Getting beyond handwavium, or “A systematic review of energy systems: The role of policymaking in sustainable transitions”

Even back before I was trying to be an academic (watch this space) I was reading academic articles for fun. That’s not a boast (well, okay, maybe a little bit, but also just a statement of fact). I learned the hard way that much academic output is dross – concept mongering or torturing of so-called empirics. It turns out that if you’re in the right place at the right time, and you latch on to an idea that is useful (especially to our lords and masters) then you can go a long long way, even if you aren’t actually very bright – or creative – and are an appalling human being. So it goes.

Meanwhile though, I think it is important to recognise that #NotAllAcademics and #NotAllAcademicOutput. So, periodically I make myself promises that I am going to Loot the Ivory Tower.

I am at the beginning of another of those periodic binges, I think (let’s see if I can make this one slower and steadier). And so, therefore, when I read a decent article, I will… blog about it…

And I have read a decent article. It goes by the catchy title “A systematic review of energy systems: The role of policymaking in sustainable transitions” by Fiona Robertson Munro and Paul Cairney.

Sustainable transitions, are, for those of you who have come late to the party, is the programme/concept/fantasy (take your pick) that the rich/hyper-developed countries will quickly wean themselves off their current high-carbon, high-dead animals and dead other humans means of powering their economies and societies, and replace them with something nicer and greener, before the consequences of the fossil binge of the last two centuries render the whole thing moot. If we’d started 35-ish years ago, when “sustainable development” became a Thing, we could have done it gradually-ish. But we really didn’t, so now we need all sorts of “Negative Emissions Technologies” and “Integrated Assessment Models” and so much undeserved luck that, well… as you will know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time [why??], I had a vasectomy, pre-spawning, in 2004, not because of what my putative children would have done to the planet [they’d have been hand-wringing high-emitters like me] but because of what the planet will do to them. The second half of the twenty-first century is going to make the first half of the twentieth look like a golden age of peace, love and understanding.

And with that, some gloss/comments,/quotes about the article in question.

Munro and Cairney write that their

“team was funded via UKERC to analyse the relationship between energy systems and complex policymaking systems in the UK, focusing on multi-level policymaking (resulting from EU, UK, and Scottish Government policy) and the potential impact of Brexit on the energy system (a task which necessitates clarity on the meaning of energy system) [60,61].”

This article is clearly not their last word on this, and I for one await further stuff. They write

“the potential value of systems thinking is clear, but its impact on policy and practice is not.”

At risk of enraging my wife, who reminds me occasionally that I am not in fact an African American from Baltimore, “true dat.” They continue

Energy systems research brings together academics from many disciplines (including engineering, social, political and policy sciences, and interdisciplinary fields like transport studies) with practitioners from many sectors (including public, private, and third sectors, and quasi-governmental bodies such as regulators) but does not give them a clear language to communicate. Most discussions of systems rely on implicit understandings or vague references to a metaphor. Analysts often rely on the same UKERC definition: ‘the set of technologies, physical infrastructure, institutions, policies and practices located in and associated with the UK which enable energy services to be delivered to UK consumers’ [11,p.iv]. There is also some reference to an established way to conceptualise systems, such as with reference to the MLP [12]. However, there is insufficient attention to the sum total of intellectual activity, at least in relation to comparable initiatives such as to address socio-ecological systems [13,9:pp.177-8]).

And herein lies the problem- everyone goes for the full handwavium – throwing around words like “systems” and “inter-connectedness” and “holistic” (and perhaps “synergies, feedbacks etc” without ever really defining anything, and allowing themselves to sound serious and well-informed. It’s the academic equivalent of what activists do when they say “movement-building” when they actually just mean relentless mobilising/meetings/marches. But I digress…

So, they do the following

First, we provide a systematic review of the relevant literature to identify how researchers conceptualise the role of politics and policymaking in energy systems.

Second, we focus on UK government strategies, and the Scottish Government’s [14] energy strategy as an exemplar of systems thinking, to identify how they operationalise the language and insights provided by energy systems research. Is this research making an impact, or do policymakers merely adopt a metaphorical language?

Third, we identify the key energy systems studies – and complementary approaches in the wider policy studies literature – that help us make systematic reference to systems thinking and encourage policy impact

And here is possibly my favourite bit.

Of the 124 most relevant papers, almost all either (a) described an energy system without defining key terms or operationalising them, or (b) analysed aspects of systems and referred to other work to define them fully. Therefore, a smaller set of papers could be included for reference, because they used a proxy definition by inviting the reader to read a different paper to understand the meaning of energy system. Finally, a very small set of papers engaged directly with the term ‘energy system’, or identified a specific approach, to the extent that we could identify clearly how it related to the conceptual or empirical discussion of policymaking.

However, while there is some reference to energy systems in UK government documents, ‘systems thinking’ is not a key feature. There is an almost exclusive tendency – similar to most papers in our review – to use terms such as ‘energy system’ frequently rather than precisely.

No, let’s emphasise that.

That, my friends, is one of the best academic burns I’ve seen all month, or longer.

The rest of the article is them basically telling the stories of Socio-technical (MLP, TIS – not much on Strategic Niche Management), complex and socio-ecological systems.

Is there much on system-changers, on circuit breakers? No, because that is not what this is about. This is about clearing the undergrowth, clearing out the Augean stables and taking a deep analytic breath. And lots and lots of further reading.

If you give a damn about this topic (how the species could – in theory at least – get out of its mess) then you do want to read this through, carefully, and then call nonsense the next time someone uses words like “energy systems” or “transition” or “complex” or whatever. It’s way too late in the day to be tolerating handwavium…

Quotes and references.

Cox et al. [42, p. 3–4] identify thirteen non-energy sectors with a non-trivial impact on energy policy.

Cox E, Royston S, Selby J. The impacts of non-energy policies on the energy system: a scoping paper. 2016. p. 100. 

Two key articles focus on the need for much more contact between researchers and the actors – including policymakers and influencers across many levels of government – crucial to the delivery of energy transitions. Chilvers et al. [26, p. 440] – as part of the Transition Pathways Consortium – present a model from which most others could learn, in which they harness collaboration ‘between engineers, social scientists and policy analysts’ to try to make sense of ‘whole systems’ thinking in relation to ‘transition pathways for a more electric, low-carbon energy system’.

Chilvers J, Foxon TJ, Galloway S, Hammond GP, Infield D, Leach M, et al. Realising transition pathways for a more electric, low-carbon energy system in the United Kingdom: challenges, insights and opportunities. Proc Inst Mech Eng Part A J Power Energy 2017;231:440–77.

Yeh et al. [47, p. 169] take a comparable but less intensive approach. They outline six models that identify the requirements for key aspects of energy system transformation – including major improvements in building, transport, and industrial efficiency, more renewables, and reduced demand associated with activities such as car use – in the case study of California. While useful to prompt discussion, the models are limited because they make many assumptions of ‘perfect markets, perfect competition, and zero transaction costs’ to identify the potential economic benefits of key moves, such as in relation to capital investment and employment in new technologies (these markets may be better described as ‘adaptive’ [55]).

Yeh S, Yang C, Gibbs M, Roland-Holst D, Greenblatt J, Mahone A, et al. A modeling comparison of deep greenhouse gas emissions reduction scenarios by 2030 in California. Energy Strateg Rev 2016;13–14:169–80.

Bridge G, Bouzarovski S, Bradshaw M, Eyre N. Geographies of energy transition: space, place and the low-carbon economy. Energy Policy 2013;53:331–40. [

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