To prevent dangerous levels of climate change, the Paris Agreement defined a target of limiting global warming to 2°C. This target can only be achieved through a rapid and deep decarbonization of the economy, and particularly the energy sector. What is needed is a technological transition from greenhouse gas emitting technologies to low or zero carbon technologies.
Such a transition, in turn, requires fast and effective policy intervention. However, such policy intervention is not a trivial endeavor: policymakers need to balance different societal goals when implementing policies targeted at the energy sector. These potentially competing goals are commonly summarized as the “energy trilemma” of (1) limiting the cost (2) securing energy access and (3) reducing the environmental burden of energy supply. There are major trade-offs between these goals. Simply put, a technological transition towards low or zero carbon technologies is expensive, implying a conflict between limiting the cost and reducing the environmental burden. This trade-off is one of the main reasons why current climate policy ambition is not enough to reach the 2°C target.
In our analysis of 30 years of parliamentary debates in Germany (https://doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2019.1594667), we find that an additional fourth goal is relevant for policymakers: strengthening the national energy technology industry. We show that this industry policy goal is actually at least as relevant for policymakers as the conventional “trilemma” policy goals. Interestingly, this fourth policy goal seems to be less partisan than the other three. For renewable energy technologies, we show that policymakers across all parties support the deployment of these technologies due to their positive co-benefits for the national energy industry. Importantly, this trend strengthens over time with technological change providing more jobs and strengthening the competitiveness of the German energy industry. In our paper, we argue that this relatively non-partisan fourth policy goal can partly explain why German energy policy changed paradigmatically with the introduction of a feed-in-tariff in 2000.
Going beyond the case of Germany, we argue that the same logic applies to other countries: the construction of a national energy industry around low or zero carbon energy technologies presents an opportunity to bypass partisanship and help remove potential barriers to ambitious climate policy. The more policy-makers across the political spectrum realize that low-carbon energy policy can result in economic opportunity, the more likely they will further raise their climate ambition to compete in the industrial race to a low-carbon economy. China provides an excellent showcase of a country turning into a strong driver of international climate policy. Industry arguments may also be highly important in countries troubled by partisanship around climate change, like the United States. The more political actors realize that low-carbon alternatives can create jobs, the more likely that partisan differences over climate ambition fade into the background.
Thus, for understanding (potential) drivers of climate ambition, factoring in the industry policy goal into the classical energy trilemma is crucial. On the international level, institutions related to the Paris Agreement and beyond, should internalize these political realities. By actively engaging with the opportunities linked to the industry policy goal, fast and ample policy interventions to reach the 2°C targets might become more realistic. Read the paper in full in the Climate Policy Journal.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Tobias S. Schmidt is Assistant Professor of Energy Politics and the head of the Energy Politics Group at ETH Zurich.
Nicolas Schmid is a PhD student and scientific assistant at the Energy Politics Group at ETH Zurich.
Sebastian Sewerin is a senior researcher at the Energy Politics Group at ETH Zurich.