Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy: Fifteen Contentious Questions

Book Review

Reviewer: Kacper Szulecki

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2016. ISBN: 978-1421418971
Author's page: Benjamin K. Sovacool, Marilyn A. Brown and Scott V. Valentine

Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy: Fifteen Contentious Questions

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In climate and energy studies, it is not only the continuous rise of global average annual temperatures that is apparent. The temperature of the discussions on policy, governance and technology solutions has also reached a boiling point in many areas.

This is most visible in the case of controversial energy generation technologies. Controversial here means, from one or another perspective, nearly all of those that are or may become available. Coal? The dirtiest fuel out there, or – as proponents would have it – the most affordable, abundant and stable option for the power sector. Oil? Not just dirty, but comes with geopolitical strings attached – to which some will cite its superior energy intensity and manifold use in the economy. Gas? In Central Europe, this word evokes not just a blue flame on the stove, but Russia’s West Siberian tundra with which your stove is connected by a long pipeline network. Nuclear? The cleanest source of electricity and the answer to both energy poverty and climate concerns, or an offshoot of the arms race and a looming risk we cannot afford. Renewables? The future of clean energy or a costly and intermittent nuisance. The list goes on.

Add broader questions, such as whether climate mitigation or adaptation makes sense, if geoengineering is a path we want to follow, should fracking be allowed, does electrification of transport make sense – and many others – and you will find that the issue area of energy and climate policy is a minefield. How can we navigate it carefully and make sense of the global energy challenge?

The book by Sovacool, Brown and Valentine offers some important advice here. As the title indicates, it identifies no less than fifteen ‘contentious questions’ – important issues around which the temperature of the debate seems to be particularly high. It does not leave it there, however. The book’s aim is apparently threefold. Having mapped these energy policy battlegrounds, the authors then try to give a fair account of both sides’ arguments, at times combining this with an incredibly thorough literature review, but packed in accessible, popular science form. The goal is not to simply recapitulate what is being said, but in the spirit of Hegelian dialectics, to seek a synthesis of the two opposing arguments – a ‘common ground’. This is not always successful, but the idea should be praised – remember that we are walking in a minefield. Finally, there is the last aim, which is to understand the reasons for contention around these 15 questions to emerge in the first place – where the stakeholders’ positions originate from, and why the debate is so difficult.

The introductory chapter discusses the structure of the book, but also the three premises of the authors’ endeavour. Firstly, dialectics as the tool for synthesizing opposing positions, secondly, the notion that energy is produced, transported and consumed through complex and interconnected sociotechnical systems, and cannot be treated as isolated technologies insulated from social, political, economic or environmental issues. Finally, the authors emphasize that the difficulty in energy policy debates rises not from misinformation, false or incomplete data – but from the broader assumptions that actors make before getting involved in debates. It is all about frames, not facts, the authors point out. Data, evidence and the rally-around-the-flag call for ‘scientific approaches’ can be thrown around by both sides – but very often these objective claims will have equal weight.

The fifteen chapters that follow are divided into four sections: energy & society, energy resources & technology, climate change and energy security & energy transitions. There is no space in this review to go through them one by one. It suffices to say that their structure is very clear – with both sides of the argument given more or less equal space, divided into more specific arguments used for or against a particular technology or policy option, and a short ‘common ground’ suggested by the authors at the end. The level of neutrality even in the most contentious areas – such as nuclear energy or geoengineering – is very high, making the book a valuable reference and an anchoring point for future discussions. Statistical data and evidence from existing academic literature are cited to support the different claims – and one has to emphasize the truly Benedictine work the authors have done in that respect.

The dialectic process is tricky, however, and at times, the reader feels the ‘common ground’ is not very convincing. For example, in the chapter on shale gas, the conclusion/common ground that shale ‘must be soundly governed’ does not seem to flow from either the thesis or antithesis, but rather is an idea that the authors hold – and there are more instances where that kind of forced reconciliation takes place. Overall, some of the contentious questions discussed simply do not have a meaningful common ground – they are completely binary. And the types of questions asked vary – so the controversies about real and possible risks of fracking, nuclear energy or geoengineering are discussed next to policy preferences such as whether adaptation or mitigation of climate change is more pressing or whether ‘peak oil’ has already been reached or not just yet.

One important issue that is only addressed in the conclusion is the political nature of all these debates, and the normative grounds on which the competing positions are built. In the body of the book the authors try to be objective and neutral – but that is not always possible in energy policy. As a result, they sometimes visibly accept the fame of one side of the controversy by simply following their terms of debate (for example in the debate on state intervention in energy markets). Finally, some discussions have progressed since the book was written – most notably the one on electric vehicles. While the authors provide a good discussion of EV’s as an element of the energy system, they do not consider potential changes in consumption/use patterns and habits, the rise of autonomous vehicles and the possible end of individual car ownership in the future. This only shows how fluid some of those discussions can be.

Overall, the volume is very informative, well-structured and accessible. The richness of evidence is at times overwhelming, and the book is not merely an introduction to contentious issues, but a concise and affordable handbook and reference volume for the entire area of global energy policy. Academics working on energy policy, politics and governance will be especially interested in the conclusion, where the authors provide a well thought-through typology of the eight competing energy frames and the causes of contention – an important explanatory appendix for the descriptive book. They end with advice on how energy questions should be approached, but it is clear that some important normative components of that suggested approach will already from the start lead to favouring some frames over others. This is by no means a bad thing – but the needs to be made clear and supported with ethical arguments which are largely beyond the scope of this excellent book.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 1