Unpacking sustainabilities in diverse transitions contexts: Four key lessons from empirical research

Solar power

In the late 18th century, an Indian philosopher and religious leader offered a piece of knowledge to his followers. Taking into account the diverse religious faiths that exist in societies, he proclaimed that there are as many ways [to God] as there are faiths.

The plurality of perspectives and interpretations in sustainability debates astonishingly reminds me of this age-old religious wisdom, relevant in today’s scientifically advanced world. Unaware of (or ignoring) such wisdom, policy decisions unfortunately display a tendency towards ‘closing down’ debates and finding objective solutions, essentially turning a blind eye to those ‘many ways’ and ‘many faiths/perspectives’. The danger in such objective answers, however, is that the options considered ‘the best’ or ‘most efficient’ today, may turn out to be rather unsustainable when new relationships and implications are uncovered tomorrow. This is due to our inherently limited knowledge about future environmental, social and economic implications of present innovations.

It is therefore a crucial time to unpack the diverse meanings, framings and geographies of sustainability through in depth empirical research. This is illustrated through our recent research in India and Thailand on people’s viewpoints about sustainable urban transport and energy through solar power. We discovered that sustainability appraisal of options, even in a single technological field, is not self-evident and straightforward.

The diversities that exist in a multitude of options and individual value judgements, across different sectors, and across geographies, might seem inconvenient for anyone looking for a quick fix – but they can eventually guide us through future uncertainties and unexpected developments. Therefore, a willingness to acknowledge and nurture such differences and subjectivities needs to be an important part of how sustainability transitions are governed.

To explain this in more detail, here’s a few of the lessons that we learned through our research in India and Thailand, where we undertook a systematic and rigorous appraisal of innovation trajectories (options) in solar photovoltaic energy and urban mobility, involving a wide range of stakeholders – government officials, consultants, engineers, academics and civil society organisations.

Lesson 1. The options that receive the highest research attention, investment and political support may not be seen by everyone as sustainable

While conventional empirical studies in sustainability transitions concentrate on electric vehicles, alternative fuels, and rapid transit systems, stakeholders in our appraisal workshops regarded slower and low-tech modes of transportation like cycling and walking to be more sustainable options.

Similarly, decentralised solar options like lanterns and solar home systems were perceived as more sustainable options compared to centralised large scale applications like grid connected solar power plants and solar cities. Acknowledging these results, more research and investment in these sectors should be directed towards studying these alternative sustainable options.

Lesson 2. Individuals are heavily influenced by their professional background when framing what ‘sustainability’ means to them

Individuals from contrasting social and professional backgrounds offered highly divergent sets of sustainability criteria. For instance, individuals who identified as ‘industry actors’ placed more emphasis on socio-economic criteria like awareness, value, profitability and entrepreneurship opportunities, and assigned almost negligible importance to the environmental aspects of sustainability. Technical consultants, on the other hand, expressed concerns about the risks associated with systems that are highly subsidy-dependent; and they saw transparency in policy strategies and financial schemes as important criteria for sustainability.

Lesson 3. Is it obvious that solar photovoltaic energy is sustainable? Well, it’s not that easy…

…because there are enormous uncertainties. The stakeholders we talked to thought that the sustainability of solar PV systems is highly dependent on enabling policy and governmental support. Such dependency results in high uncertainty on whether the options can be sustainable in the long run without support from the government. While many stakeholders simply assumed solar applications to be environmentally sustainable, a few of them raised environmental concerns regarding battery and spare parts disposals. However, overall, the sustainability of each solar option seemed to be resting predominantly on criteria like enabling policy and financial feasibility, instead of its environmental benefits or affordability for its users.

Lesson 4. If you think you can generalise on developing country/emerging economy characteristics based on results from one country, be careful! 

Our results found a great deal of contrasting characteristics among Indian and Thai stakeholders, in the ways they defined sustainability.  Affordability, for instance, is proposed as a crucial sustainability criterion by almost all Indian stakeholders, while it came up only once in Thailand.

The trust and dependence we witnessed in Thailand on institutional policy and financial schemes to support solar options, seemed to be absent in India, where in spite of supportive policy instruments like the National Solar mission, the stakeholders were rather pessimistic and uncertain about sustainability of large scale, centralised solar options.

The implication of these results is that sustainability is highly context-dependent, and any generalisation beyond local, regional and/or national boundaries need to be done with extreme caution.

Sustainability is more political than you think

All these lessons point to the fact that sustainability in any practical policy context is a significantly more political matter than is typically conceded by researchers and/or policy makers.

When such political process deliver a singular and prescriptive picture of “the sustainable option”, then this result simply means ‘closing down’ appreciation for the uncertainties and variabilities that should otherwise have been acknowledged and nurtured.

In contrast to such policy making politics, however, ’broadening out’ to include multiple options, and ‘opening up’ the debate across multiple actors around sustainability, would allow a greater democratic accountability and social robustness in the justification of resulting policy decisions. In the unjust, unfair and unsustainable world that we are experiencing today, the words of the Indian sage seem to have greater significance than ever, beyond the spectrum of religion and more generally in science and society.

About the author

Bipashyee Ghosh is a doctoral researcher at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex. Her thesis is on urban mobility transformations in an Indian megacity.

She is a co-author of the paper Unpacking sustainabilities in diverse transition contexts: solar photovoltaic and urban mobility experiments in India and Thailand (open access), published in the journal Sustainability Science.