 

However, we do have concerns about the current realism of key global climate scenarios.  

If efficiency-based energy savings are smaller than anticipated, the world may need to rely more heavily upon a low-carbon energy supply, carbon capture and storage and negative emission technologies to meet its climate goals. 

Energy sufficiency and economic degrowth are also strategies that could come more sharply into focus.   

Additionally, there is scope for using economy-wide carbon pricing to mitigate rebound effects and to increase energy savings, alongside spending the revenues on low-carbon investments.  

It may also be possible to target energy-efficiency policy at sectors and technologies that offer the potential for larger economic benefits alongside smaller rebounds.  

Most importantly, our research highlights the urgent need for the modelling community to take rebound effects more seriously, and to find ways of incorporating the full range of rebound mechanisms into their global energy models.  

Without this, the plausibility of global energy scenarios – and particularly those with absolute decoupling – is open to question.

This blog is based on the paper Energy efficiency and economy-wide rebound effects: A review of the evidence and its implications – Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews by Paul E.Brockway, Steve Sorrell, Gregor Semieniuk, Matthew Kuperus Heun and Victor Court.

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Introduction to Responsive Organising for Low Emission Societies (ROLES)

What is ROLES?

ROLES is exploring how European city-regions can accelerate and intensify decarbonisation, specifically looking at the role of digitalisation of energy infrastructure and focusing on pathways that also create social benefits (such as reducing fuel and transport poverty). The project is working in the UK, Italy and Norway, with case studies in all three countries. The project started in late 2020 and will run for three years.

ROLES will develop an analytical framework for creating pathways to achieve deep decarbonisation by digitalising energy systems. We will prioritise co-creation of these pathways with relevant stakeholders and explore the role of power dynamics in shaping them.

The analytical framework we produce will be applicable to any mid-sized European city-region. We will initially apply it in three case studies city regions, each focusing on a different sector/ context for digitalising energy infrastructure (e.g. smart meter, e-mobility). Results will be shared with a wide range of stakeholders, from civic leaders to bodies representing marginalised groups.

Project Update

The ROLES project is off to a good start despite the challenging pandemic circumstances. Our project involves locally rooted fieldwork across three countries – carrying out this in-depth empirical research currently presents some obvious problems. The project team met online in December for our kick-off meeting. Despite being a large group, we are a cohesive team, as country team members have worked closely together. See a photo from our kick-off meeting!

We will meet online once a month to exchange views and ensure coordinated activities across our three case study cities: Bergen (Norway), Brighton (UK) and Trento (Italy). During the second monthly meeting in January 2021 each team member picked a favourite text relevant to ROLES, giving the team a quick ‘brain dump’ of their takeaway from the text and how it could be useful for our project work. As a team with a vast range of experience and disciplinary competencies, this sort of exchange is an exciting and rewarding aspect of collaboration during ROLES.

With much of the administrative work necessary to set up the project complete, 2021 will see our research work starting to gain momentum. Team Norway had a head-start through their work on JUSTMOB (just mobility transitions) during the autumn semester of 2020, which provides a foundation for further data collection and consolidation during ROLES. See a video recording of a public seminar on just mobility transitions in Bergen.

Disseminating Our Work

An exciting event relevant to ROLES is coming up in August 2021 – a biannual workshop of the Energy Anthropology Network on the theme ‘digitisation and low-carbon energy transitions’. Siddharth Sareen, the ROLES Principal Investigator, is co-convening this workshop along with Katja Müller. The shortlisted abstracts that have been invited for discussion as workshop papers are expected to be published as an edited volume.

One of ROLES’ first public dissemination activities is coming up in February 2021 at the Literature Festival Bergen. A reflexive, data-driven and interactive event is coming up as part of the National SDG 3 Conference Day Zero co-creation workshop on just urban mobility transitions on 10th February 2021. During 10th-12th February 2021, we will introduce the project at the 5th Energy and Society Conference in Trento (online), and discuss the design of participation processes.

Sign up to the ROLES newsletter for future updates and upcoming events!

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CREDS update: The energy use impacts of 5G mobile networks

Find out more about our ongoing CREDS project, seeking to understand the emission impacts from the imminent rollout of 5G mobile networks.

Whilst 5G is primarily associated with super-fast download speeds, an important part of the purpose of 5G is to increase the energy efficiency of mobile networks. Mobile data traffic is expected to rise sharply in the coming decade, driven in particular by the use of energy-intensive services such as video streaming. As such, the challenge for mobile network operators is to extend network capacity to satisfy such demand whilst ensuring their networks remain economically and environmentally sustainable. This challenge has given rise to a burgeoning literature on green mobile networks which assesses the feasibility and energy saving potential of a range of technologies. Furthermore, over the longer term, 5G is expected to enable a range of use cases with energy use implications across various sectors, including the automotive, manufacturing and energy sectors.  

The CREDS project ‘The energy use impacts of 5G mobile network technology’ is reviewing the evidence on 5G’s expected impact on energy use, including the direct impacts of the production and use of mobile network infrastructure, potential rebound effects associated with changes in user behaviour encouraged by 5G, and the impacts of 5G as a platform for a range of use cases in various sectors of the economy. This will be supplemented by an analysis of how the promise of green mobile networks is established as credible (or not) through the discourse of key stakeholder groups.  

The project is currently part way through the review of the energy use impacts of 5G networks. Whilst a number of promising technological options have been identified and assessed in the green mobile networks literature (e.g. putting parts of the network to sleep during low traffic hours is a particularly promising approach), our emerging results suggest that there have so far been relatively few studies that model the whole-network energy use impacts of 5G. We also note that relatively little attention has so far been paid to the embodied energy use associated with the large-scale addition or replacement of network infrastructure, the potential for rebound effects associated with changes in user behaviour encouraged by 5G, and demand-side management. 

Over the next few months the project will hope to provide a clearer picture of the estimated energy saving potential of 5G, the key sociotechnical factors that determine the scope for energy saving, and the key policy challenges associated with achieving this potential. Additionally, the discourse analysis will provide an understanding of how the promise of green 5G is established as credible (or not), the assumptions and exclusions underpinning this promise (e.g. is discouraging energy-intensive consumer behaviour considered or overlooked?), and whether its credibility is challenged. 

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