Lessons from Historical Energy Transitions for Addressing Climate Change and Sustainable Development

Date: 22 Mar 2012
Speaker(s): Arnulf Grubler
Venue: University of Leeds

Part of the CCCEP / SRI seminar series 2011-2012

The ‘grand’ history of past energy transitions is examined for recurrent patterns and drivers and their implications climate change protection and green growth policies.

Four policy lessons stand out:

  1. Energy end-use and efficiency are key, as are tangible consumer benefits from the diffusion of new energy technologies, suggesting an important area of policy priority.
  2. Innovation in a wide sense, comprising both technological as well as institutional/organisational dimensions, are important drivers of transitions and need to be leveraged in a systemic way to invoke their potential powerful feedback effects between technological innovation, improved economics, costumer as well as wider societal and ‘green growth’ benefits.
  3. Given inevitable deep uncertainty, in both the climate system as well as in technological innovation, a risk hedging and portfolio management approach needs to complement more traditional policy approaches and modelling efforts. The analysis of ‘optimal’ transition pathways towards sustainability needs to be complemented by crafting ‘robust’ transition strategies and ensuing adaptive policy frameworks.
  4. A systemic historical analysis reveals powerful patterns of change which constitute both opportunities and constraints in triggering a ‘next’ energy transition. Regularities include the dynamics of scaling-up of individual technologies, as well as that of entire industries (which require prolonged periods of market experimentation and can take several decades); the influence of the nature of technology on experimentation and learning (ie improvement) potentials of new technologies favouring, smaller-scale, granular technologies; and, finally, considerable advantages for late adopters that can shortcut the often lengthy diffusion process of early innovators.

Date and location: 22 March, University of Leeds