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date: 14 April 2021

(p. 479) Emerging Trends in the Energy-Society Relationship

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines global energy trends, whether a global renewable energy transition is already taking place, and what steps are needed to further accelerate the global deployment of renewables. It first considers the expansion of renewable energy in light of global energy trends, noting that a global energy transition is not yet a reality but is urgently needed. It then looks at drivers and barriers for an accelerated expansion of renewable energy and proceeds by discussing how renewables are moving from the sidelines to the center stage of global energy governance. In particular, it describes the politics behind the creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organization on renewable energy, as well as current challenges for global governance on renewable energy. The chapter shows that global renewable energy capacities have grown significantly but that global energy supply is still dominated by fossil fuels.

We are experiencing rapid shifts in several aspects of contemporary society, with direct or indirect implications for energy-society relationships, many of which have been alluded to throughout this volume. Drivers of these changes include technology, politics, risks associated with unconventional fuel extraction, and the growing political salience of climate change, among others. One trend of note involves the prosumer movement: the rapid expansion of household-level micro-generation of renewable energy, including the purchase of solar arrays, but also citizen-led developments of new technologies, such as the geothermal heat pump developed in Germany. The growth of an energy-focused social movement, and the formation of the International Renewable Energy Agency, described by Sybille Roehrkasten in Chapter 25, are other trends to watch. Other observations have opened up new lines of sociological inquiry, including case studies of local energy transition; complex systems-based analyses of our transportation systems; and critical inquiries into the adoption of new technologies, with a particular focus on science and technology studies. But how do we know how far along we are on the transition pathway? Authors of the chapters in this closing section explore this question, offering both hope and caution.

(p. 480) In Chapter 25 Sybille Roehrkasten expands on the opening provided by Emelianoff in Part VI, to explore macro-trends that can offer us insight into how far we are along a pathway to renewable energy transition. In terms of kilowatts, renewable energy additions to our global energy portfolio are certainly increasing—more than doubling since the turn of the twenty-first century—and expansion appears to be happening across the globe, notably including developing country locations. Yet, discouragingly, they have not made a dent in the volume of fossil fuels extracted and burned each year. This is the case for a number of reasons, including strong political support for fossil fuels that includes heavy subsidies, and technical challenges in energy storage and grid integration for renewables. Nonetheless, there are signs of groundwork being done to support future expansion, including the continued fall in prices for wind and solar (which are important because decisions to adopt renewable energy often hinge on economics), and in particular, the establishment of an International Renewable Energy Agency, of which 150 states currently are members. Symbolically and substantively, this agency, headquartered in the United AraB Emirates, marks a turning point in the political legitimacy of renewable energy.

Jennie C. Stephens and Nils Markusson in Chapter 26 offer cautious reflection on that element of institutional change in which we often place an undue amount of faith: technology. Can advances in, for example, carbon capture and storage (CCS) prevent climate catastrophe while allowing for continued exploitation of fossil fuels? It has certainly received enthusiastic policy attention among the suite of mitigation options on the table. The prevalence of such “solutions” in policy debates reflects a long cultural history of technological optimism in Western society, a predilection that dangerously narrows our mitigation options and overlooks cultural avenues for climate mitigation. Enthusiasm for CCS is on the wane, as expectations have not been realized, but this, as often as not, only motivates attention to other technological fixes. Renewable energy is itself a technological fix of sorts, after all, that diminishes attention on the very real potential that what we need, in addition to technological advances in our energy production and consumption systems, are strategies to reduce energy consumption. Ultimately, the authors remind us that technology does indeed need to be recognized as a necessary element to energy-society relations, but our tendency to privilege technology may in fact serve as a barrier to transition.

Martin David, in Chapter 27, also urges caution in our optimism toward transition. Analogous to the previous chapter, it is the very privileging of innovation as the solution—by scholars as often as activists and policymakers—that may ultimately present a barrier to transition. As David makes clear, innovations can only really emerge after exnovation has taken place: the dismantling of preexisting political structures and infrastructures supporting fossil-fuel use. As a compelling point of note, David begins his historical case study analysis by acknowledging that Germany’s electricity (p. 481) grid has indeed undergone an impressive renewable energy transition. But because the structures supporting the coal industry in Germany remained in place, that coal continued to be mined, and was merely exported, rather than consumed domestically. And frankly, where the coal gets burned is of no consequence to the climate, so what is really gained in the form of decarbonization? Very little, it would seem, according to David, until Germany’s coal-production enterprise is dismantled. (p. 482)