Climate change and low-carbon development pathways

This is one of a series of Stories of Change from the ESRC STEPS Centre.

Responding to climate disruption is sometimes seen as a technical and scientific challenge. But achieving climate justice is about much more, as STEPS work on technology, cultures and social transformations shows.

Too often commitments at big events like the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP) gatherings are focused just on targets. These provide a focus for aspirations and negotiations, but they may not be enough.

As STEPS co-director, Ian Scoones, commented on the commitment to UK government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, “It is too little, too late, is over-reliant on technological and market fixes, and does not commit to a major structural transformation of the fossil fuel-dependent economy….. The challenge is to seek a new pathway beyond fossil fuel capitalism; and this means more than setting targets.”

STEPS Centre work has argued, in relation to a whole array of sustainability questions. that our focus must be on much more fundamental transformations. Green transformations, as a 2015 STEPS book argued, emerge from state, market, technology and citizen led transformations, and usually through alliances of groups working together.

Fundamental structural transformations require more changes in economy and society, challenging incumbent power. This requires a particular politics of climate change. Moving from a focus simply on centralised, technocratic ‘control’ — through targets and technical fixes, directed centrally through policy — to enabling ‘care’ — a more bottom-up form of mobilisation is vital. This means rethinking the way we think about climate change more fundamentally, as argued by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling in a blog series.

Uncertainty from below

The ways that uncertain climate dynamics are understood by different actors was central to the STEPS project, Uncertainty from below, and continued in the TAPESTRY project. This highlights the contrasts between understandings from climate science and policy, making use of large-scale computational models, compared to the experiences of local people suffering droughts, floods and direct impacts on already vulnerable livelihoods.

Participatory mapping using satellite imagery with pastoralists in Kachchh, Gujarat (read more)

Convening dialogues amongst different players — in urban Mumbai, remote dryland Kachchh, and the wetlands and islands of the Sundarbans — and making use of a range of participatory and visual methods offered the chance of a new conversation about ways forward. Can models be more attuned to how local people think and feel and experience uncertainty and climate change?

In 2019, a collaborative project with an arts collective based in Brighton, the System Change Hive, explored some of these issues from the perspective of different artists.

Representing through different artistic media how the big challenges of climate change are understood, felt and experienced provides a powerful challenge to the simplistic, rationalist approaches to climate policy, aiming to locate transformation in embedded action and shared, common languages.

How can technology help?

Effecting transformations to low-carbon pathways has to galvanise people, and link them to new technologies and practices. This has been a major theme of our work on innovation and technology — from the work of the New Manifesto to our work on grassroots innovation to our work on low-carbon energy.

Working with partners in East Africa, STEPS researchers explored how widening access to low-carbon, off-grid solar alternatives enhances pathways to sustainability that are equitable and improve people’s livelihoods. Multiple potential pathways to low-carbon futures exist, but only some provide the wider benefits to livelihoods and development. As the research on off-grid solar energy has shown, seeking out pathways to sustainability requires some practical skills and organisational capacities. It is not just about the technology.

As David Ockwell and Rob Byrne show, the successes seen in Kenya and Tanzania are the result of brokerage, facilitation and networks formed between technology suppliers, local businesses, policy-makers and ultimate users.

The work suggested the need for international climate policy to support the establishment of Climate-Related Innovation System Builders (CRIBS). These actors, operating within developing countries at a national level, would nurture those connections and networks, so ideas could spring from local needs and creativity, rather than being imported from outside.

This approach challenges the technology-led, top-down financing approach favoured by international climate finance. But it’s these ‘soft’ skills and capacities that are essential in realising transformations to low carbon pathways, and too often are forgotten in the technocratic approaches to policy implementation.


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Climate Change & Energy


Stories of Change

From 2006-2021, the ESRC STEPS Centre explored pathways to sustainability – showing the important roles that marginalised ideas, knowledge and forms of action could play in responding to complex social, technological and environmental challenges.

In this process, we were involved in many process of change, from local struggles to high-level international debates. These Stories of Change explore some key themes from STEPS work, to share what we learned.

Read more stories