Towards Ecomodernity

Atle Midttun

Successful green transition is driven by a mutual interplay between technology, visionary policy, and green institutionalization, argue Atle Midttun and Nina Witoszek.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Green transition

Three major contenders are facing each other in a clash of visions of how to shape and power modern society:

1) traditional carbon modernity
2) nuclear modernity, and
3) new, renewables-based ecomodernity. 

While actors behind these visions have been fighting for prominence and control in politics, markets, and institutions, there are many indications that time is ripe for a positive ecological narrative which shows how to increase human welfare and wellbeing without overheating the planet or depleting natural resources.

What is ecomodernity?
Ecomodernity is a concept which defines the whole green civilization which reconciles the long-standing estrangement between modernity and nature.  The prefix eco – from the Greek, oikos, or house – tempers the carbon and nuclear modernities’ Faustian ambitions and returns us back to our terrestrial home, community and culture. Ecomodernity integrates the commercial, technological and cultural visions within the same ‘green commons.’

More about the book here: Energy and Transport in Green Transition -- Perspectives on Ecomodernity

We witness the first (post)industrial revolution which is motivated by long term public interest and therefore cannot take place without a simultaneous paradigm shift in the sphere of values, lifestyles and beliefs.

While most societies will not do without modern material welfare and values such as individual rights, liberty and equality, we must make better sense of the sheer diversity of initiatives aimed at solving environmental problems at the local and global level within the emergent, green horizon of modernity. 

Beyond techno-economic or political analysis
In an international research project undertaken on four continents (Europe, the  US, Asia and Africa) we argue that understanding of the scale and scope of green transition needs to go beyond the conventional techno-economic or political analysis. 

Indeed, particular shifts to ecomodernity can be most fruitfully analyzed as an interplay between three cycles: a generic product cycle, where new green innovations that launch technological revolutions create new industrial actors and commercial dynamics; a visionary cycle, where innovative societal visions develop and mature; and an institutional cycle, which codifies and formalizes supportive organizational frameworks.

Successful green transition
Green transition, in this perspective, plays out through the dynamic interface between the three cycles. As visions consolidate, they motivate public interventions and stimulate new components of the green product cycle. If successful, these new components feedback to— and strengthen—the original vision and gradually institutionalize it.

Successful green transition is thus driven by a mutual interplay between techno-economy, visionary policy, and green institutionalization, where the three cycles may reinforce one another and together drive a paradigm shift.

To take solar power (photovoltaics) as an example, the technology was developed, in its early stages, in the US space industry, but could only become relevant for mainstream electricity supply through later politically driven deployments in Japan and Germany.

The visionary German Energiewende, and its strong policy tools, provided the necessary lead market conditions allow competitive breakthrough for solar power. Once volume markets were envisioned, mass production took off in China, where solar power is now spreading on a purely commercial basis and, indeed, coming back to the US as well. Regional specialization across the world—with diverse political visions and financial, entrepreneurial and technological competencies -  has thus provided unique lead-market conditions that at the right moment were crucial to drive the technology down the learning curve.

Interplay between politics, markets and technology
We argue that both the interplay between politics, markets and technology, as well as between nations, indicate that ecomodernity is not a linear process, but a complex relay race where one arena takes the lead in one phase, but then cedes to others to pick up and continue the paradigm shift, make the core product cheaper, more profitable and hence successful.   

These findings have implications for future climate negotiations. The international climate policy tied to the Kyoto agreement has been based on binding agreements on cutting CO2 emissions and highlighting austerity policy. The failure of the Copenhagen  negotiations in 2009 showed major shortcomings of this approach. There is more hope for successful transition to ecomodernity in voluntary pledges and initiatives focused on green innovation and green growth. Further, while the Kyoto agreement now comprises only 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, voluntary pledges promise to get most of the world’s carbon emitters on board.  

Transition to ecomodernity differs from country to country
This being said, we cannot ignore that transition to ecomodernity follows different trajectories from country to country. China – the catchup economy – has massive growth that attracts carbon based modernisation, but also enhances industrial learning also in the green sectors. The country can afford to develop full speed in both directions. However, the Chinese green revolution, as is becoming increasingly obvious to the Chinese,  is cleaner and contributes to a healthier environment. Further, it does not expose China to imports and dependency on foreign resources.

Africa must prioritize growth and development, but have a great potential for leapfrogging into renewable energy systems. So far, the regulatory setup has often served to promote centralized and carbon based strategies. But this may change as the advantages of the green alternatives become clearer.

With stabilization of energy consumption, ecomodernity in both the EU and US face carbon modernity in what is becoming a zero sum game, where one must give way to the other. Though Europe has traditionally been the frontrunner in ambitious climate policy, implementation is now lagging in many countries and is showing signs of “green fatigue” in cases where greening cannot easily be combined with increased economic efficiency. But, as we argue, this may be a temporary backlash.

The US has struggled with contrarian politics that has often blocked strong green policy initiatives. Nevertheless, strong green policies have been pushed by the president via  “executive orders” and by individual states such as California. The US is also very dynamically picking up green technologies when they enter a competitive phase. Photovoltaics is now spreading rapidly on a commercial basis and through new business models.

Counter to the doomsday scenario
The vision of ecomodernity runs counter to the doomsday prophecies with regard to humanity’s  potential to  prevent  the climate Armagedddon. The pessimistic scenarios feature the rapid carbon-based growth in catchup economies like China. Even in mature economies, it is argued, the pace of taking down carbon emissions is far too slow.

However, should green growth continue anywhere near the present rates, ecomodernity may become reality sooner than we expect. We show how, at the present growth-rates for photovoltaics and wind, European electricity supply could become completely renewables based by 2025,.

The arguments advanced in this article build on research findings in the book: Energy and Transport in Green Transition. Perspectives on Ecomodernity: eds Atle Midttun and Nina Witoszek. London: Routledge.

Published 10. November 2015

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