The Urbane Ecologist

Meadowcroft (2009) – “What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long-term energy transitions”

“What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long-term energy transitions.”

Meadowcroft, J.

Policy Science

vol. 42, no. 4, Designing Long-Term Policy (November 2009), pp. 323-340


  • “Governance for sustainable development is about reforming practices of socio-political governance to encourage shifts toward a more environmentally sustainable and equitable pattern of development (WCED 1987; Lafferty 2004a,b); two notable features of this
    • implies a notion of social “steering” that accepts that our capacities to anticipate/determine the future are severely limited; even in the face of radical uncertainty/indeterminacy attempts to:
      • orient development to attain desirable soc objectives and avoid serious pitfalls
      • protect vulnerable groups that may suffer from unfolding pattern of change
      • reform social institutions to better cope with future
    • “interactive” – involves collective discovery of preferred social development pathways
  • both features have “reflexivity” at their center – the capacity for continuous and self-conscious societal reflection, assessment, and readjustment
  • widely recognized that reforming socio-tech systems, which underpin production and consumption patterns in core secotrs (ag, transport, energy) is essential if human activities are to be brought back within ecological boundaries (IPCC 2007; MEA 2006)
    • Netherlands – notions of “transition management” have been taken up by Dutch government


Perspective of transition management

  • core of “transition mgmt.” is challenge of orienting long-term change in large socio-technical systems
    • “transitions”
      • process of structural change in major societal subsystems +established technologies
      • involve shift in dominant “rules of the game”
      • mvt from one dynamic equilibrium to another, stretching over several generations (25-50 years)
    • “management” — conscious effort to guide transitions along desirable pathways
    • roots in systems theory, evolutionary economics, integrated assessment
  • Kemp and Rotmans (2005) – transition management is “a deliberate attempt to bring about structural change in a stepwise manner”
  • transition theory emphasizes involvement of key stakeholders in specific sector to define multiple visions of future, each of which would realize important collectively defined goals; transition experiments (novel social and technological practices) can be organized to try out pathways to these desirable futures
    • g. in energy – goals would be “safety”, “reliability”, “affordability”, carbon-neutrality
    • visions could be articulated around alternative futures for a carbon-netural energy supply system such as the “status quo”, “the hydrogen society” or the “all-electric society”
    • these options would need to be fleshed out in terms of social and technical dimensions (Kemp and rotmans 2005)
  • notion of evolutionary change important in transition management – deliberate encouragement of “variation” (through experimentation) and use of selective pressures (both market and politics) to determine winners and influence future devt trajectories; some authors have called it Darwinistic; it doesn’t rely on planning
  • as a theory transition mgmt. has a modular structure i.e. several elements combine to produce the whole
    • image of transition dynamic with focus on movement from one equilibrium to another
    • three level analytical hierarchy of “niche”, “regime”, “landscape”
    • future oriented visioning devices – goals, visions, pathways, and intermediate objectives
    • practical focus for activities (arenas and experiments0
    • broad “Philosophy of governance” that emphasizes decision-making in conditions of uncertainty
    • gradual adjustment of existing development pathways in light of long term goals
  • transition mgmt. has been presented as alternative to established governance approaches b/c addresses probs of both planning/control approach and economic incentives (Kemp and Rotmans 2005)
    • econ incentives too weak and too general to promote system innovation
    • planning is disruptive by failing to include multitude of microconcerns at decentralized level
  • pros of transition management
    • making future more clearly manifest in current decisions
      • adopting longer time frames
      • exploring alternative trajectories
      • opening avenues for system innovation
    • transforming established practices in critical societal subsystems
    • developing interactive processes – networks of actors implicated in particular production/consumption nexus can come together, develop shared problem definitions, appreciate differing perspectives, develop practical activities
    • linking technological and social innovation
    • “learning by doing”
    • Darwinism
  • cons of transition management
    • extent to which it is actually possible to “manage” the type of large scale socio-technical transitions with which we are concerned
    • extent to which it is possible to consciously shape course of future societal evolution
    • here discussion centers on 3 issues:
      • difficulties specifying the character of desired “transitions”
      • “lock in” and hard choices for decision-makers
      • practical experience with transition management in Netherlands


Transitions and systems

  • “transition” implies gradual change and promises eventual closure, but difficult to say which systems are interesting, what sort of transition they should undergo, the boundaries of the system, the dimension of change, etc – politically charged
  • one way to approach this problem is to start with acute societal problems and then attempt to determine the parameters of the implicated system(s) and transitions(s) (Meadowcroft 2005)
  • transition management is content to define the subsystems in broad terms (e.g. energy, agriculture) but is agnostic about precise character of required transition, idea being that in the beginning we just want broad acceptance that some form of change is needed – this is useful for a legitimate government intervention, but policy-makers or others with power can end up deciding the process
  • Energy system can be characterized in multiple ways and associated with different development trajectories, energy technologies, policy interventions, for example:
    [[Which one is SA?]]
From To Implications
Fossil fuel based/dominated system Non-fossil fuel based/dominated system Fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage would play a limited/transitional role
Carbon emitting Carbon neutral  
Non-renewable Renewable No nuclear power
Insecure/vulnerable Secure/robust  
Centralized energy provision Decentralized energy provision  

Can understand them as nested – e.g. Carbon emitting à carbon neutral is party of fossil fuel-based à non fossil fuel based; can pursue two together or two sequentially

  • In practice, priorities for policy support would have to be established, and choices would have to be made that ultimately favor some pattern of system evolution over others
  • Geels and Schot (2007) – four potential individual transition pathways, w/ interaxn of “landscape”, “regime”, “niches”
    • transformation
    • de-alignment and re-alignment
    • technological substitution
    • re-configuration – product of disruptive landscape change; involves complex sequence of transition pathways as regime actors struggle to adjust to growing pressures; authors hypotheiseze that should climate change be such a disruptive landscape change, the result would be such a “sequence of transition paths in transport and energy regimes”
  • systems nested into each other
  • open-ended process – each generation takes decisions about goals it wants to pursue and about respect for ecological limits



  • modern fossil fuel economy displays characteristics of mature sociotechnical domain à result is “lock in” a fossil fuel based energy system and “locking out” of “alternative carbon saving technologies” (Unruh 2000)
    • close integration among components of hydrocarbon industry (exploration, extraction, transport, combustion, retail)
    • interdependence with support and supply enterprises (finance, insurance, maintenance, equipment manufacture, training, research)
    • co-evolution with other functional subsystems (chemical indust, elec distri, transport, ag production)
    • broader patterns of human activity and settlement (design of cities, patterns of int’l trade)
  • to address “lock-in” systems management suggests policy makers should pursue two objective simultaneously:
    • “system improvement” – incremental adjustments to existing practices to address perceived problems
    • “system innovation” – experiments with fundamental adjustments to “dominant designs”
    • rationale: system improvement is enough b/c problem is less acute or adaptive potential of established tech is greater than anticipated
    • ambiguity has several advantages
      • society can benefit immediately from incremental improvements, and if these are adequate, challenges of system change can be avoided
      • incumbents prodded to resolve problems by threat of emerging alternatives, but not so alarmed that mobilize to resist transition initiatives
      • portfolio of alternative approaches can be nurtured and acquire strength
    • but claim of “neutrality” between two options is misleading – if belif that old technologies would not deliver, then there would be no need for transition mgmt.
  • key element of above strategy is promotion of “hybrid technologies and two-world technologies” – system improvements that act as stepping stone to system innovation (Kemp and Rotmans 2005)
    • but how do we determine which technologies only fit into existing system and which are transformative? g. catalytic converter helped reduce Nox emissions, but increased energy use and didn’t deal with social and econ problems related to car use; “technical fixes are no solutions to complex social problems” (Kemp and Rotmans 2005); e.g. carbon capture and storage (CCS) (which could even intensify “carbon lock-in” BUT could also be stepping stone to clean hydrogen economy (Simbeck 2004) and this could in turn be the stepping stone for greener tech; hydrogen would also be an excellent storage and transport medium for new renewables, thus accelerating their uptake [[has this been done for wind and solar?]]
    • many technologies ultimately exploited in areas far from initial application
  • [[is above what renewable energy tech in SA is?]
  • [does SA govt even want to manage a transition? need to look at their climate change policies, etc]]


Energy transition management in the Netherlands

  • initiative in energy sector in Netherlands led by Ministry of Economic Affairs
  • initial steps
    • consultation with stakeholders
    • development of long range energy scenarios
    • selection of key themes to ensure “clean, affordable, and secure” energy supply
    • transition platforms established to elaborate more detailed visions around 6 themes (chain efficiency, green resources, new gas, sustainable mobility, sustainable electricity, built environment) and to identify “transition pathways” to realize these visions
    • funding for many “transition experiments” proposed by different combos of stakeholders
  • 2005 – governance of process formalized through steering committee “Taskforce Energy Transition” and interdepartmental coordinating committee that included reps from 6 implicated ministries
  • assessment of impacts of initiatives offered by various analysis
    • Kemp et al. 2007 – emphasize positive impacts of transition management with respect to five problems that beset steering for sustainability: “dissent and ambivalence about goals”, “dealing with uncertainty”, “distributed control”, “political myopia”, “determination of short-term steps for long-term change”, “danger of lock-in” [[would using a framework developed by Dutch people be appropriate in case of SA? neo-colonial? or apt b/c Dutch are big business partners in renewable energy tech?]]
      • review of transition program generally positive BUT it also differs from model of transition management in several ways
        • outsiders barely involved; process dominated by regime actors
        • demand-side issues and wider issues of societal embedding neglected [[not true for SA b/c renewable energy tech = elec = societal development AKA edu, health, etc?]]
        • little attention paid to integrated system analysis and problem structuring
      • Loorbach (2007) – program didn’t begin with fundamental reflection on sustainability problems of energy system
        • it was a scenario-based modeling exercise
        • main concern is encouraging business innovation and developing markets in sustainable energy products
        • civil society organizations ignored
        • consumption issues ignored
        • dominated by regime actors – chairman is CEO of Shell Netherlands
        • vision is not inspiring societal agenda developed through bottom-up consultations, but just accelerated business-as-usual model [[is 30% economic development part of REIPPPP addressing this? or does it need more? how can SA avoid this?]]
        • this raises question of how to “transitionize” regular energy policy making
      • Kern and Smith (2008) – multilevel perspective
        • at “niche level” selection criteria for themes, platforms and experiments “unduly neglect social and institutional innovation and accentuate marketable technological fixes”
        • at “regime level” participants mainly drawn from established players such as large energy companies “not opening existing energy policy networks to broader societal and democratic debate”
        • at “landscape level” “liberalization and Europeanization” continue to be main political drivers of energy policy”
        • conclusion: transitional management has had only marginal impacts on energy policy and dominant energy regime
        • criticize transition management enthusiasts for being overly optimistic about the possibilities of displacing the existing regime, and for neglecting the political and power dimensions of transitions


Politics and Political Processes

  • politics and political processes at heart of governance for sustainable development
  • transition mgmt. closely associated with certain kinds of policy instrument—sector-based collective visioning exercises, collaborative and experimental projects, state expenditure to promote networking and innovation in tech and practices
    • but also have more traditional policy tools including regulation, planning and tax-based instruments
  • transition management not primarily concerned with political interactions through which societal goals are determined and revised, collective decisions enforced, and resources authoritiative allocated
    • it starts from socially formulated goals and then explores possibilities for system improvement and system innovation w/ networks of implicated actors
    • maintaining public support for transition program is among challenges that transition managers have to address (Rotmans et al., 2001)
    • but establishment of societal agreement around common goals, negotiation of trade=offs among potentially competing objectives & groups, distribution of resources, and enforcement of decisions come outside of transition management
    • but at same time, defining goals isn’t strictly separate from attaining them…


Selection and Reflexivity

  • “selection” not objective, but made and remade by many actors, therefore expecting things to win out by “selection” isn’t everything
  • Dutch energy transition critics and proponents both say “reflexivity” is in short supply, but this isn’t a surprise; policy directions, even those that espouse change, openness, participation, are not outside of orbit of econ and polit power. transition-management-in-practice looks more like policy-as-usual than transition-management-in-theory
  • reflexivity in governance for SD should be property of governance system as a whole, not special product of transition forums [how strong is SA civ society?]
  • don’t get too hung up on “system change”
    • critics like Kern and Smith seem to be concerned that the only thing that matters is really dramatic change and overturning big system
    • but if in the end the societal problem is solved, is that so bad?
    • lock in and equilibrium are two sides of the same coin
    • on the one hand, the energy sector will not really have undergone authentic “system change” without functioning on the basis of RE, but on the other hand, widespread deployment of CCS is system change


References included in notes:


Geels,F ., & Schot,J .( 2007). Typologyo f sociotechnicaltr ansitionpa thways. ResearchP olicy,3 6, 399^17.


Kemp,R ., & Rotmans, J. (2005). The managementof the co-evolutiono f technical, environmental and social systems.In M. Weber& J.H emmelskemp(E ds.), Towardse nvironmentalinn ovationsy stems. Berlin:S pringer.


Kern,F ., & Smith, A. (2008). Restructuringene rgys ystems fors ustainability?En ergyt ransitionpo licyi n theN etherlands.En ergyP olicy,3 6, 4093^103.


Loorbach,D . (2007). Transitionm anagement: New mode of governancef or sustainabled evelopment. Utrecht:In ternationalBo oks.


Meadowcroft, J. (2005). Environmentalpo liticale conomy,t echnological transitionsan d the state.N ew PoliticalE conomy, 10, 479^98.


Lafferty, W. (2004a). Governancefo rs ustainabled evelopment:Th ec hallengeo fa daptingf ormt of unction. Cheltenham:Ed wardE lgar. Lafferty, W. (2004b). From environmentalpr otectiont o sustainabled evelopment: The challengeo f decouplingt hroughse ctorali ntegration. InW.


Lafferty(E d.), Governance for sustainabled evelop-ment. Cheltenham:Ed wardE lgar


Rotmans, J.,K emp,R ., & van Asselt,M . (2001). Moree volutiont hanr evolution:tr ansition managementin publicp olicy.F oresight, 3, 15-31.


Simbeck, D. R. (2004). CO2 capturea nd storage -thee ssential bridget o theh ydrogenec onomy. Energy, 29, 1633-1641


Unruh, G. (2000). Understandingcar bonl ock-in. EnergyP olicy,2 8, 817-830.


WCED. (1987). Our commonfu ture. Worldc ommissionon environment and development.Ox ford: Oxford UniversityPr ess

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