A multi-modal, multi-actor, multi-level approach is needed for net zero governance

By Alison Mohr,  independent researcher and adviser on energy systems governance

Alison Mohr and Mirjam Röder recently collaborated to submit a response to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee Call for Evidence on Net Zero Governance. This blog explores some of the key points from our evidence submission that highlights both governance challenges and opportunities as we strive to transition to net zero. Considering the crucial decisions on the collective actions needed to effectively and equitably address the impacts of climate change recently negotiated at COP26, getting the governance right will be critical to achieving net zero and securing a sustainable future for all.

To counter the negative effects of climate change and embrace the opportunities that positive change can provide will require collective and sustained action by individuals, communities, regions and nations. But how can countless actions and activities across disparate locations and scales be coordinated and managed to ensure the best chances for net zero success? This is a key question that the world leaders at COP26 grappled with and one which leads the BEIS call for evidence on net zero governance. The answer in theory is through multiple modes of policy and decision-making involving multiple actors across multiple levels, but which in practice is no easy feat.

Delivering cross-Government climate action at the pace and scale needed to meet ambitious carbon budgets and net zero targets will require societal support and action at multiple levels, including individual and community, or net zero risks being an unrealised ambition. However, the scale of the climate change challenge and of the action required for net zero is often perceived as an intangible, distant problem beyond the control of the individual who may think their small contribution will not be sufficient or that it is not their responsibility to take a lead. A transition of this pace and scale therefore needs to be led by clear government policy, incentives and fiscal support commensurate with the scale of the challenge. This includes support of governance process at the level of local and regional authorities, as a key barrier to effective local/regional governance is a lack of devolved resources and skilled and knowledgeable staff to help promote, implement, and monitor low-carbon energy systems, activities and practices. This dynamic interrelationship is critical to accelerating the speed and scale of implementation of distributed energy systems across multiple levels.

Devolved community net zero governance processes can help avoid the public resistance and protest that remote governance structures and private development schemes can produce because they tend to be more inclusive of local people and priorities, and therefore more locally appropriate and beneficial. Not only does this render a seemingly intangible, distant problem more tangible and manageable but it also helps to develop trust through interactions and relationship building between local governance and supply chain actors and community members. Working with community members is typically expected to result in the consensual deployment and use of sustainable low-carbon technologies and services and the embedding of individual behaviour change and social practices.

Yet much of the current UK net zero governance framework is built around the ‘old’ centralised fossil energy supply system and its powerful incumbents. In a decentralised energy system, the focus shifts to energy demand, bringing to the fore people and the ways in which energy use shapes and is shaped by their daily lives. Alternative governance structures that are fit for purpose will require institutional reform that focuses on end user preferences, facilitating local markets, open and transparent access to data, greater coordination in and across levels of governance, and long-term policy stability, as well as transparency and legitimacy in policymaking. They must also be sensitive to local context.

Bottom-up, end user social intelligence-gathering processes such as the 2020 Climate Assembly UK are vital for insuring the representation of multiple actors, their voices and decarbonisation priorities and preferences. The Climate Assembly UK reported strong agreement that people in different parts of the country should be offered different decarbonisation solutions and allowed to choose the best technologies for their needs, highlighting that social acceptance of some technologies may not be automatic but contingent upon numerous contextual factors including cost, performance, convenience, perceptions of safety and equity, awareness of the need to decarbonise certain aspects of everyday life, and personal and social judgements about the legitimacy of proposals by more or less trusted stakeholders.

In a complex multi-actor, multi-level governance process, how should we measure progress towards net zero? Measurement of economic value or environmental impacts alone will not capture the diversity of stakeholder perspectives and values around decarbonisation, nor the multiple solutions and non-economic values needed for a just transition. Equally important is asking value-based questions about the kind of future society we aspire to, including which sustainable resources, processes or products should be used and where, which problem-framing and assumptions should guide the transition, and who is included in agenda-setting and who else could/should be.

Webinar: Net zero governance in a post-COP26 world

26 January 2022, 2-3.30pm, online

This webinar will examine the net zero policy gap and discuss what is needed to deliver meaningful action.

Find out more.

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