POLICY BRIEFING: Assessing the Long-Now

POLICY BRIEFING: Assessing the Long-Now

Victoria Johnson and Frank Boons

Within weeks of coming into power, the newly elected Conservative government had binned 9 low-carbon policies. Whether or not the UK can meet its targets laid out in the Climate Change Act beyond 2020, indeed if the Climate Change Act will survive the next 5 years of government, and what the government’s commitment to sustainable consumption and production is more broadly, became the centre of ‘greenerati’ chatter and speculation.

After months of anticipation, events in November 2015 did little to quell anxieties. A leaked letter from Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, admitted a shortfall of 25% in renewable energy capacity to meet 2020 EU targets, despite publically stating the opposite. Then, Rudd’s much awaited ‘energy policy reset’ announced a phase out of coal, largely to be replaced by nuclear and gas, with dwindling support for renewables. Finally, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review revealed budget cuts to DECC and DEFRA, the weakening of key low carbon energy policies and the abandonment of a £1 billion capital grant to support Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) deployment – central to Rudd’s nuclear and gas plan.

In response to the green policy cull concern was voiced from unlikely places with CBI boss, John Cridland, warning in September 2015  that the changes to support for renewable generation and energy efficiency had sent, ‘…a worrying signal about the UK as a place for low-carbon investment.’ Indeed, earlier that month, Ernst and Young announced that for the first time, the UK had lost its top 10 spot in their Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index – an index that ranks 40 countries on the attractiveness of their renewable energy investment and deployment opportunities. The report cited policy withdrawal and inconsistencies as the reason for the UK’s ‘dramatic fall.’

In reality, however, the dissolution of many low-carbon policies is unsurprising. The foundations for reneging on renewable support, zero carbon homes and climate change targets had already been laid long before the new Conservative Government came into power in May 2015. The Localism Act (2011), the Public Bodies Act (2011) and the scrapping of the government watchdog the Sustainable Development Commission are just a few of the changes made by the Coalition Government that weakened the governance framework for delivery of a low-carbon transition of the UK’s energy system. And with the tempering effect of the Liberal Democrats now gone, green policies were fully exposed to the hatchets of the Treasury and the right-wing of the Conservative party.

This raises the question, what is the best approach to appraising progress towards long-term objectives for sustainable consumption and production? Should the focus be on policies currently in place – a mere snapshot in time given that a transition to a more sustainable low-carbon future requires between 30 to 50 years of forward planning? Policies are, however, awkwardly juxtaposed onto democratic politics that tend towards short-termism and risk aversion (Bache et al., 2015). Furthermore, the UK environmental policy regime emphasises individual responsibility and economic efficiency. But as Elizabeth Shove points out, ‘In placing responsibility so squarely on the individual, this approach deflects attention from the many institutions that shape options and opportunities, and which makes some courses of action more likely than others’’ (Shove, 2010).

If a focus on policies is insufficient for appraisal, isn’t the more obvious approach to measure outcomes over time – for example, volumes of waste to landfill or carbon dioxide emissions? Yet, what is measured and how metrics are reported are implicitly political (Alonso and Starr, 1987), problematizing the idea of an ‘analytical fix’ to appraising progress towards the long-term objectives of sustainable consumption and production (Stirling, 1999). Simply by changing the way a metric is calculated policy makers can claim success, despite the reality of negative trends. In particular, it is difficult to measure something that is poorly defined and contested. Definitions of sustainability require the articulation of many different social, environmental and economic dimensions. So sustainability is difficult to define in a clear-cut way, despite the political appeal. Furthermore, definitions are embedded with values, power and knowledge.

Who is it that gets to define ‘sustainability’, what are the consequences, and who and what are included and excluded (Leach, 2015)? Different definitions lead to the disparate framing of problems and solutions, as well as judgements about how to treat uncertainty. And, as Adrian Smith and Andy Stirling state,  ‘This leaves crucial questions as to whose judgements should prevail at any point in time, especially because shifts and learning in social values or interests can reverse perceptions of hitherto favoured socio-technical pathways.’ (Smith and Stirling, 2007, p. 7)

What if, instead, progress was appraised on the basis of governance capacity? That is, instead of focussing on policies in place or trends in indicators against a baseline, our attention turned to the capacity of political processes and institutions – processes not just in formal government structures but present throughout society – to deliver on long-term change towards sustainability. Would this provide a better tool for appraisal? We argue that it would and make the case for a governance capacity-based appraisal for societal performance. While we do not attempt to conduct such an appraisal here, we conclude by sketching out the basis of a method for a longitudinal assessment of governance capacity.

Based on the failings of the two dominant tools for performance appraisal, we explore elements of governance capacity that would be relevant for achieving sustainable consumption and production.

A first the element that seems essential is the capacity of a society for developing, diffusing and updating a viable vision on what actually constitutes sustainable consumption and production practices, and thus defines which current practices require change. Taking the on-going energy transition in Germany as an example: setting and generating widespread legitimacy for the ambitious goal of moving to a renewable energy system, and creating competitive economic activity to support that shift. Given the long-term nature of sustainable development, such visioning requires scope beyond immediate partisan interests. At the same time, such interests need to be connected to the vision. This requires a recurring debate about alternative visions. It also requires the ability to adapt to changes, as happened in Germany in reaction to the Fukushima disaster.

A second element would be the ability to bring that vision and its operational consequences into the decision-making of all entities that shape practices of production and consumption. For example, for Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ or ‘Energy Transition’ to materialize, the decisions of public agencies, firms, and consumers need to shift in a direction that fits with the vision. This integration of the vision into decision-making can be achieved in different ways: legislation, persuasion and the shaping of national discourse, economic instruments such as feed-in tariffs, but also through persistent pressure of employees on managers, and consumers on the providers of products and services. In Germany, integration was successful to a considerable degree, as indicated by the fact that most citizens were aware of the ‘Energiewende’ and could actively articulate their position towards it. Integration of the key players was not complete however, as evident in the reluctance of major energy companies to develop a positive strategy towards it (Richter, 2013).

A third element of governance capacity consists of adequate ways of providing insight into the materialization of the vision. Such accounting informs decision-makers on how practices and impacts change over time. For the Energiewende, such monitoring took various shapes, ranging from public opinion towards the vision and its constituting elements, shifting percentages in the energy mix, and levels of adoption of renewable technologies such as solar panels installed by households.

For an assessment of these elements of governance capacity we can draw on a range of literature that has developed around the insight that sustainable development is a systemic challenge (Lebel et al. 2006). Based on this work, we suggest three main criteria for assessment.

The first is inclusiveness. The above elements are more effective when all those affected are involved in the development of the vision, and the decisions that are made to implement it. At a minimum, such inclusiveness requires that affected interests are taken into account through some form of representation; it may be more effective when it consists of actual participation in decision-making.

A second criterion is diversity. Given the long-term nature of moving towards sustainable consumption and production, it may very well be that ways of organizing governance that make sense now, may fail us in the future. Thus, organizing multiple ways of visioning, integrating and monitoring is beneficial.

A third criterion is elusive, yet crucial. Biologists use the term resilience to denote the ability of an organism or ecosystem to maintain its function in the face of severe shocks. Likewise, the way in which we organize governance requires some form of robustness (Anderies et al. 2013). Thus, the processes of visioning, integrating and monitoring should not be fatally hampered due to shifts in political coalitions, or sudden changes in resource prices.

In order to give a full assessment of the changes currently occurring in the UK, and particularly in relation to energy policy, the governance capacity framework sketched out above needs development. We can, however, make the following observations.

  • There has been a shift in the political support for climate change targets (visioning), as well as scrapping of policies that were meant to integrate such targets into decision-making.
  • Recent announcements run counter to the Conservative Party manifesto (e.g. scrapping of the CCS capital grant) and have surprised stakeholders across industry and civil society (inclusiveness).
  • More concerning still is dismantling the Sustainable Development Commission, which served a crucial function in both monitoring and visioning for sustainable consumption and production (although the Committee on Climate Change fulfils a similar function but specifically in relation to climate change).
  • But if the loss of the Sustainable Development Commission was such a devastating blow, that goes to demonstrate the lack of resilience in the overall governance capacity to begin, because there was no diversity in alternative ways of fulfilling that function.


Further Reading
Anderies, J. M., Folke, C., Walker, B., & Ostrom, E. (2013). Aligning key concepts for global change policy: robustness, resilience, and sustainability. Ecology and society18(2), 8.
Bache, I., Bartle, I., Flinders, M., Marsden, G., 2015. Blame Games and Climate Change: Accountability, Multi-Level Governance and Carbon Management. Br. J. Polit. Int. Relat. 17, 64–88. doi:10.1111/1467-856X.1204
Leach, M. (2015) ‘What is green? Transformation imperatives and knowledge politics’ in Scoones, I., Leach, M., Newell, P. The politics of green transformations (London: Routledge) pp.25-38.
Lebel, L., Anderies, J. M., Campbell, B., Folke, C., Hatfield-Dodds, S., Hughes, T. P., & Wilson, J. (2006). Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems
Shove, E. (2010) Beyond the ABC: Climate Change Policy and Theories of Social Change, Environment and Planning A. 42, 6, p. 1273-1285
Richter, M. (2013). Business model innovation for sustainable energy: German utilities and renewable energy. Energy Policy62, 1226-1237.


Victoria Johnson is Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester and the Centre on Innovation and Energy DemandFrank Boons is Professor of Innovation and Sustainability at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester. Frank has worked as an economic sociologist in the field of environmental sciences for over 20 years, and is currently associate editor of the Journal of Industrial Ecology (for the topic Business and Environment), as well as subject editor for the Journal of Cleaner Production (for the topic Governance of material and energy flows).