Culture and low-carbon energy transitions

How does culture influence low-carbon energy transitions? How can insights about cultural influences guide energy planners and policymakers trying to stimulate transitions, particularly at a time of rapid technological change?

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The long-term impacts of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) on climate change is one of the most daunting challenges facing society. As such, transition to a low-carbon energy system is essential to ensuring the well-being of our planet and its people. Simply put, this transition encompasses changing the sources or uses of energy technologies or services that ultimately result in lower GHG emissions. Given the significant advances made over the course of the past decade in both technical performance and cost competitiveness of low-carbon technologies and services, the opportunity for the transition to progress quickly seems very clear.

Unfortunately technology and economics alone will not ensure the rapid adoption of low-carbon energy technologies. Benjamin Sovacool and I began to discuss this issue in early 2019 with specific focus on the extent to which culture plays a role in energy transition and how an understanding of cultural influences might guide energy planners and policymakers in stimulating transitions. The key discussion actually took following a lecture by Benjamin at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Following the lecture, we began talking about the important but often overlooked impacts of culture on energy technology adoption. I noted, for instance, that machine learning algorithms that guide autonomous vehicles are not suited to recognize UAE pedestrians when the algorithms have not been trained to interpret local dress and body language. 

Autonomous Vehicle
Autonomous public transport plans in Dubai, UAE

As we talked further, the huge number of such anecdotes from all corners of the world became apparent. Consider, for instance, that some residents in the UK will open windows during the middle of winter for thermal comfort rather than taking relatively simple steps for an energy efficient solution.

Energy inefficient practices for thermal comfort in the UK

Benjamin therefore suggested that an important research agenda could possibly be constructed from a structured review and assessment of the cultural barriers and enablers to the adoption of low-carbon energy technologies and practices. Hence, the idea for the paper was born.

In order to assess and understand the relationship between culture and low-carbon energy-transition, we developed a framework for examining the relationship between culture and low-carbon technologies and practices. The specific technologies and practices considered were ridesharing (technologically incremental but radical in terms of practices), automated vehicles (technologically radical and radical in terms of practices), whole house retrofits (technologically radical but modest in terms of changes in practices), and eco-driving (incremental technologically with modest changes in practices). 

A technological and behavioural typology of low-carbon transitions

Based on our in-depth reviews of global case studies of cultural barrier and enablers of low-carbon energy transition, we are definitively able to show that low-carbon energy transitions are strongly shaped — in positive and negative ways — by culture. We offer specific suggestions for policymakers and planners, practitioners, and researchers of energy development programs to help them take action toward the new forms of research, new data, specialised input of local communities and possible reforms to energy and climate planning processes that are necessary to successfully bring cultural considerations to low-carbon energy transition. In the research domain, we propose a new research agenda for culture and low-carbon transitions with recommendations that span many different segments of academia and the professional community.

A research agenda for culture and low-carbon energy transitions

The full paper is available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-0519-4

Steve Griffiths

Senior Vice President, Research and Development and Professor of Practice, Khalifa University of Science and Technology

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