Coping with decarbonisation: the impact of elite power constellations on social responses to low carbon transitions
Decarbonisation efforts are forcing rapid whole-systems transitions in carbon-intensive regions. Local economies built up around coal, oil and gas are experiencing systemic disruptions in employment, and also in related social relationships, identities and institutions. In the face of this disruption, actors are coping with change in different ways. The “coping strategies” pursued by different actors depend upon who they are, the capacities that they have available to them, and the context in which they are embedded. However, in these situations, identities, capacities and contexts are in flux.
This contribution present findings from a global inventory cataloguing the coping strategies that actors undertake in response to decarbonisation efforts in carbon-intensive regions. Our analysis examines how decarbonisation is (re)shaping who is considered “elite” and how elite power is being exercised in ways that can either support or hinder overall decarbonisation. Coping strategies in the inventory are characterised according to who is doing the coping, how the action (or non-action) is targeted, and what is being pursued.
In order to determine who is coping, we make use of Avelino and Wittmayer’s ((2016) Multi-actor Perspective to classify actors as individuals, organisations or sectors who can operate at different levels, using different business models. To identify how the action is targeted, we build upon Axsen and Kurani’s (2012) typology of intended benefits. This is a matrix of actions intended to benefit either private interests or the collective, and characterised as either functional (i.e. things people “do”) or symbolic (i.e. things people “say”). To account for the contribution to decarbonisation, strategies are further classified as “supporting” or “hindering” of decarbonisation efforts. To classify what is being pursued, we group outcomes into broad categories (e.g. social, political) based on Sovacool et al (2020). We also note whether strategies are intended to adapt to changing conditions, resist changes, or if they try to modify or transform conditions (O’Brien 2012), and the intended timescale of impact.
Results, still preliminary at this point, reveal that early in transitions, elites with national and supranational reach usually resist change and try to prolong investment in fossil fuels. As transitions progress, these policy and business elites tend to support strategies that perpetuate the structural conditions associated with status quo institutional and socioeconomic conditions, through adaptive strategies that replace or compensate for carbon-intensive activities with lower carbon industrial activity (e.g. renewables installations, retraining workers for other industrial sectors). However, there are some elite actors, mostly at supra- and subnational scales who support transformative strategies that are more disruptive, but that better address injustices associated with the transition process (e.g. the development of local government-owned renewables installations; the establishment of energy communities).
The connections we map across actors, will help enhance our understanding of how different actions are emerging, and the ways in which equitable, socially sustainable approaches to decarbonisation can be best supported.