Workshop on Green energy transitions and global disruption: The (un)just transition to Net Zero

We invite expressions to participate in a workshop on ’Green energy transitions and global disruption’, to be held at the University of Manchester on 11-13 September, 2024.

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The goal of the workshop is to build conversations among researchers about the political economy of energy transitions, focused on the question of their disruptive qualities. This is as part of a project funded internally at Manchester with the same title. One of the goals of the project is to build new networks of researchers and potential future research activity on this theme. You will see a longer description of our project below.

The workshop is a key part of pursuing that goal. We envisage it therefore as a creative site of interaction to generate new ideas rather than simply to present existing work. We have already confirmed participation from a number of leading scholars in the field and are now seeking expressions of interest from others.

We have some funds to support participation in the workshop. We will prioritise the use of those funds partly in relation to the strength of the connection to our project theme, but also to promote the participation of scholars from the global South, early career researchers, and from groups traditionally marginalised within universities.

Given the logic of the workshop design, we do not seek abstracts for papers. Instead, please can you send us a short (max. one-page) statement of interest in the workshop, responding to these questions:

  1. How does your current work speak to the overall themes of the workshop and are there any specific aspects it speaks particularly to?
  2. What do you think the most important and interesting aspects of the political economy of green energy transitions are to focus on in the next few years?

Please send these along with a CV to , copying , by Wednesday, 12 June 2024. We will let people know about participation by the end of June.

Green energy transitions and global disruption: The (un)just transition to Net Zero

Aims and objectives

The project has two principal aims First , to examine the distributive dynamics of the Green energy transitions (GETs) that are central to the global response to climate change. It focuses in particular on the disruptive qualities of GETs as well as the current geopolitical contexts in which they are unfolding. It pursues these dynamics in four ways:
  • Disruptions produced by shifts away from fossil fuels - to fossil fuel producing regions, industries dependent on fossil fuels extraction, production and export as a key feature of the domestic economy.
  • Disruptions produced by shifts to renewable energy and electrification - critical minerals, geopolitical shifts, trade patterns, to meet the demands for zero carbon technology.
  • Disruptions produced by ongoing global crises to these supply chains and thus to the dynamics of clean energy transitions - COVID (lockdowns and recovery), and Ukraine (natural gas inflation and supply disruption, consequent return of inflation) on the supply of clean technologies.
  • Disruptions produced by the shift to industrial strategy as part of the pursuit of GETs - trade conflicts, geopolitical rivalries over resource access, notably.

Second , to develop a global network of researchers working on these as the basis for a much larger examination of the politics and political economy of GETs. The research carried out in the project will provide the groundwork for a major application involving scholars from multiple countries, notably in both global North and South, to investigate in much greater detail the dynamics shaping the distributional dynamics of GETs. A significant area of activity within the project will be building this research network. Existing team members already have considerable links from previous projects but this will be pursued systematically to generate external grant applications.

Context and rationale

GETs involve shifting the global economy away from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems, reducing energy demand in high consumption areas and expanding energy access to those currently excluded. All of these processes are central to the global response to climate change and the pursuit of decarbonisation/Net Zero. They can be highly variable in form, given choices of technology, the social organisation of energy resources, and the distribution of benefits and costs of the transition. While most research into GETs has been focused on socio-technical innovation, the IPCC 6th Assessment Report (2021) confirmed that a key knowledge gap in accelerating transformative energy transitions concerns the politics of such transitions. Key political barriers include the power of incumbent actors, policy and institutional legacies, ideological preferences and imaginaries, and the relationships of governments with social movements. And where significant transformations have occurred (e.g. coal phaseouts in various countries), this is largely because they have aligned with states’ political-economic strategies. At the heart of such transitions are questions of ’who gets what, when and how’, as they have inevitably disruptive distributive effects, potentially generating conflicts, with profound distributive effects. As the global economy edges closer to the Net Zero objectives by 2050, how the global disruptions caused by GETs are managed by actors at various scales will determine whether it is a ’just’ or indeed ’unjust’ transition.

There is some research on the politics of such transitions (Scoones et al 2015; Breetz et al 2018, Hochstetler 2020), particularly on industry resistance to climate policy (Newell & Paterson 1998). However, such research is fragmented in various ways: between work on the global South (Behuria 2020; Millington & Scheba 2020; Lavers 2023) and global North (Lockwood et al 2019; Tobin 2017); between work focused on different specific sectors, and across different theoretical traditions. Strategies for pursuing GETs are central to addressing the climate emergency and shaping the future of the global economy.

However, the last decade has seen a number of shifts that increase the importance of this sort of research. First, the increased ambition of climate action, shifting from incremental cuts in emissions to transformational approaches to ’Net Zero’, and eliminating fossil fuels from the global economy, has dramatically raised the stakes in understanding the drivers - mostly political-economic - of these transformations both in terms of the elimination of fossil fuels and the aggressive promotion of renewable energy and electrification (Paterson 2020). Second, the shift in policy approaches by major economies, from market-led climate strategies towards industrial strategy, has considerable potential for pursuing GETs but raises novel political questions about the coalitions that support these policies, the just transition dynamics, and the conflicts with governance norms especially in the trade system. Third, the crises starting in 2020 with the onset of COVID-19, have given considerable impetus to focusing on energy security in ways that interact with the pursuit of GETs in ways that we don’t fully understand. These three shifts make it even more imperative to focus on the disruptive politics of GETs in terms of the global production, distribution, and consumption process that they are in the process of transforming.

The project’s work is grounded in political economy approaches (Paterson & X-Laberge 2018) that focus on the centrality of economic processes (production, distribution, finance, consumption) and their key social dynamics (ownership structures, power relations, technological innovation; social inequalities, global integration and restructuring, formal/informal economy dynamics, socioenvironmental degradation) in political and policymaking processes. These approaches provide overarching frameworks for understanding how the power relations and inequalities produced within the economy are crucial to understanding the possibility of and dynamics of GETs. It also draws our attention to the complexity and heterogeneity of these transitions. There are significant variations in ownership of energy resources and power relations across different provisioning systems in which energy is central (housing, industry, food, transport, electricity), as well as great variation globally regarding these relations. Transforming energy systems also entails multiple sites and forms of intervention from mining and extraction through to final energy use. They have shaped and will continue to shape the patterns of how those transitions are being pursued, the extent of ambition in transitioning away from fossil fuels, and who wins and who loses from energy transitions. The global interconnectedness of energy markets, supply chains and pathways to decarbonisation requires a focus on countries in multiple regions, North and South, including how policy ideas travel globally and inform strategies at various levels of government.

Much is already known regarding the way that the transition from fossil fuels as key to the response to climate change generates various forms of economic disruption. Some of this knowledge demonstrates that supply chains are important components of this disruption. We have some knowledge about aspects of the politics of this - the socio-ecological conflicts and environmental justice issues at sites of extraction for critical minerals for example. But there are various under-explored aspects of the political conflicts involved in these supply chain disruptions that this focus seeks to concentrate on. Attention to these supply chain issues has been heightened by the crises unfolding since the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, which have disrupted supply chains across the globe in various ways, with important lessons to learn for the pursuit of net zero energy transitions. The focus of the research accordingly concerns the (un)just implications of the GET across the world following the disruptive impact of COVID-19 and inflation. As these crises have only hasted the need to achieve to ensure energy security and mitigate against future supply chain disruption through low carbon technologies. Recent and present crises have consequently made Net Zero a political and economy imperative as much as a climate objective, in turn raising questions over the disruptive impacts. The project is therefore designed to integrate analyses across the global North and global South, with analytical attention to similarities, differences, and the interconnectedness of such transitions across these regions.

Team and Project Management

The core project consists of members of the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), Politics Department, and the Global Development Institute (GDI) to draw on the interdisciplinary expertise of members of the institutes. The overall project director is Matthew Paterson (SCI/Politics), and the other core team members will be Sam Hickey, Pritish Behuria, Silke Trommer, and James Jackson. The project employs Sandra Barragán-Contreras as a postdoctoral research associate who is carrying out primary research within the project as well as help organise the online and in-person workshops.