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date: 14 May 2021

(p. 13) Key Contemporary Dynamics and Theoretical Contributions

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This chapter considers the relevance of international cooperation to the governance of global energy and climate issues and the restricted way in whichthese issues are framed. It provides an analysis of the development of the international climate change regime from the negotiation of the UNFCCC to the implementation of its Kyoto Protocol and the search for a new but very different agreement, achieved at Paris in late 2015. The Paris outcome reflected the intersection of national economic interests and seismic structural changes in the global political economy that vastly altered the distribution of emissions in the context of the increasing competitiveness of renewables. Meeting demands for climate justice with a new emphasis on development funding and adaptation was critical to the achievement of an agreement. As ever, what might seem to be functional and technical negotiations were permeated by international politics and assertions of national sovereignty, recognition, and prestige.

The attempt to grapple with society’s relationship with energy has inspired fruitful and often interdisciplinary pursuits among sociologists, as well as some of the most exciting systems-based conceptual developments one can identify anywhere in the discipline. The chapters in Part I of this volume emphasize some contemporary intellectual spaces that have served to shift our collective gaze in our inquiries into energy-society relations, and that we believe are worth watching in the coming years.

The first is unquestionably the sociopolitical upheavals wrought by growing acknowledgment of climate change’s human origins and impacts, and by extension, scholars’ attempts to grapple with these sociopolitical shifts. As discussed by John Vogler in Chapter 2, climate change has shifted the ground upon which political economies have rested, and has challenged our continued reliance on governments in decision-making, despite trends that may suggest the fruitfulness of other governance arrangements. Ironically, developments in international governing regimes to address climate change have far surpassed analogous efforts on the energy front: energy continues to be a comparatively domestic and private affair.

(p. 14) Chapters 3 and 4 describe tandem upheavals in the academy that have had a particular impact on the sociological study of energy: social practices and sustainability transitions. Both of these conceptual frameworks offer unique and valuable sociological contributions to understanding (and attempts to manage) energy-society relations. Both have also been subject to critique. Ana Horta’s Chapter 3 details how substantively social practices theory departs from an entrenched (rational) actor paradigm versus social structure, to boldly resituate energy as an integral feature of all of our social activities undertaken in everyday living, while drawing empirical attention to the interactions between social and material elements and infrastructures. Sometimes intentional, sometimes not, our practices are nonetheless always embedded in sociocultural systems that dictate the norms governing those practices. In Chapter 4, Harald Rohracher describes emerging attention toward sustainability transitions based on a strong conviction that the political, economic, and cultural institutions defining our current energy-society relations must be transformed fundamentally in order to avoid fundamental lowering of standards of living and health, as well as the more catastrophic implications of climate change. This conviction has motivated renewed interest in complex systems, and the elements that aid in their transformation, namely niches in which innovations can flourish, and their potential upscaling through the multilevel systems that characterize modern societies. While in many ways the conceptual frameworks in Chapters 3 and 4 could not be more different, the common link here is growing acknowledgment of system complexity and attempts to accommodate that complexity epistemologically, while simultaneously acknowledging the dynamic role of actors. The extent to which actors are indeed agents in this system, however, is a point of contention among scholars involved in recent research in this vein, which has facilitated a fruitful discussion.