Profound policy change as messy, complex and multi-directional: UK Energy Policy in Transition

Caroline Kuzemko
Caroline Kuzemko

Caroline Kuzemko, from the University of Exeter, discusses her article Measuring and explaining policy paradigm change: the case of UK energy policy written with Florian Kern and Catherine Mitchell, which is published in the latest edition of Policy & Politics.

Across the social sciences a great many scholars are engaged in trying to understand policy and institutional change – not least within political science. One reason for mounting interest in change has been the growing awareness of anthropogenic climate change, of continued growth in global emissions and of what kinds of (varied) implications this might have for societies around the world.  Energy has received a great deal of attention, not least because current (fossil fuel) systems are responsible for high percentages of emissions globally but also because demand growth for various energy services is estimated to be sustained over many decades to come.  Across the many disciplines researching change in energy practices there is, however, a growing awareness that innovative governance is central to enabling profound change in current behaviours and in how we produce and use energy.

Many governments and associated organisations around the world claim leadership in climate change mitigation – the UK being foremost amongst them.  Such countries are often held up by international organisations as being examples of ‘best practice’.  In the late 1990s/early 2000s UK energy policy was still focused on establishing and maintaining freely trading, competitive markets.  There have, however, been substantial changes since then with new Bills and Acts of Parliament being passed on annual or bi-annual bases since the Climate Change Act of 2008. A new paper in October’s edition of Policy & Politics claims that these changes amount to a policy paradigm change in Peter Hall’s sense in UK energy policy.  This is not least because energy policy is now directed towards the new objective of achieving climate change mitigation, there is a newly formed Department of Energy and Climate Change, and a range of new policies directed at market redesign and at supporting renewables and energy efficiency.

What the paper, by Florian Kern, Caroline Kuzemko and Catherine Mitchell, also claims, however, is that the process through which change has taken place was highly complex and involved a range of different ideas about energy and climate change. Although the paper argues that perceptions of crisis triggered a need for large-scale policy change – including in government organisations – there was more than one important crisis narrative driving change.  Certainly climate change contestations of existing energy policy were influential in causing a political re-think of how energy is governed, but just as influential were narratives highlighting a geopolitical security of supply crisis.  Interestingly, over time climate protagonists drew upon some aspects of the energy security narrative to drive home arguments about the need for greater support of domestic renewable energy production.  Fears about energy security ultimately did result in a heavy re-emphasis on the objective of achieving energy supply security. The claim that multiple narratives drove profound policy and institutional change marks a contradiction with other sociological institutionalist concepts of change that focus on ONE crisis narrative successfully driving change.

The UK energy policy framework that has emerged a result of multiple drivers, however, is equally messy and incoherent. There are new sustainable energy policies but these must seek to affect practice alongside other policies that are focused on ensuring domestic energy supply security.  For example, although there are renewable energy support strategies so too are there a growing number of support systems being put in place for greater extraction of fossil fuels. Clearly one set of policies is designed to drive low carbon energy production whilst the other does the opposite in the name of energy supply security.  Not all climate and security policies are incompatible but some are.

These contradictions within UK energy policy, driven as it is towards both climate mitigation and supply security, are rarely commented upon or analysed but suggest that policy change driven by multiple narratives results in complex but not necessarily coherent policy mixes.  In addition, we argue in the paper that so far the change in energy policy paradigm has led to very little change in the structures of the energy system which is still dominated by fossil fuel technologies and a handful of incumbent companies with old business models.  In a way the mixed nature of the new energy policy model explains lack of practice change but we also argue that analysis needs to go beyond explaining policy paradigms by paying more attention to the outcomes of policy.

Given that UK sustainable energy policy has been held up as an example of best practice, these realities and contradictions bode badly for effective climate governance. As it happens governing for climate mitigation is new and unprecedented, but understanding more about how it interacts with existing energy (and economic) policy and with practices in energy systems is vital.

Caroline Kuzemko, based in the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter, is a part of a team called Innovation and Governance (IGov) investigating complex inter-relationships between modes of energy governance and innovative, sustainable change.

One thought on “Profound policy change as messy, complex and multi-directional: UK Energy Policy in Transition

  1. To the extent that nuclear energy has to be tapped to guarantee ‘energy supply security’, the nuclear plant has to have high reliability system against nuclear leaks. The Philippines mothballed one such supply line.

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