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Transition pathways for a UK low carbon energy system: Reflections on conceptualising agency and governance within sustainability transitions
Timothy James Foxon, Peter J Pearson

Last modified: 2012-03-19


In papers at previous International Sustainability Transitions Conferences, we have presented earlier stages of our work on developing and analysing a set of transition pathways to a highly electric, low carbon UK energy system. This work seeks to provide a greater role for the agency of actors in transitions, through using an ‘action space’ approach to explore the dynamic interactions between choices made by actors, and to explore the role of governance in transitions, by framing alternative pathways as dominated by competing governance ‘logics’ that different actors pursue. This paper provides a critical reflection on these conceptual developments. This serves to situate our work within the socio-technical transitions literature, and to highlight the challenges remaining in applying these concepts to producing and analysing future pathways in ways relevant to policy and industrial stakeholders.

Our work has developed alternative transition pathways to a UK low carbon energy system, under ‘market’, ‘central government’ or ‘civil society’ logics, and analysed the potential implications of actors’ choices, under these logics, for patterns of energy service demand and rates and mixes of deployment of low carbon electricity generation options. We claim that going from qualitative narrative storylines to quantitative projections of demand-side and supply-side changes in this way is useful, but requires critical methodological reflection. We have also analysed ‘branching points’ on the pathways, in order to highlight how different technological outcomes may result from different actors’ choices under prevailing governance logics at key decision points.

Finally, we reflect on the challenges of using analytical constructs, such as the multi-level perspective, and detailed evidence from past historical transition processes, in order to develop future transition pathways, that are both methodologically sound and useful to policy and industrial stakeholders.