Beyond two-dimensional perspectives: Sustainable energy access as adaptation and mitigation?

Earlier this year, the Institute of Development Studies convened a one day meeting of scholars to discuss the emerging field of the politics of climate change adaptation. I study sustainable energy access, which doesn’t conventionally get counted as adaptation, so I wondered to what extent the politics of adaptation extends to the framing of sustainable energy access as somehow separate to adaptation. Are energy access and climate adaptation treated separately, and should they be?

The following thoughts represent my mental ramblings on this issue ahead of the workshop. I’m sharing them in case it’s of interest or use to others and in the hope that they might provoke some constructive, critical responses (even if that’s simply to tell me I’m wrong and that the adaptation literature does a good job of engaging with the energy access agenda already).

Sustainable energy access: beyond two-dimensional perspectives

As someone working mainly on sustainable energy access (within a broader context of technology, innovation and development), I haven’t read beyond the fringes of the adaptation literature. The fact that there’s a literature on the politics of adaptation (such as those papers circulated ahead of the IDS workshop and the work of others, including those attending), however, suggests that the adaptation literature has gone well beyond the mainstream energy access literature in addressing social and cultural issues.

Charging station

Image: Charging Station by Terrie Schweitzer on Flickr (cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Energy access studies have traditionally been, and to a large extent remain (with notable exceptions) dominated by a focus on technical and financial aspects of the problem (with attendant disciplinary biases towards engineering and economics). Work attending to socio-cultural dimensions is only just beginning to emerge. Work focussing on the politics of energy access is particularly thin on the ground.

This two-dimensional perspective has material implications for poor and marginalised people who lack access to clean, affordable and reliable energy. Billions of dollars spent on interventions supposedly aimed at improving energy access for poor people regularly fail. They systematically ignore the lived social practices that energy access might (or might not) facilitate. They also overlook the political economy of the specific contexts of the interventions.

Similar (and linked) to the two-dimensional preoccupation of research on sustainable energy access, are dominant policy narratives and attendant framings that play out at international levels, as we explore in our new book.

Widespread examples exist of the problem being defined (as with policy around climate technology, innovation and development more broadly) as a problem requiring more “Hardware Financing” (based on market failure rhetoric with roots in environmental economics). This has tended to favour the interests of rapidly emerging countries and international technology leading companies, whilst failing to deliver against the needs of poor and marginalised people, or countries.

There has also been an equally concerning recent shift by donors and intergovernmental organisations like the World Bank towards a new policy framing of the problem as one solvable via “Private Sector Entrepreneurship” – ergo the Climate Innovation Centres and recent experiments with innovation prizes. The latter framing is one that attempts to engage with adaptation as much as mitigation. Perhaps the “Hardware Financing” discourse is also one that plays out in the adaptation field – I’m not familiar enough to be able to comment, but would be interested to learn from others.

Beyond adaptation and mitigation

There are a couple of reasons these observations might be of interest to a discussion on the politics of adaption (with the attendant caveat that I may well be completely missing the fact, as a result of not knowing the literature, that others are already on top of this).

Firstly, there may well be parallels to draw, and mileage in exploring/critiquing, mainstream adaptation policy that focuses on technology and innovation from a similar perspective. As well as more overarching critiques from a STEPS pathways perspective, we’ve also learned from revisiting these problems from perspectives that attempt to build on socio-technical transitions work (e.g. Rolffs et al., 2016) and work on innovation systems (e.g. Ockwell and Byrne, 2015). But arguably the most interesting and under-developed aspect of our work to date (which we’re now focusing on) is the politics/political economy of both the processes we analyse, and the governance implications of subsequent policy recommendations we try to stick our necks out to make.

The second reason is that sustainable energy access is often framed as being mainly about mitigation, rather than adaptation. Perhaps I’m wrong, and the adaptation/resilience literature already firmly recognises the potential role that sustainable energy access might play in increasing poor and marginalised people’s resilience to climate and other external pressures. But it seems to be that sustainable energy access is seen largely as a mitigation as opposed to adaptation concern.

So, for example, low carbon energy is always boxed into a separate circle on Venn diagrams like those used by CDKN in attempting to define “climate compatible development”. Another example plays out at the level of our teaching at Sussex, where we convene separate modules as part of our MSc in Climate Change and Development:  a “low carbon development” module deals more with mitigation concerns (with a heavy focus on sustainable energy access) whilst a separate “climate resilient development” module focuses more on adaptation. But, no matter how critical a perspective we might adopt, our research and teaching on energy and climate has never properly intersected with the adaptation literature.

A (very) quick search of the literature only threw up one author who seemed to have given some dedicated thought to the intersection of sustainable energy access with the adaptation agenda: Henry David Venema at IISD (Venema and Rehman, 2007) – there’s also a note by the South Centre on the issue (South Centre, 2008 (pdf)). If we’re interested in the politics of adaptation, perhaps we should think more deeply about this mitigation/adaptation divide, and its implications in terms of how we understand, research and practice adaptation as something that could ever be separate from such a fundamental development concern as sustainable energy access. Or perhaps I just can’t see the wood for the sustainable energy access trees…

Either way, I’m keen to learn whether there might be any interesting intersection between our work on sustainable energy access and our increasing focus on politics/political economy aspects of this agenda.

With billions of new dollars in funding coming online post-Paris, we need a policy-engaged critique that firmly situates more positive ways forward within a perspective that properly attends to the plural, contested realities (Stirling, 2014) and the socio-cultural and political dimensions that define poor and marginalised peoples’ lived experiences of such interventions. Such a critique would be both timely and of material consequence to the billions of people that lack access to clean, affordable, reliable energy services worldwide.


David Ockwell is the co-author (with Rob Byrne) of Sustainable Energy for All: Innovation, technology and pro-poor green transformations (Routledge).  

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