Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 76

Supplementary evidence from Professor Gordon MacKerron, Economic and Social Research Council, following the oral evidence session on 12 March 2008

  I am submitting a brief extra note to amplify my reply to the Committee's Question 282, (12 March 2008). This asked what are the main challenges facing the social science research community with respect to the further development of renewable energy sources. The challenges outlined below run across all social science approaches to the promotion of a radically lower carbon society, and all apply to renewable generation.

  1.  The first, "bottom up" challenge is better understanding of consumer and citizen behaviours in the face of potentially radical technological change. We know that changed economic signals (taxes and prices, including carbon prices) do lead to changed consumer behaviour. However we also know that the levels to which prices or taxes would have to rise to achieve low carbon objectives are, without help from other measures, politically implausible. This throws great weight on attempts to discover how consumers may change their preferences and behaviour towards more sustainable practices (including adoption of renewable technology) for any given price and tax regime.[263] This requires interdisciplinary work and particularly contributions from sociology and social psychology as well as new approaches from economics.

  2.  The second challenge, both "top down" and "bottom up", derives from the observation that "business as usual" within Government will not be enough to achieve the emissions reductions to which Government is committed. The challenge is then to develop better understanding of the ways in which Government may act with greater urgency in the promotion of renewable and other sustainable energy developments, while acquiring and retaining sufficient political legitimacy for the urgency to be translated into long-term and effective action.[264] This again requires interdisciplinarity with a particular role for political science and sociology. In the renewables field, it applies to understanding how the planning process, now being revised, can achieve both legitimacy and speed.

  3.  The third challenge is to achieve better analysis and evaluation of Government policy impacts, both before and after implementation. We especially need to gain better understanding of the interaction of different policy instruments (eg the Renewables Obligation and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme) which are aimed at essentially the same low carbon objectives.322[265] Sometimes these instruments will be mutually reinforcing and sometimes get in each other's way, and we need to understand these processes better. This would help Government, both in moving further and more urgently in areas of success, and in helping the process of learning and policy adaptation when policies work less well—bearing in mind the need to protect prior investments made under previous policy regimes.

March 2008

263   For a recent review of literature, see Mari Martiskainen Affecting Consumer Behaviour on Energy Demand [] Back

264   A recent and radical analysios of the conditions for greater urgency and legitimacy in climate change and energy policy is C Mitchell The Political Economy of Sustainable Energy Palgrave, 2007. Back

265   322 A good example of earlier work is S Sorrell (2003) Who owns the carbon? Interactions between the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and the UK Renewables Obligation and Energy Efficiency Commitment Energy and Environment 14(5), 677-703. Back

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