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Exploring the governance of climate change technologies

By Guest Blogger, on 24 November 2011

Alexandra Malone, Research Assistant at UCL Laws, reports.

Reducing the carbon footprint of our energy supply and finding ways we can use less energy are crucial to moving to a low-carbon economy. Technologies such as wind, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) can help on the supply side, while energy efficiency technologies can help us reduce our demand. But is technological innovation alone enough to successfully transition to a low-carbon world?

This was the question debated on 23 November at a seminar entitled, ‘Going Low-Carbon: The governance of climate change technologies’, put on by UCL Public Policy and the UCL Centre for Law and the Environment. Having recently blogged about another UCL event on public engagement and CCS, I was interested in exploring the governance debate for a broader range of technologies.

The task of the seminar’s four panellists, as described by panel chair, Professor Yvonne Rydin (UCL Bartlett School of Planning and Director, UCL Environment Institute), was to consider the appropriate means of governing the various technologies that are emerging to meet the UK’s greenhouse gas reduction commitments. One of the main aspects of governance that emerged from the seminar was the role of public participation in making decisions about low-carbon technologies.

Professor Maria Lee (UCL Laws) presented an overview of the relevance of the governance question, explaining that while technology is understandably expected to make an important contribution to meeting climate change objectives, it is impossible to separate technology from its social and economic implications.

Currently, there is a strong focus on the financial incentives for these technologies, with other important governance issues taking a backseat. She cautioned that in a rush to implement low-carbon technologies to address the urgent nature of climate change, we risk missing the lessons we have learned about the complexities of governing technologies.

Dr Simon Lock (UCL Science and Technology Studies) reinforced many of the points Professor Lee raised about public participation, for example, public engagement processes are sometimes viewed as a barrier to technology deployment. He described a number of false assumptions in the way public attitude towards wind energy is viewed, citing examples such as ambiguous statistics about public support for wind. His main message was that public opposition is perpetually mischaracterized as NIMBYism, when in reality it is much more complex and is impacted by a wide range of social, economic, and behavioural factors.

Chiara Armeni (UCL Laws) presented a case study of CCS, a technology that has encountered public opposition at the individual project level as well as criticism of the amount of public financial support earmarked for demonstration projects. She highlighted the political aspect of governance, namely, the need for long-term political will to create and implement supportive financial and social policies to enable the deployment of climate change technologies.

Professor Tadj Oreszczyn (Director of UCL Energy Institute) spoke about the importance of energy efficiency technologies in domestic buildings and the significant contribution that these technologies are expected to make towards carbon reductions in the UK. He noted that despite the ready availability of the technologies and the introduction of building regulations, there has not been a drop in domestic energy use over the past few decades.

Moving forward, the challenge is to deploy the appropriate technologies in 24 million UK dwellings within a complex socio-economic system, a task he said “will not be easy or cheap, but easier and cheaper than not doing it”. He stressed the importance of verifying the reduction in energy use from efficiency gains and finding ways to make sure people don’t apply these gains to consume more energy, by applying governance tools like regulation and price signals.

The audience was keen to engage with the panellists during the Q&A session, provoking discussion about the definition of governance and its purpose, about the role of different levels of government choosing climate change technology, and about the interaction of various networks of stakeholders with the public engagement process.

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