"Can the transition to a sustainable future be locally led?" – Some sundry thoughts.

Yesterday, I was given four in-cohesive minutes to respond to the question, "Can the transition to a sustainable future can be locally led?".  You can check out a video of my talk here.  As far as I can remember, this is what I said:

First off, an observation: from a climate change mitigation point of view, it's not going particularly well.  At least, if the yardstick of (dis-)progress is to be measured by human greenhouse gas emissions (the size of the actual flux of CO2 into the atmosphere).

Second off, let's consider what the alternative to 'locally-led' solutions would look like.  Taken at the extreme, we would be talking about international ('top-down') climate policy.  On that front, in terms of raw mitigation power, little progress has been booked since Montreal in 1987 – a Protocol that wasn't even about CO2!  I should also add, cheekily, that in my experience those putting their eggs in this particular basket sometimes have little experience of what the inside of the Big Bad World of Business looks like ...

Question: at what stage are we guilty of naivety in entrusting 'the solution' to COP-style international legislation?  At what point will we have to conclude that we are left with local solutions simply through a process of elimination?

Thirdly, I want to provide five provocative observations about 'locally-led' solutions to challenge some assumptions that may otherwise be implicit to discussions:

Observation 1: A paucity of good science, or good data, is not the problem.

Observation 2: The absence of policy, or dysfunctional policy, can enable local innovation.

Sometimes, local innovation springs up because there is no pre-existing policy, or because existing policy leaves room for local solutions.  Examples include the wellspring of village pico-hydro generation in the highlands of south-east Asia, and the rich 'Darwinian' landscape of community energy business models in the UK.

Observation 3: Ambitious climate policy can hinder local solutions.

We should not take it for granted that ambitious climate policy necessarily fosters local solutions.  Scotland, for instance, has famously ambitious decarbonisation- and emissions-reductions- targets for 2020.  I have argued* that this has led to policy favouring the roll-out of large-scale, commercially-driven renewable energy generation over local- and community alternatives.

Observation 4: There is mounting tension between the climate change and conservation agendas.

I am increasingly concerned about a particular opportunity cost of (current unsuccessful) climate change policy: 'old-school' conservation.  Huge resources – time, money and collective attention – are being plowed into climate change.  Much of this is falling into what I call 'the measurability trap': academics and policymakers alike prefer to be able to easily measure things, which pulls resources and policy towards kilowatt hours and carbon-per-square metre, and away from things like old-fashioned biodiversity and ecosystem services.  Just one example: healthy forests are being replanted with short rotation coppice mono-plantations to feed the growing international wood biofuel sector.  And everyone knows what palm oil is doing to the Indonesian rainforest.

Final thought: 'Transition'

'Transition' is a tempting word to use for what present and impending circumstances call for.  It sounds gradual and controlled.  It calls to mind technocratic, managed processes towards a new tomorrow.  I would suggest that we must be open to the possibility that any 'transition' to a sustainable future may have to be disruptive.  This because of the nature of the challenges at hand, and the fact that current energy infrastructure and -institutions may well not be amenable to a gradual shift fit towards a more decentralised architecture.  The real question to ask is perhaps: will this disruptive change be driven by the force of necessity, or something else?


* Slee & Harnmeijer (in press), 'Community Renewables in Scotland'), In: Wood, G., Baker, K. (Eds.) ‘A Critical Review of Scottish Renewable and Low Carbon Energy Policy: Implications of the Independence Debate’, Pelgrave Macmillan.