What should a no-carbon democracy look like?

Blog by
13 July 2015

Halting planetary warming is fundamental. But as we find safe and affordable solutions to our future society's energy needs, how could we build a world that is more equal and more democratic?

The first photograph taken of Earthrise by Apollo 8 in December 1968. The Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change proposes large-scale public investment and determined political effort from powerful states to take down carbon energy sources (Photo: NASA/woodleywonderworks, Flickr, via Creative Commons)

Steve Bass argued in an IIED blog that in order for green economy approaches to produce inclusion and equality they have to be explicitly developed with those ends in mind. It is interesting to reflect on that given some recent proposals and analysis on energy transitions, past, present and future.

The Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change (PDF) proposes a breakthrough approach to taking down carbon energy sources which will require large-scale public investment and determined political effort from powerful states.

Investing for quantum change

The idea behind Apollo is to invest large amounts of public money in research, development and demonstration (RD&D) in a range of no-carbon energy sources. This will accelerate technological progress in the efficiency of renewables — but also see quantum changes in storage and grid technologies in order for no-carbon energy to take on the base-load function in power systems.

The goal is to make oil and coal uneconomic. The mechanism proposed is public funding at scale for RD&D (the authors suggest 0.2 per cent of GDP per year for all countries).  

It's a good idea. The ambition is clear, the model of change convincing — the role proposed for the state is in line with evidence about the state's role in effective large-scale innovation (as argued in Mariana Mazzucato's contribution to a recent volume on the politics of green transformation). 

Above all it's an idea that could work without global negotiation for collective action on climate change that has failed to deliver the necessary scale of action and ambition over the past 20 years. It could even work if only a few very large economies took it up. And it does not require decades of negotiation and a complex global deal to move forward.

Broader implications

We know that the energy industry plays a large part in determining the shape of our societies. Timothy Mitchell’s 'Carbon Democracy' describes how coal, as a source of energy of unprecedented power, enabled concentrations of urban populations and quantum jumps in productivity and wealth in 19th century Europe.  

But coal also enabled organised labour to make claims for a more equal and democratic society, because the labour needed to extract and process it meant that action by workers could shut it down, giving the labour movement great leverage.

Mitchell sees the oil economy as having thrown this dynamic into reverse. As control over the lifeblood of the economy shifted from coal to a resource which moves along pipelines, organised labour could no longer so easily exert that leverage. 

He argues the change did not happen by accident. Companies and governments wanted to make themselves less vulnerable to organised labour. Mitchell describes how the post-Second World War Marshall Plan invested in oil pipelines from the Middle East to southern Europe to diminish the power of the Communist-leaning coal unions.

Lessons for the future

We know that we need to get rid of carbon from energy production. If we can do it soon we might just bequeath a liveable planet to our children's children. The Apollo proposal gives a model for the role that public investment could play.  

So, what would a no-carbon democracy look like?  

What would be the big shifts in power relations associated with changes in governance, capital and labour that would be needed to accompany the transformation? Which of these shifts might empower people to achieve equal treatment, decent livelihoods and democratic power? 

Here are some suggestions how a green transition could produce a more egalitarian, democratic world:

  • Small-scale renewable power technologies can put control of power generation in local hands (though the practicalities can be challenging)
  • The oil economy can promote a style of politics where armed factions extract all the benefits of oil cash to strengthen their position, rather than using the money to develop the country. Transitioning out of that kind of economy could be a good thing — provided it does not leave a country in penury, and
  • As the Africa Progress Report 2015 highlights, if renewable energy can be made cheaper, it could have a massively equalising effect for the poorest people in the poorest countries. They currently pay more for energy than people connected to grids in richer countries. Cheap, accessible, efficient renewable technology can correct that.

But there are risks too. Mega-scale innovation, funded by the public sector, could lead to big corporates controlling access to technologies. That could reduce public democratic control.

The hopes that decentralising energy systems will produce a democratisation of energy supplies could easily be disrupted. 

If we want the transition to renewable energy to enable democracy, rather than undermine it, then the RD&D needs to support that. We can expect that the focus on solar will produce technologies suitable for most poorer countries. That in itself is good for global equity. But it also needs to be geared to producing investments that will be affordable and operable at the local level. 

Let's hope the Apollo proposal will kick off a new level of ambition via publicly funded RD&D to create a no-carbon energy system.

But because most of the effort will need to come from the governments of the biggest economies, the emergence of local control, equality and democracy cannot be taken for granted. That will have to be worked for and argued for.

Andrew Norton (andrew.norton@iied.org) is director of IIED.