Elite power in low-carbon transitions: A critical and interdisciplinary review

Modern energy systems have tended towards centralized control by states, and national and multinational energy companies. This implicates the power of elites in realizing low-carbon transitions. In particular, low-carbon transitions can create, perpetuate, challenge, or entrench the power of elites. Using a critical lens that draws from geography, political science, innovation studies, and social justice theory (among others), this article explores the ways in which transitions can exacerbate, reconfigure or be shaped by “elite power.” It does so by offering a navigational approach that surveys a broad collection of diverse literatures on power. It begins by conceptualizing power across a range of academic disciplines, envisioning power as involving both agents (corrective influence) and structures (pervasive influence). It then elaborates different types of power and the interrelationship between different sources of power, with a specific focus on elites, including conceptualizing elite power, resisting elite power, and power frameworks. The Review then examines scholarship relevant to elite power in low-carbon transitions—including the multi-level perspective, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Anthony Giddens, Karl Marx, and other contextual approaches—before offering future research directions. The Review concludes that the power relations inherent in low-carbon transitions are asymmetrical but promisingly unstable. By better grappling with power analytically, descriptively, and even normatively, socially just and sustainable energy futures become not only more desirable but also more possible.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Marie-Claire Brisbois

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