Andrés Luque-Ayala, Harriet Bulkeley, & Simon Marvin, Durham University, Durham, UK

Presentation Title: Urban low carbon transition pathways: An analytical framework

 

Summary

Dominant understandings of transitions have tended to disregard the specificity of the urban. Whilst largely technological and often normative, such approaches pay limited attention to the materiality of the city and the socio-political nature of its flows. They also overlook the scalar challenges to and possibilities associated with multiple and overlapping, formal and informal, governing regimes. Yet, transitions pathways, rather than the result of clean and purposeful ways for scaling niches, are contingent and politically contested processes where a multiplicity of systems, agents and scales come together in an attempt to reconfigure social interests and technology in competing ways.

This presentation proposed a different way of understanding possible pathways towards low carbon transitions. Whilst recognizing the need to ask further questions around the notion of transition itself, this framework acknowledges the multiplicity and contradiction embedded in current attempts to realize low carbon by urban intermediaries.

 

Key Lessons Learned

Transition studies require considering transitions in their political and geographical context. Advancing a low carbon urbanism requires a shift from an ‘extractive’ model of low carbon transitions, where the focus is in reducing emissions (point source pollution), to an ‘embedded’ model of de-carbonization based on systemic change.

Whilst acknowledging the multiplicity and contradiction embedded in current attempts to realize low carbon, a way of designing a low carbon urbanism based on the development of novel ways of thinking about the low carbon and development interface is needed. De-carbonization is then not confined to setting targets to reduce emissions, but involves a host of more or less explicit ways in which carbon comes to be problematized and acted upon in relation to (in this case) the city, thus positioning low carbon as a transformative process.

The design of low carbon urbanism includes establishing a shared understanding of the challenges of low carbon in relation to particular contexts for intervention, forming coalitions and intermediary institutions, identifying the technological interventions to be trialed, and agreeing on the governance principles to be followed.

 

Policy/Practice Implications of Research

Transitions towards sustainability depend on social innovation rather than on technical or institutional innovation, and imply calling society’s status quo into question as new conventions, regimes of resource consumption, routines and know-hows are envisioned (see also Shove 2010). Practicing low carbon urbanism involves working with and upon three distinct sets of elements:

  • The agents, agencies and subjectivities that operate as initiators and partners or act as subjects of intervention;
     
  • The objects and flows of the material world involved in the production of carbon; and,
     
  • A set of mechanisms and techniques which operate as material, framing and discursive devices capable of influencing both agents and objects.

Governing low carbon in the city transcends the local arena, involving a broad range of agents beyond the local state (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2005). On one hand, non-state actors from private and non-profit sectors are increasingly playing a greater role in shaping, configuring and contesting climate responses in the city (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2013). On the other, making low carbon in the city is a multi-scalar process, made of interactions between agents located at different scales, from the dwelling and the city to transnational and global arenas.

Looking at climate change from the lens of these diverse scales challenges traditional understandings of environmental governance, which assume that decisions are cascaded from international to national to local levels (Betsill and Bulkeley, 2007; Bulkeley 2005; Bulkeley and Betsill, 2003; Bulkeley and Betsill, 2004; Bulkeley et al., 2009).

 

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

It is important to examine how the very possibility of a low carbon future is being conceptualized within different academic and practitioner settings. Often rationalities exploring transitions to sustainability approach the issue of low carbon as a matter of techno-economic innovation. These understandings of transitions have tended to disregard the specificity of the urban, and pay limited attention to the materiality of the city and the socio-political nature of its flows. They also overlook the scalar challenges and possibilities associated to multiple and overlapping, formal and informal, governing regimes. Yet, transitions, rather than the result of clean and purposeful ways for scaling niches, are contingent and politically contested processes where a multiplicity of systems, agents and scales come together in an attempt to reconfigure social interests and technology.

Understanding transitions is not so much about extracting lessons from a few ideal cases, but about embedding new rationalities and subjectivities. Abandoning an exclusive focus on GHG reduction and climate mitigation (an end-of-pipe approach), low carbon is repositioned as a development approach with transformative political and economic implications. Whilst it is important to acknowledge how transitions are framed by political economic contexts, including issues of resource control and ecological security, rethinking transitions should also mean acknowledging their political aspects, opening up possibilities for the mobilization of low carbon towards a broad variety of social objectives including issues of social justice and urban inequality.

 

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