Alternative Visions of a Low-Carbon Future

A low-carbon economy – with a target of an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide levels, on 1990 levels, by 2050 – is a long-standing objective of UK energy policy. But what will a low-carbon economy look like and what will it be like to live there? A paper in Energy Policy by Gavin Bridge and colleagues (‘Geographies of energy transition: Space, place and the low-carbon economy‘), published in 2013 and available to access free of charge, explores how a ‘low-carbon transition’ can be understood as essentially a geographical process, offering alternative visions for how the UK energy system is organised spatially, with consequences for economic and social activity across the country.

The paper’s authors characterise the ‘energy challenge of the 21st century’ as understanding how we can bring about ‘a new transition, towards a more sustainable energy system characterised by universal access to energy services…security and reliability of supply from efficient, low-carbon sources’; a major challenge indeed. They argue that although policy-makers broadly agree on the need for this transition, there is little consensus on the end state. For example, low-carbon electricity generation can be achieved by large, remote actors such as nuclear power stations, large-scale solar farms or offshore wind arrays. Alternatively, the same end goal of a decarbonised economy can be achieved conceivably by the widespread proliferation of highly decentralised micro-generation. Both systems: centralised with long-distance transmission networks, and decentralised with energy generated by individuals and communities close to the point of use, have implications for where we live, work and socialise. As the authors explain, ‘major shifts in the role of different fuels and energy conversion technologies in the global energy mix have often underpinned broad social and geographical change’; yet the fact that a transition to low-carbon energy generation could lead to the same social and economic transformations are somehow overlooked in policy discussions.

Bridge and colleagues argue convincingly that there are good reasons for thinking of energy transitions as geographical. Energy systems are inherently spatial: from the location of generators at specific sites to the interconnections between them and consumers – homes and industry. There are also geopolitical and geoeconomic dependencies associated with the multi-national ownership of oil, gas and electricity companies. The UK is open to non-domestic influences on its energy system via the high cost of oil and gas imports, for example.

The location of the current components of the UK’s energy system is the product of history: the rise of industrialisation in the late Victorian period and the co-location of major cities, centres of industry, with sources of power – such as coal. As the authors state, this represents ‘an energy system designed to deliver abundant, reliable supplies at low cost to consumers, without regard for carbon constraints’. Yet there have been major shifts in the last 100 years in the economy of the UK, with the move from industry to services as a driver of economic growth. Our energy use reflects this: 50% of UK energy use is now in homes and personal transport (mainly cars) – a major shift from energy use from production to consumption. As these trends continue, alongside decarbonisation, the authors expect there to be major shifts in the landscape. Energy is projected to become a major driver in land-cover change, with ‘the extension of industrial and extractive components of the energy system to places and communities previously unaffected.’

The authors argue that the energy transition in the UK is currently viewed as ‘convergent’, or ‘aspatial’, with a general assumption that places across the UK will all be affected in the same way by decarbonisation. Not so, suggest the geographers: instead we can expect to see new patterns of uneven development emerge across our urban and rural landscapes. There will be some spatial convergence and some areas that develop very distinctively with the energy transition only enhancing the degree of difference between places. There are likely to be striking implications for long-standing assumptions about the spatial form of cities, about the densities of settlements, building design and materials, along with distinctive shifts away from the dominance of the car and increased space for walking and cycling, for example.

As the authors state, ‘European and UK energy policies establish clear targets for renewables but have little to say about the scalar configuration of their deployment’. Meanwhile, policy is developed largely by the ‘nexus’ of central government and the major energy suppliers, with little role for local government, a situation that the geographers suggest is not best-placed to deliver decentralised activity. A concern is that without a focus on space and place, and a clear discussion about the spatial configuration for a future energy system – and society – which is desirable, an early move towards a particular form of low-carbon transition could ‘lock out’ any alternative.

The RGS-IBG and the UK Energy Research Centre are organising a 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum event on ‘Rescaling the UK’s Energy System‘, on Tuesday 29th November. Chaired by Damian Carrington (the Guardian), expert panellists will examine what a transition from a centralised to a decentralised energy system means for the UK, and development of a UK energy strategy in the context of ‘Brexit’.

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