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date: 29 October 2020

The Politics of Energy and Climate Change

Abstract and Keywords

Social science has a crucial role to play in informing policy makers about political and institutional strategies conducive to implementing more ambitious energy-related climate change policies. This chapter reviews major avenues of research in political science and related disciplines that examine energy policy and climate change. It focuses on how individuals, civil society, business, and governments affect climate-related energy policies. The second section suggests three issues with the potential to promote more rapid decarbonization of energy systems, but which have not been a sustained focus of research to date: (1) the politics of low-carbon economic development, (2) innovation and the deployment of new technologies, and (3) the politics of negative emissions and geoengineering technologies.

Keywords: climate change, energy policy, public policy, renewable energy, innovation

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a byproduct produced during the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas. It constitutes the largest share of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere attributable to human behavior, although gases such as methane also matter (Blanco et al. 2014, 354). Human activities producing GHG emissions are already estimated to be responsible for 1 degree Celsius of global warming above preindustrial levels (IPCC 2018), and the risk of catastrophic future changes in the climate is sufficiently worrisome that signatories to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed that the “lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing … measures” (United Nations 1992).

The emission of GHGs is linked to the provision of heating, lighting, transport, and other energy products and services that are fundamental to human societies (Unruh 2000). Solving the climate change problem requires rapidly transforming the technological, institutional, and social systems that underpin the energy infrastructure providing these services. In terms of policy levers, mitigating climate change implies targeting population growth, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, the energy intensity of GDP, and the GHG intensity of energy use (Rosa and Dietz 2012). Policy overwhelmingly focuses on the latter two factors, given ethical concerns with limiting populations or economic growth.

Social science has a crucial role to play in helping to decarbonize global energy systems by identifying which policies are feasible and effective in reducing the energy needed and transforming the types of energy used (Barbier and Pearce 1990). Social science can also inform policy makers and others about political and institutional strategies conducive to implementing more ambitious policies, by deepening our understanding of the responses of individuals and organizations toward different climate-policy mixes in the energy sector and showing how domestic and international institutions structure the bargaining power of these actors.

In the first section of this chapter I review major avenues of research in the political science subfield that consider the politics of energy and climate change. I emphasize work that presents general findings, although there are a large number of important studies that focus on single states or economic sectors, and some of these are included. I also concentrate on more recent results, referring readers to reviews that summarize earlier findings on aspects of the politics of climate change and the politics of energy (Bernauer 2013; Hughes and Lipscy 2013; Hancock and Vivoda 2014; Goldthau and Keating 2018).

Political science has only recently begun to engage more deeply with energy policy in the context of climate change as a discipline, and there are many important areas of research that require attention as a result. The role of supply-side policies in restricting the use of fossil fuels, for example, is a new and urgent focus of research (Green and Denniss 2018). Understanding the politics of climate adaptation is also critical as the effects of climate change become apparent.

In the second section of the chapter I highlight three issues with the potential to promote more rapid decarbonization of energy systems, but which have not been a sustained focus of research to date. The first is the politics of low-carbon economic development. The vast bulk of future energy demand is projected to lie in lower-income states, with India and China particularly important due to their large populations. Yet there is much still to be learned about the relationship between politics and climate-related energy politics in many of these states. Despite the myriad successes in deploying renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power in the electricity sector, demand for fossil fuels continues to grow. The world needs to rapidly increase the rate at which we slow and reverse the growth in energy-related GHG emissions. Thus, a second area of potential research lies in identifying how governments can help innovate and deploy new technologies more quickly in order to decarbonize energy systems. Third, our collective failure to date to reduce GHG emissions at a rate required to avoid potentially catastrophic levels of climate change increases the possibility that we will need to rapidly develop and deploy negative emissions and geoengineering technologies at scale. An important research question is how politics might affect technology choices and levels of investment in negative emissions and geoengineering technologies in the energy sector.

The chapter begins with a brief overview of the relationship between energy use and climate change. The main section summarizes the state of knowledge on the relationship between politics and energy and climate change, discussing political actors involved in shaping climate-related energy policy, beginning with individuals, then addressing business and civil society. The chapter then discusses the role of government, understood either as a political actor or as a set of institutions that shapes interactions between other actors. In the last section I discuss the politics of climate-related energy policy in lower-income states, technological innovation and deployment, and the politics of negative emissions and geoengineering.

Energy and Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that growing concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere, along with other anthropogenic drivers of climate change, are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” (IPCC 2014, 2–4).1 Much of this is attributable to the increase in CO2, with atmospheric concentrations higher than they have been in at least 800,000 years. Changes in the climate will continue hundreds of years into the future, even if humans were immediately to stop emitting GHGs, with the added risk of negative feedback loops caused by human-induced warming (Wagner and Weitzman 2016). Projected changes include sea level rise and more intense rainfall, drought, and heat waves, with projected impacts on natural and human systems growing in severity as the temperature increases (IPCC 2018). Demand continues to increase for fuels that emit GHGs—primarily CO2 but including methane and other gases—as a byproduct of providing energy services (See Figure 1).

The Politics of Energy and Climate Change

Figure 1 Total annual anthropogenic GHG emissions by gases 1970–2010

Total annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (gigatonne of CO2-equivalent per year, GtCO2-eq/yr) for the period 1970 to 2010 by gases: CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes; CO2 from Forestry and Other Land Use (FOLU); methane (CH4); nitrous oxide (N2O); fluorinated gases covered under the Kyoto Protocol (F-gases). Right hand shows 2010 emissions, using alternatively CO2- equivalent emission weightings based on IPCC Second Assessment Report (SAR) and AR5 values. Unless otherwise stated, CO2-equivalent emissions in this report include the basket of Kyoto gases (CO2, CH4, N2O as well as F-gases) calculated based on 100-year Global Warming Potential (GWP100) values from the SAR (see Glossary in IPCC 2014). Using the most recent GWP100 values from the AR5 (right-hand bars) would result in higher total annual GHG emissions (52 GtCO2-eq/yr) from an increased contribution of methane, but does not change the long-term trend significantly.

Source: Image and caption from IPCC (2014, 46).

The continued increase in GHG emissions is occurring despite the rapid rise in the deployment of renewable energy sources such as solar PVs and wind power, and despite improvements in efficiency of energy use (See Figure 2). Renewable energy, for example, has increased its share of total global energy consumption. However, total demand continues to increase (REN21 2018), and this has been met mostly by natural gas and crude oil. Even the demand for coal increased by 1 percent in 2017, driven largely by consumption increases in India and China (BP 2018, 2). (For detailed discussions of the politics of energy in India and China, see Powell and Nahm, respectively, in this volume.)

The Politics of Energy and Climate Change

Figure 2 Growth of renewables in total final energy consumption, 2005–2015

Source: REN21 (2018).

Some analysts and practitioners argue that nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration are important for reducing GHG emissions. However, the high costs and technical and perceived safety challenges of these two technologies mean they continue to face challenges in being deployed at scale. As such, they are not addressed in this chapter. (For background on nuclear energy, see Fitzwater, and for carbon capture, see Tutuncu’s chapter on fossil fuels, both in this volume.)

While the growth of low-carbon energy sources is impressive, far more needs to be done to scale-up their deployment in order to ensure energy produced by these sources rapidly replaces the use of coal, oil, and natural gas in meeting global energy demand. This process is inherently political, due to its enormous distributional implications. Failure to stabilize GHG emissions to date by replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources means future reductions will need to occur even more rapidly in order to reduce the probability of catastrophic climate change, absent the widespread deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs) at scale.

In the next section I examine the evidence regarding the actors and institutions involved in the politics of climate-related energy policy, beginning with individuals and then moving on to discuss the business sector.

Actors and Institutions

The ubiquity of energy use means citizens, acting individually or collectively through civil society organizations, join business and government in having an interest in climate-related energy policies. In this section I discuss how these different political actors form their preferences regarding energy policies, beginning with citizens and then discussing business and governments.

Citizens and the Politics of Framing

A foundational issue in the politics of climate-related energy policies is understanding how citizens form preferences regarding climate-related energy policies and what their influence is over climate-related energy policies.2 Most simply, as consumers of energy services, individuals’ demand for access to less carbon intensive sources of energy reduces the rate of GHG emissions growth, given the large share of total energy use the residential sector represents (Stern 2014).3 In democratic states, citizens also vote, and voting choices collectively affect policies enacted by governments. In the case of Germany, for example, the participation in government of the Green Party, which incorporated decarbonization in its party platform, contributed to the introduction of financial incentives that directly induced the rapid deployment of renewable energy (Laird and Stefes 2009). Citizens can also choose to act collectively in seeking to change the consumption and production of energy, as elaborated in the following discussion.

In general terms, cross-national surveys typically show that large pluralities of populations across high-income states are concerned about climate change (Shwom et al. 2015). Yet the effect of this generalized concern about attitudes toward energy policies is less certain. One reason may be that individuals believe decarbonizing energy systems will force them to incur higher costs, a reasonable concern given that policy costs can be passed on to final consumers. In the United States, for example, consumers’ levels of expressed support for climate policies fall when they are asked to consider a trade-off between electricity costs and the environmental benefits from shifting to the greater use of wind, solar, and hydropower (Ansolabehere and Konisky 2014). Similarly, low consumer subscription rates to “green power” schemes in Australia favoring renewable energy generation have been linked to their perceived financial costs (Hobman and Frederiks 2014). These results suggest that individuals are sensitive to costs when considering whether to support energy policies designed to mitigate the effects of climate change. That said, there is some evidence that individuals’ willingness to pay (WTP) for climate change measures is not a simple function of the expected policy costs. Economic downturns and worsening individual economic circumstances appear not to affect individuals’ willingness to prioritize climate change (Mildenberger and Leiserowitz 2017). The provision of energy reports that compare electricity usage to neighbors has also been found to affect household usage, suggesting that social norms affect energy behavior (Allcott 2011).

Given sensitivity to policy costs, an important issue is how individual views about climate-related energy policies will be affected by rapidly falling renewable energy prices, as experienced in the solar PV and battery storage sectors, and particularly whether such price changes increase individuals’ willingness to support climate change mitigation using energy policy. One possibility is that falling renewable energy costs will have little effect on support for more stringent climate-related energy policies among the public. In addition to the problem of costs, individuals have imperfect information about the range of possible long-term climate outcomes, and this uncertainty influences their WTP for policies that would reduce energy sector emissions (Ingham, Ma, and Ulph 2007; Kotchen, Boyle, and Leiserowitz 2013).

Crucially, in the face of imperfect information, individuals’ willingness to bear the costs of decarbonizing energy systems to reduce the risks of future climate change is also susceptible to organized efforts at issue framing. Framing has been used effectively by groups opposed to more stringent climate-related energy policies, for example, by emphasizing scientific uncertainty or focusing attention on the negative effects policies may have on consumer welfare (Cann and Raymond 2018). Business, in particular, has played an active role in sponsoring information campaigns designed to undermine support for more stringent climate action (Dunlap and McCright 2011; Farrell 2016; Supran and Oreskes 2017). Decarbonization has also been linked to values such as ideological commitments to negative liberty, in which regulating carbon emissions is framed as an unacceptable level of state intervention, with voluntarism identified as the appropriate response to climate change (Bohr 2016; Jacques and Knox 2016).

Alternative frames have been used by proponents of more active climate-related energy policies. Decarbonization has been associated with national security co-benefits, for example, in the form of reduced energy import dependence, in order to mobilize individuals (Pralle and Boscarino 2011; Vezirgiannidou 2013). Policies reducing transport-related emissions have also been framed in terms of national security and environmental justice (Alló and Loureiro 2014). Frames such as “ecological citizenship”—in which individuals are defined as part of a collective identity with a given ecological burden—can also affect individual support for policy change (Wolf, Brown, and Conway 2009). Some conservative groups have also sought to frame clean energy policies based on national economic advantage and religious stewardship of the environment (Hess and Brown 2017).

A key question, given multiple conflicting efforts to frame energy-related climate policies in politically polarized environments such as the United States (Dunlap and McCright 2008), is how exposure to these multiple frames affects individuals’ views (Bolsen and Druckman 2018). Here, there is some evidence that the benefits of framing policies in terms of environmental or national security co-benefits dissipate when confronted with counterframing (Aklin and Urpelainen 2013). But there is a real need to understand the effects of counterframes more deeply, including across other jurisdictions in both high- and lower-income states.

In addition to how framing affects citizens’ preferences about climate-related energy policies, a second question is how individuals prioritize climate-related energy policy relative to other issues. Consistent with findings that economic factors affect individual preferences, a perception of higher costs increases the salience of energy policies among the public (Lowry and Joslyn 2014). Direct experience of weather events—such as flooding—also appears to increase individuals’ willingness to reduce energy consumption (Spence et al 2011). Other events, such as international climate negotiations, have also been found to increase the salience of energy and climate change issues (Bakaki and Bernauer 2017).

The longevity of increases in issue salience related to external shocks is questionable, however. Experiencing extreme weather, for example, has only a small effect on concerns about climate change compared to socioeconomic factors such as educational level or ideological predisposition (Marquart-Pyatt et al. 2014). The effects of exposure to weather shocks are also small and transient for individuals’ support for adaptation policies (Ray et al. 2017). It is nevertheless worth considering whether external shocks, such as heat waves, droughts, and other types of extreme weather, or factors such as international climate negotiations, present windows of opportunity for policy makers by increasing the importance of individuals’ support for more stringent climate-related energy policies. In the financial sector, for example, low issue salience has been identified with “insider politics” dominated by technocratic policymaking and the influence of organized interest groups, while greater public salience is argued to increase political attention to individual preferences (Culpepper 2010). Thus, one political strategy may lie in taking advantage of external shocks that increase issue salience to promote policies promoting sustainable energy transitions.

Households have been characterized as “price-takers” that exert little collective influence (Smith, Stirling, and Berkhout 2005); however, evidence shows that citizens can choose to act collectively. Grassroots movements that mobilize individuals seeking to change patterns of energy supply and demand, for example, have been studied across multiple jurisdictions. Under the Obama administration, so-called blue-green alliances of labor and environmental activists sought to promote decarbonization policies in the name of environment and industry policy. This was reflected in state ballot initiatives, such as Michigan’s Proposition 3 in 2012, which proposed to increase the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for electricity from 10 percent to 25 percent (Hess 2014).

Citizens can also organize collectively in the process of energy transition. Citizen participation in planning processes has been found to be important to the successful development of wind power projects in England, Wales, Denmark, France, and Germany (Loring 2007; Enevoldsen and Sovacool 2016; Hager 2016; Langer, Decker, and Menrad 2017). Citizens are also directly owning facilities involved in energy production. Community ownership in the Netherlands, developing technologies such as biomass and solar PV, has been observed (Van Der Schoor and Scholtens 2015). Policies that enable business models that directly involve citizens in the production of energy to flourish thus present one strategy for promoting decarbonization in the energy sector, although the scale of energy demand—and the important political role of business in the energy sector described in the following discussion—means additional policies are needed.

Analyses of citizen engagement with renewable energy production extend to the energy democracy movement, which frames decarbonization as an opportunity for individuals to bring about change directly through the use of distributed renewable energy technologies. In doing so, energy democracy ties shifting control over stages of the energy supply chain to local communities through community ownership to a broader political and social project focused on democratization (Burke and Stephens 2018). (For more on citizen action and energy more generally, see Cauchon in this volume.) The distributional effects of energy choices are also linked to normative concerns about how policies can be made more just (Jenkins et al. 2016). (For more on energy justice, see Fuller in this volume.)

Business and Climate-Related Energy Policy

Calls to democratize energy supply in response to climate change can be understood as a reaction to the perceived political influence of firms that own and operate large, centrally managed fossil fuel infrastructure that dominates the global provision of energy services. There are valid reasons to expect businesses to influence climate-related energy policies. Fossil fuels industries have high capital costs and assets that are durable and not readily redeployable. Relation-specific asset theory suggests industries with these characteristics will tend to lobby collectively and will be politically influential. Indeed, the theory of “regulatory capture” employed the oil refining industry as its paradigmatic case (Stigler 1971).

The pervasive influence of large energy firms through political access and the strategic use of information has substantially slowed the deployment of low-carbon energy sources (Geels 2014). This influence has led to claims that the existing energy infrastructure suffers from carbon lock-in, through a combination of technological and institutional forces (Unruh 2000). Historical evidence from previous energy transitions shows that incumbent industries have indeed slowed the emergence of products that have challenged their dominance (Fouquet 2016).

Yet a sole focus on the political influence of incumbents makes it difficult to explain recent changes in the energy sector centered on the extraordinary rise in renewable energy capacity. Many electricity companies are threatened by the rapid rise in renewable energies, such as wind and solar PV, and electricity utilities are often well-resourced and with substantial market power, which are characteristics that might lead us to expect them to be politically influential.

One explanation for the rise of renewable energy is that large shocks, such as the oil shocks of the 1970s and the more recent 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, enable shifts in the trajectories of energy systems (Aklin and Urpelainen 2018). (Lipscy and Incerti in this volume provide a more detailed discussion of the role of exogenous shocks in energy politics in Japan.) Another possibility is that competitive threats from emerging niche technologies are initially ignored by incumbents, which only mobilize politically once the markets for new low-carbon technologies have matured (Stokes and Breetz 2018).

Evidence also shows there is substantial diversity between firms operating within emissions-intensive energy industries regarding climate change policy. During negotiations in the 1990s to create an international agreement with binding emissions ceilings, for example, US oil majors chose to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, while BP and Shell attempted to shape the final agreement (Levy and Kolk 2002). This situation raises the possibility that intra-industry heterogeneity creates a collective action problem that might dilute the influence of large firms over energy-related climate policy. Exploring the sources and implications of heterogeneity in business interests remains a fruitful area for research.

One plausible reason for intra-industry heterogeneity lies in differences in the implications of policies for the value of the assets held by companies. Among the international oil and gas majors, for example, Shell has a portfolio that is weighted toward natural gas, proposed as a transition fuel useful for supplanting coal in power markets. Extrapolating from the implications of policies for the value of assets, we might expect Shell to favor regulatory and other policies that favor natural gas over coal. Differences in the portfolio of assets extend to the national oil companies (NOCs) that dominate ownership of global reserves of crude oil and are increasingly international in scope (Nasiritousi 2017). In 2017 the Danish NOC DONG (Danish Oil and Natural Gas) was renamed Ørsted and committed to fully divesting from oil and natural gas operations, and in 2018 the Norwegian NOC Statoil changed its company name to Equinor, reflecting its commitment to increasing revenues from renewable energy. Companies in the oil and gas sector are also diversifying into renewable energy sources, as they did in the 1980s (Zhong and Bazilian 2018).

Business opposition to climate-related energy policies may also be diminishing (Sæverud and Skjærseth 2007). One reason for this shift is that business preferences about climate-related energy policies are not a pure function of their assets, but is also influenced by the broader policy and social environment. The choice of cap-and-trade, rather than carbon taxes, as the preferred policy instrument for reducing GHG emissions in the energy sector, for example, followed a switch in strategy by some firms from opposition to favor shaping the distributional effects of climate policies (Meckling 2011). This more complex interpretation of business interests and strategies suggests the existence of “tipping points,” in which the benefits of engagement in shaping policy are judged to outweigh continued opposition, although care needs to be taken to ensure presumed cooperation is not driven by an attempt to reduce compliance costs by reducing the stringency of climate-related energy policies (Vormedal 2011; Meckling 2015).

Shareholder pressure may also hasten the shift. The divestment movement is characterized as a transnational advocacy network that aims to “shame, pressure, facilitate, and encourage investors … to relinquish their holdings of fossil fuel stocks” and is argued to be influential (Ayling and Gunningham 2017). Exxon, for example, was forced by shareholders in 2017 to report on the impact of climate change on its business, thus introducing the possibility that management will be forced to address the issue of stranded assets as a result of climate change. Summarizing the options available to companies, Meckling (2015) proposes that companies can choose to hedge by shaping policies in favor of least cost designs, supporting, or opposing climate-related energy policy proposals.

While the oil industry has been a key focus of research into the role of business in shaping climate-related energy policies, the electricity sector is increasingly important due to the rise of renewable energy in power generation and the potential for electrification as a strategy for decarbonizing the transport sector. Here, again, industry preferences are heterogeneous. Electricity companies consume different mixes of fuels in the power plants they operate, participate in different segments of the power market, and are different sizes. In the European Union (EU), the positions that large power generators adopted toward emissions trading reflected the mix of fuels they use to generate power. Companies that had high levels of nuclear and hydropower generation had substantially different interests than those with fossil-fuel-heavy generation portfolios (Markussen and Svendsen 2005). The mix of fuels electricity utilities used to generate power also affected their preferences about climate-related energy legislation. Companies with more renewables and natural gas tended to support more stringent climate legislation likely to increase the value of their assets, while companies weighted toward coal adopted the opposition position (Kim, Urpelainen, and Yang 2016).

Public policies promoting renewable energy generation thus have distinct political and environmental benefits. Some power utilities already identify renewable energy as an opportunity (Richter 2013). Over a decade ago, Spanish power utilities, for example, saw wind power as complementary to existing capabilities and supported policies enabling greater penetration of wind power (Stenzel and Frenzel 2008). German utilities owning and operating transmission grids, on the other hand, were not supportive of regulatory reform to power grids enabling greater penetration of wind power. Instead, Germany’s success in renewable energy may be attributable to the influence of smaller power-generating companies that stood to gain from selling renewable power into the wholesale power market (Wassermann, Reeg, and Nienhaus 2015). Large utilities also failed to understand the competitive threat that renewables could represent (Kungl 2015). Regardless, the key link here, as with the oil and gas sectors, is the distributive implications of the policy for company assets and how these effects influence the policy preferences of the companies about climate-related energy policies (Cheon and Urpelainen 2013). By extension, offering financial compensation to carbon-intensive power generators may be a good strategy for weakening business opposition to more stringent climate policies (Jotzo and Mazouz 2015).

Diversity in the interests of the business sector extends to the renewable energy industry itself. Here, there appears to be a negative side to the relationship between company investments and the positions they adopt toward climate-related energy policies. Renewable energy–related trade disputes are increasing in frequency, for example, and evidence shows solar PV companies adopt different positions toward the imposition of tariffs on solar-related imports due to differences in their positions within global supply chains (GSCs) (Lewis 2014, Meckling and Hughes 2017). A key factor here may be the rise of GSCs in producing renewable energy products, as has occurred in other manufacturing sectors. GSCs are characterized by the geographic dispersion of production and the segmentation of production into multiple, distinct stages. The politics of trade in renewable energy is thus likely to be increasingly affected by intra-industry heterogeneity, as has occurred in other sectors.

Far from being unified, there appears to be tremendous heterogeneity in the interests of business in climate-related energy policies, which remains to be explored. Differences in policy preferences appear to be shaped not only by the diversity of assets held by companies operating in different sectors, but also by differences in the distributive effects of various policy instruments on the value of those assets, as well as other factors. Identifying the sources of these differences is a first step in understanding how policy can be designed to increase support for, and weaken opposition to, more stringent climate-related energy policies.

Political Institutions

The structure of political institutions affects the bargaining power of companies and other actors with interests in climate-related energy policymaking (Purdon 2015; Karapin 2016). A general finding is that rates of policy adoption decline as political institutions increase the number of actors with veto power. Change is also more likely to be incremental, as it will be likely to lead veto players to invest political resources in opposing a given policy (Madden 2014. Thus, the greater number of veto points evident in legislative procedures in the United States is found to have slowed the pursuit of more ambitious decarbonization policies, including in the energy sector, compared to the European Union (Skjærseth, Bang, and Schreurs 2013).

Electoral institutions also matter in shaping the political success of green parties. Electoral systems using proportional representation, in particular, are more conducive to green participation in government, and by extension, more ambitious climate-related energy policies (Richardson and Rootes 2006; Hughes and Urpelainen 2015). Mainstream parties are also given an incentive to incorporate elements of green party policies into their own political programs, rather than simply ignore the issue (Dumas. Rising, and Urpelainen 2016). The result can be a loss in votes for the green party but may lead to more ambitions climate-related energy policies than might otherwise have been adopted (Meguid 2005). Electoral systems can also make it easier, or more difficult, for policy makers to impose higher energy costs on consumers (Lipscy 2018).

The degree to which authority is devolved to subnational levels of government also matters for climate-related energy policies (Lyon and Yin 2010). Decentralized ownership models, for example, may be effective in part because they shift the institutional structure in which decision-making occurs, decreasing the influence of large, entrenched veto players in the fossil fuel sector (Burke and Stephens 2018). As noted in Allison and Parinandi in this volume, local- and state-level politicians in the United States have been at the forefront in implementing climate-related energy policies such as RPSs, which require electricity retailers to supply a given amount of power from renewable energy sources (Yi and Feiock 2012). The implementation of more ambitious RPSs in the United States has also been associated with Democratic control of state legislatures, in part because of the increased influence of environmental groups at the state level (Berry, Laird, and Stefes 2015). Subnational levels of government, such as cities, are also increasingly involved in transnational politics, which is potentially significant given that urban areas dominate GHG emissions globally (Lee 2013). Local governments have also played a key role in the development of industrial capabilities in China’s wind and solar PV sectors (Nahm 2017 and Nahm in this volume). Potential drawbacks include increased regulatory complexity and leakage of more carbon-intensive activities to locations with less stringent policies, undermining overall effectiveness (Lutsey and Sperling 2008).

Macro-institutions can also shape the balance of negotiating power between social actors. Thus China’s more corporatist approach to state-business relations is proposed to produce manufacturing-centered policies, in contrast to Brazil’s focus on public-private partnerships that provided sectoral success in promoting wind power development but were less successful in solar PV (Hochstetler and Kostka 2015). Here, the state is identified both as a set of rules and as an actor with interests in shaping climate-related energy policy.

There is thus tremendous heterogeneity in the preferences of business about energy-related climate policies, which remains open for scholarly investigation. A key area of fruitful research identifies how actors can use different institutional arrangements strategically to overcome resistance to the implementation of more stringent policies (Meckling and Nahm 2018). Governing parties, for example, have actively designed climate-related policy instruments to ensure successful passage into legislation. One policy instrument, the feed-in tariff, which provides a guaranteed return on investment for investors in renewable energy sources, has proven effective at spurring renewable energy deployment. It is also useful politically, however, because rural constituents are able to benefit from renewable energy investments, which can be electorally beneficial (Bayer and Urpelainen 2016).

Transnationalism and the Politics of Energy and Climate Change

The Paris Agreement on climate change, negotiated under the UNFCCC, institutionalized a new approach to international cooperation by introducing common obligations for developed and developing states and committing governments to an iterative pledge-and-review process.

The ubiquity of energy use in climate change–related emissions means national determined contributions (NDCs) made by governments under the Paris Agreement, although stated as commitments to alter GHG emissions levels relative to baseline, have enormous implications for states’ energy policies. The specific policy instruments applied to achieve national commitments are left in the hands of national governments, meaning domestic factors are key in determining the level of states’ commitments under the Paris Agreement.4 The agreement thus gave primacy to national politics as the price for a more inclusionary agreement (Bodansky 2016).

The primacy of the UNFCCC-centered regime is also challenged by the proliferation of agreements between nongovernmental and subnational actors institutionalizing rules and practices promoting more stringent climate policies (Bulkeley et al. 2014). Transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are also increasing in diversity and number, leading to coordination challenges (Hadden 2015). In the energy sector, a consistent theme of studies on transnational cooperation is the existence of multiple, overlapping institutions (Goldthau and Witte 2010; Zelli and van Asselt 2013). Functionalist explanations for fragmentation point to the need for flexible and diverse forms of cooperation capable of incorporating different actors involved in energy policy and the various challenges presented by energy use in the context of economic development, security, and environmental challenges (Cherp, Jewell, and Goldthau 2011). Critics suggest that fragmentation in the international institutions promoting energy cooperation impedes cooperation, leaving governance gaps (Dubash and Florini 2011).

Multiple organizations promote cooperation in climate-related energy policy, including the International Energy Agency (Colgan, Keohane, and Van de Graaf 2012; Van de Graaf 2012), the G8 and G20 (Van de Graaf and Westphal 2011), the World Trade Organization (Lewis 2014), climate finance (Pickering, Jotzo, and Wood 2015), and the Sustainable Energy for All initiative (Rogelj et al. 2013). A key site of new and formal cooperation over climate-related energy policy is the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), created in 2009 with the goal of promoting renewable energy primarily in lower-income states, with a focus on capacity building and technological support. However, the creation of new, multilateral bodies focused on promoting international cooperation is increasingly rare (Urpelainen and Van de Graaf 2015).

Given the urgency of responding to climate change and the infrequency with which multilateral organizations are created, one expectation is that alternative forms of cooperation will emerge into the climate regime, incorporating different groups of actors and focusing on different aspects of the climate mitigation problem. A particular focus is cooperation between private actors in environmental governance, including in climate-related energy policy (Falkner 2003), and between private actors and governments in the form of public-private partnerships (Bäckstrand 2008). International cooperation also occurs through private forms of authority, as firms, NGOs, and other actors create standards that codify appropriate behavior (Green 2013). Technology-oriented international agreements focused on knowledge sharing; research, development, and deployment; technology transfer; and standards agreements constitute an additional form of private governance within the realm of climate-related energy policy (De Coninck et al. 2008). Greenhouse gas emissions trading systems have also diffused globally as a form of transnational carbon management (Paterson et al. 2014.

Aside from documenting the emergence and effectiveness of new regimes affecting climate-related energy policy choices, a crucial issue is improving understanding of the interactions and gaps that exist in this multiple, layered, and non-hierarchical regime (Falkner 2014). Interactions between energy and other environmental issues also suggest it is important to map the effects of forms of cooperation across a wider range of environmental issues (Green and Hale 2017). The enormous demand that energy systems commonly place on water resources suggest this as a particularly important area of research (Siddiqi and Anadon 2011). Finally, in all cases, the projected marginal demand growth in lower-income states favors a focus on the interaction of cooperation in development and climate-related energy policy.

Future Research Agenda: Development, Innovation, Negative Emissions, and Geoengineering

This discussion suggests that while there remain important political impediments to decarbonizing energy systems, the direction of change of climate-related energy policies is positive. The reality of a global carbon budget means, however, that the rate of change is crucial. Here, data are of greater concern. While renewable energy is growing rapidly, fossil fuels continue to dominate. More worrisome, the global consumption of fossil fuels is growing more rapidly than renewable energy is, when measured by the volume of energy used (Tollefson 2018).

In this section I introduce three areas of research that are understudied and are important for addressing these problems. The first focuses on the politics of climate-related energy policy in lower-income states, which dominate projected growth in energy demand in the coming decades. The second addresses the politics of energy-related innovation, which is a key factor affecting the more rapid deployment of better performing low-carbon technologies in the energy sector. Third, and finally, I address the politics of negative emissions and geoengineering. Integrated models suggest negative emissions will be required at scale if politics fails to deliver adequate emissions reductions.

Energy, Climate Change, and Development

This discussion has focused largely on findings on the politics of climate-related energy policy drawn from data in the high-income states. This group of states is overrepresented in the scholarly literature (Nordhaus 1995; Aklin and Urpelainen 2018). Yet a focus on developed economies alone is woefully inadequate in understanding the politics of climate-related energy policy (Hendrix 2017). China accounts for approximately half of global coal consumption and is the largest importer of crude oil. While total energy demand growth in China is projected to slow, it will continue to be crucial to global energy demand (International Energy Agency 2017). India has over three hundred million people lacking access to electricity, representing 14 percent of the global total (Byravan et al. 2017). There is thus a real need to integrate issues such as poverty into analyses of energy politics, in addition to the more traditional focuses on energy security of supply and environmental sustainability (Bazilian, Nakhooda, and Van de Graaf 2014). And it is as crucial to increase our understanding of how energy choices are affected by political variables in these states as it is for states in Southeast Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. The feasibility of decarbonization is likely to differ across sectors in India and elsewhere due to political factors, as it does in the high-income states, yet systematic knowledge about the factors affecting climate-related energy choices remains limited (Busby and Shidore 2017). (For an analysis of energy politics in emerging markets and lower-income states, see Huda and Ali [Asia-Pacific region], Powell [India], and Delina [sub-Saharan Africa], all in this volume.)

There are also reasons to expect the politics of climate-related energy policies to differ across states based on their economies and histories (Harrison and Kostka 2014. Returning to the role of individuals, one plausible hypothesis is that individuals in states with lower levels of income per capita weigh non-economic factors, such as responding to climate change, less than policies promoting economic growth, a finding referred to as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. By extension, levels of policy effort in lower-income states may be expected to be less than in high-income states, quite aside from the ethical responsibility of high-income states to shoulder a greater burden of climate mitigation costs. Emissions-intensive industries should also fall in importance through development as the services sector increases in size. There is also the most government ownership of energy firms in lower-income states. Although not tested, we can again posit that this change in industrial structure could have distinct political effects by weakening the relative influence of emissions-intensive industries in the design and implementation of climate-related energy policies.

Despite its plausibility, empirical evidence in support of the Environmental Kuznets Curve is mixed. While some relationship may exist for local particulates, this may not be generalizable to other forms of pollution, including CO2 and other GHGs. Evidence from China suggests that a distinct political logic may exist in which local governments that are more fiscally stable are in a position to enforce transparency around pollution, while those that are more fiscally constrained cannot (van der Kamp, Lorentzen, and Mattingly 2017). Understanding how individuals in India, China, and elsewhere weigh climate-related energy policy choices is thus an important area for research.

A second plausible difference between higher-income and other states is the political implications of energy infrastructure investments. Carbon lock-in means governments in higher-income states must transform existing infrastructure toward less carbon-intensive technologies. Governments of lower-income states, in contrast, can focus in part on meeting rising demand for energy services by supporting investment in new energy-related infrastructure. Given these distinctions, we can plausibly expect companies that have existing infrastructure invested in carbon-intensive technologies to oppose policies that undermine the value of those assets more intensely than companies that have yet to invest in building infrastructure in meeting new demand.

A clear trend in terms of this investment is toward increasing electrification, with electricity continuing to increase as a share of energy consumption. An important question is whether electrification in lower-income states will follow the path of the high-income states by relying on carbon-intensive fossil fuels provided through centralized electricity grids, or whether it will leapfrog carbon-intensive technologies (Stram 2016). Here, there is some room for optimism. South Asia, for example, has seen growth in grid-scale and decentralized renewable energy—in the form of solar PVs—utilized to improve energy access (Palit 2013). Renewable energy auctions have also been employed across a large number of lower-income states as a way of promoting lower carbon development (Rio 2017).

The politics surrounding these choices remain poorly understood. What is certain, however, is that the range of choices and possibilities is too complex to be understood as a simple trade-off between economic growth and environmental concerns. One solution for expanding energy access while limiting carbon emissions growth, for example, is to deploy distributed power generation systems that are substantially powered by solar PVs, although rural energy demand remains low on a household basis (Ulsrud et al. 2011). Here, studies suggest rural communities are willing to pay a higher price for electricity if reliability can be increased at peak times (Graber et al. 2018). There are clearly also important distributional issues at stake. Different rates of improved energy access, for example, could increase levels of inequality between those households that are able to afford access to energy and those that are not, with implications for long-term decarbonization pathways that remain unclear (Van Gevelt 2016). In sum, understanding the politics of climate-related energy politics is crucial to the decarbonization agenda, and there remain numerous opportunities for research.

Energy Innovation and Climate Change

Integrated assessment models (IAMs) suggest that meeting climate targets without relying on NETs, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), requires rapid and broad change, such as the widespread electrification of energy use and rapid deployment of best-available technologies (van Vuuren et al. 2018). Spurring innovation that improves the performance and lowers the costs of low-carbon technologies is an important policy option available to policy makers in promoting more rapid decarbonization. Governments increasingly understand that pursuing green growth strategies in the energy sector is important (REN21 2017). An important question that follows is what political variables affect rates of innovation and deployment of new low-carbon technologies.

Carbon taxes, which increase the cost of carbon-intensive fuels, are commonly proposed as an effective and efficient policy response to climate change. Taxes can also induce firms to innovate in order to reduce consumption of the taxed fuel relative to alternatives (Popp 2002, Calel and Dechezlepretre 2016). While carbon pricing may be feasible and durable politically (Rabe 2018), governments also commonly employ other policies (REN21 2018). One reason may be that policy instruments such as direct subsidies have attractive political features. Subsidies, for example, are likely to be supported by the beneficiaries, while costs remain generalized. This positive political characteristic is an explanation for the success of the feed-in-tariff, which provides a fixed rate of return for investors in renewable energy while commonly distributing costs among households. Such political benefits, in addition to economic efficiency, effectiveness, or other factors, can justify the use of non-price-based policies (Hepburn 2006).

Non-price-based policy instruments have other attractive features. Political leaders commonly appeal to the job and growth benefits of investing in low-carbon technologies. Research and development, and deployment policies that promote the early adoption of new innovations, for example, may provide increased export opportunities (Beise and Rennings 2005; Iyer 2016). The creation of lead markets for low-carbon innovations may also cause a “California Effect,” providing an incentive for governments in other jurisdictions to follow suit (Vogel 1997). There is evidence that such an effect exists in automobile emissions standards (Perkins and Neumayer 2012).

More broadly, the transnational effects of green industrial policies supporting sustainable energy transitions remain an important area of research (Meckling and Hughes 2018). There is a question, for example, about whether national competitive advantages created through policies promoting low-carbon innovation are durable. Danish wind power companies were early leaders in promoting wind power technology; however, their competitive position is threatened (Iyer 2016). Chinese producers dominate the production of solar PV modules, despite early German leadership (Hughes and Meckling 2017). As renewable energy industries become increasingly transnational, competition is emerging as an important feature of the politics surrounding climate-related energy policies, with the potential to weaken domestic coalitions supporting low carbon transitions. Innovation systems themselves are increasingly globalized, with patterns of integration affected by government policies as well as technological characteristics (Nahm 2017). Differences in innovation systems can also create complementarities between companies headquartered in different states. Thus, rather than being in direct competition, the German and Chinese solar PV industries co-evolved through the exploitation of comparative advantages (Quitzow 2015). Better understanding of this interaction among politics, innovation, and the characteristics of technologies can lay the foundations for more transformative and politically robust climate-related energy policies (Schmidt and Sewerin 2017).

Negative Emissions and Geoengineering Technologies

Current trends in energy consumption show the global response to climate change is inadequate. Reflecting this, climate models increasingly depend on NETs, such as BECCS, in developing scenarios that keep mean global temperature increases within a 2 degree Celsius limit (Rogelj et al. 2018; Fridahl and Lehtveer 2018). Lomax et al. (2015) argue that one implication of this is that researchers should increase attention to the policy and technology options that are available to remove GHGs from the atmosphere at the scale required to limit warming to acceptable levels.

If we accept that political constraints exist to the deployment of new technologies, then it is important to integrate political factors into analyses of different negative emissions options, such as BECCS, direct air capture, CO2 sequestration, monitoring, utilization, and others (Fuss et al. 2014). There is a wide range of NETs, and many remain niche, or unproven, making them difficult to study. Governments have also been found to prioritize BECCS lower than other emissions technologies (Haikola, Hansson, and Fridahl 2018). Social science has a crucial role to play in investigating public understanding and acceptance of NETs, the barriers to deployment and scaling up, and their potential social and political implications (Buck 2016). A number of political and social barriers to the development and deployment of BECCS at scale have already been identified, including competition from alternative technologies, the need for an effective carbon price to make it cost competitive, the potential for conflicts over land use, and potential opposition from social groups (Bellamy and Healey 2018).

Preliminary analyses point to substantial variation in the extent to which political factors are likely to limit deployment (McLaren 2012). In the case of the deployment of biofuels as part of BECCS, for example, distributional and other issues have been identified that are worthy of attention (Rhodes and Keith 2008; Buck 2016). An examination of key carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects globally suggests that public opinion has had an important effect on progress in some cases, and that there are also differences in the methods used to incorporate the various community, public, and private organizations with interests in the projects (Markusson, Ishii, and Stevens 2011). Honegger and Reiner (2018) find that political factors can represent important impediments to scaling up NETs, even if adequate financial incentives are put in place.

Regardless, engagement across interdisciplinary boundaries represents a crucial task for understanding the possibilities for NETs (Tavoni and Socolow 2013). The International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions, held in 2018, began the process of laying the groundwork for consideration of the technical, political, and social issues involved in effectively using NETs, and it is important for public policy scholars and political scientists to contribute to this work (Chalmers University of Technology 2018).

Finally, depending on our success in responding to the challenge of rapidly decarbonizing energy production and use globally, the politics of geoengineering will increase in importance. Here, preliminary evidence suggests that there is little support for deployment of climate engineering technologies among publics, who fear the potential for large environmental costs. This raises the question of how geoengineering might be deployed if faced with widespread public opposition.

There remains a broad research agenda in understanding attitudes toward geoengineering across both high- and lower-income states, as well as how businesses and governments understand the development and deployment of different geoengineering technologies and what this means for their likely adoption (Wibeck et al. 2017). Game theoretic work also strongly suggests that intergovernmental coordination will be crucial. Countries that suffer from climate change may resort to the unilateral deployment of geoengineering technologies such as solar radiation management (SRM). If the unilateral use of SRM adversely affects countries bearing less significant climate change costs, however, this could lead to retaliation through economic means or through the deployment of technologies designed to negate the effects of the initial deployment of SRM (Heyen, Horton, and Moreno-Cruz 2019). Given such challenges, five principles have been proposed as the basis for governing its study, centered on the regulation of geoengineering as a public good, the importance of public participation in decision-making, the transparent disclosure of research, the independent assessment of geoengineering, and the need to build governance structures prior to any deployment (Rayner et. al. 2013).


The author thanks Michaël Aklin, Jonas Meckling, Jonas Nahm, Leah Stokes, Johannes Urpelainen, and two anonymous reviewers and the editors for helpful comments and suggestions.


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(1.) Emphasis in original. “Extremely likely” expresses a confidence level of 95 to 100 percent (IPCC 2014, 2).

(2.) There is a large literature on public opinion about climate change–related policies. I focus here on findings on public opinion specific to the energy sector.

(3.) Increasing the efficiency of energy consumption, on the other hand, can lead to an increase in demand (“the rebound effect”), as a result of a decrease in the effective price for energy services (Greening et al. 2000; Vivanco et al. 2016).

(4.) This section is limited to reviewing key themes in forms of international cooperation specifically designed to facilitate climate-related energy policy coordination. For a review of developments under the Paris Agreement within the UNFCCC, see Viñuales et al. (2017). [FIXED]