Latest INNOPATHS publications

Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future

Climate change mitigation will create new natural resource and supply chain opportunities and dilemmas, because substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure (1). However, despite attempts at improved governance and better corporate management, procurement of many mineral and metal resources occurs in areas generally acknowledged for mismanagement, remains environmentally capricious, and, in some cases, is a source of conflict at the sites of resource extraction (2). These extractive and smelting industries have thus left a legacy in many parts of the world of environmental degradation, adverse impacts to public health, marginalized communities and workers, and biodiversity damage. We identify key sustainability challenges with practices used in industries that will supply the metals and minerals—including cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors. We then propose four holistic recommendations to make mining and metal processing more sustainable and just and to make the mining and extractive industries more efficient and resilient.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Saleem H. Ali, Morgan Bazilian, Ben Radley, Benoit Nemery, Julia Okatz and Dustin Mulvaney.

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The decarbonisation divide: Contextualizing landscapes of low-carbon exploitation and toxicity in Africa

Much academic research on low-carbon transitions focuses on the diffusion or use of innovations such as electric vehicles or solar panels, but overlooks or obscures downstream and upstream processes, such as mining or waste flows. Yet it is at these two extremes where emerging low-carbon transitions in mobility and electricity are effectively implicated in toxic pollution, biodiversity loss, exacerbation of gender inequality, exploitation of child labor, and the subjugation of ethnic minorities. We conceptualize these processes as part of an emerging “decarbonisation divide.” To illustrate this divide with clear insights for political ecology, sustainability transitions, and energy justice research, this study draws from extensive fieldwork examining cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the processing and recycling of electronic waste in Ghana. It utilizes original data from 34 semi-structured research interviews with experts and 69 community interviews with artisanal cobalt miners, e-waste scrapyard workers, and other stakeholders, as well as 50 site visits. These visits included 30 industrial and artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC, as well as associated infrastructure such as trading depots and processing centers, and 20 visits to the Agbogbloshie scrapyard and neighborhood alongside local waste collection sites, electrical repair shops, recycling centers, and community e-waste dumps in Ghana. The study proposes a concerted set of policy recommendations for how to better address issues of exploitation and toxicity, suggestions that go beyond the often-touted solutions of formalisation or financing. Ultimately, the study holds that we must all, as researchers, planners, and citizens, broaden the criteria and analytical parameters we use to evaluate the sustainability of low-carbon transitions.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Andrew Hook, Mari Martiskainen, Andrea Brock and Bruno Turnheim

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Beyond cost and carbon: The multidimensional co-benefits of low carbon transitions in Europe

The paper explores the myriad potential benefits of four low-carbon transitions beyond those in the environmental or economic domain. Drawn from a rich set of original mixed methods data—across expert interviews, focus groups, and public internet forums—we examine the presumed multidimensional, qualitative co-benefits to nuclear power in France, solar photovoltaics in Germany, electric vehicles in Norway, and smart meters in Great Britain. We cataloged 128 identified prospective co-benefits to these four European low-carbon transitions, 30 for nuclear power, 30 for solar photovoltaic panels, 26 for electric vehicles and 42 for smart meters. Tellingly, 37 of these collective benefits are identified as economic and 14 environmental, but the remaining ones illustrate a broader spectrum of technical benefits (31 in total), social benefits (30 in total) and political benefits (16 in total). After presenting this body of evidence, the paper then discusses these benefits more deeply in terms of complementarity, temporality, scale, actors, and incumbency. We conclude with insights for energy and climate research and policy more broadly.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Mari Martiskainen, Andrew Hook and Lucy Baker

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Why matter matters: How technology characteristics shape the strategic framing of technologies

Previous work stresses that actors use strategic technology framing—i.e. purposeful language and rhetoric—to shape technology expectations, persuade stakeholders, and influence the evolution of technologies along their life-cycle. Currently, however, the literature predominantly describes strategic technology framing as a sociopolitical process, and provides only limited insights into how the framing itself is shaped by the material characteristics of the technologies being framed. To address this shortcoming, we conducted a comparative, longitudinal case study of two leading research organizations in the United States and Germany pursuing competing solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies to examine how technology characteristics shape the strategic framing of technologies. We show that to frame PV technologies in their own favor, executives made use of four framing dimensions (potential, prospect, performance, and progress) and three framing tactics (conclusion, conditioning, and concession). Moreover, we show that which framing dimensions and tactics actors selected depended on the maturity and evolution of the technology they pursued, respectively. By highlighting how technology characteristics shape strategic technology framing, we contribute to the literatures on social movements, institutional entrepreneurship, and impression management. Additionally, by providing a coherent framework of strategic technology framing, our study complements existing findings in the literature on the sociology of expectations and contributes to a better understanding of how technology hypes emerge.

Written by Joern Hoppmann, Laura Diaz Anadon and Venkatesh Narayanamurti

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Processes of elite power and low-carbon pathways: Experimentation, financialisation, and dispossession

What is a low-carbon pathway? To many, it is a way of mitigating climate change. To others, it is about addressing market failure or capturing the co-benefits attached to low-carbon systems, such as jobs or improved health. To still others, it represents building adaptive capacity and resilience in the face of climate change. However, these interpretations can fail to acknowledge how pathways of low-carbon transitions can also become intertwined with processes and structures of inequality, exclusion and injustice. Using a critical lens that draws from a variety of disciplines, this article explores three ways through which responses to climate change can entrench, exacerbate or reconfigure the power of elites. As society attempts to create a low-carbon society, including for example via coastal protection efforts, disaster recovery, or climate change mitigation and renewable energy, these efforts intersect with at least three processes of elite power: experimentation, financialisation, and dispossession. Experimentation is when elites use the world as a laboratory to test or pilot low-carbon technologies or policy models, transferring risks yet not always sharing benefits. Financialisation refers to the expansion and proliferation of finance, capital, and financial markets in the global economy and many national economies, processes of which have recently extended to renewable energy. Dispossession is when elites use decarbonisation as a process through which to appropriate land, wealth, or other assets (and in the process make society more majoritarian and/or unequal). We explore these three themes using a variety of evidence across illustrative case studies, including hard and soft coastal protection measures (Bangladesh, Netherlands), climate risk insurance (Malawi), and renewable energy auctions and associated mechanisms of finance and investment (South Africa and Mexico).

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Lucy Baker, Mari Martiskainen and Andrew Hook

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Bias in energy system models with uniform cost of capital assumption

Several studies have recently evaluated the feasibility of 100% renewable energy-based energy systems in different world regions. In a recent article, Bogdanov et al.1 contribute to this literature, by using an energy system model that takes into account the unique conditions of 145 global subregions, including factors such as renewable energy (RE) resource conditions, structure and age of existing capacities, demand patterns, etc. Based on their results, they discuss transition pathways and calculate the 2050 levelized cost of electricity generation (LCOE) of 100% RE-based energy systems in those 145 subregions. While the paper provides a new high-resolution analysis of 100% RE systems, we believe that it falls short of adequately considering large differences in the cost of capital (CoC) when comparing the LCOE between countries. As a result, Fig. 2 in Bogdanov et al. shows the lowest LCOEs for solar photovoltaic (PV)-based systems in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan, which seems at odds with the high investment risks and very low installed capacity in both countries2. Accounting for CoC differences between countries changes the results dramatically, as we show in Fig. 1. We therefore argue that using uniform CoC can lead to distorted policy recommendations.

Written by Florian Egli, Bjarne Steffen and Tobias S. Schmidt

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Toxic transitions in the lifecycle externalities of a digital society: The complex afterlives of electronic waste in Ghana

This study examines the contours of electronic waste (“e-waste”) governance in Ghana, one of the top five importers of e-waste in the world, as well as the site of one of the most intensive e-waste scrapyards in the world, Agbogbloshie. At Agbogbloshie, despite the intentions of national Ghanaian regulations and hazardous waste laws, most e-waste is untreated or crudely processed via burning or acid baths. These practices release dioxins, furans, and heavy metals into the environment, invariably harming scrapyard workers, their families, and the greater urban community of Accra. However, the scrapyard also provides a critical source of livelihood for some of Ghana’s most poor, vulnerable, and unskilled migrants. The aim and objective of this study is to humanize the conundrums and challenges that e-waste invokes in places such as Ghana. Based on extensive and original field research—including expert interviews, community interviews with scrapyard workers and families, and naturalistic observation at waste sites and other parts of the e-waste supply chain—this study asks: What benefits has e-waste brought communities in Ghana? What risks has it created? And, critically, what policies need implemented to make e-waste more sustainable? It documents ten ostensible benefits of e-waste alongside ten very real and growing risks. Then, it identifies a concert of fifteen different policy recommendations as well as four research gaps. It concludes by emphasizing the duality of the e-waste phenomenon and e-waste policy, and by underscoring the political economy dynamics of e-waste activities and practices.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Adverse effects of rising interest rates on sustainable energy transitions

Increasing the use of renewable energy (RE) is a key enabler of sustainable energy transitions. While the costs of RE have substantially declined in the past, here we show that rising interest rates (IRs) can reverse the trend of decreasing RE costs, particularly in Europe with its historically low IRs. In Germany, IRs recovering to pre-financial crisis levels in 5 years could add 11% and 25% to the levelized cost of electricity for solar photovoltaics and onshore wind, respectively, with financing costs accounting for about one-third of total levelized cost of electricity. As fossil-fuel-based electricity costs are much less and potentially even negatively affected by rising IRs, the viability of RE investments would be markedly deteriorated. On the basis of these findings, we argue that rising IRs could jeopardize the sustainable energy transition and we propose a self-adjusting thermostatic policy strategy to safeguard against rising IRs.

Written by Tobias S. Schmidt, Bjarne Steffen, Florian Egli, Michael Pahle, Oliver Tietjen & Ottmar Edenhofer

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Technological frames and the politics of automated electric Light Rail Rapid Transit in Poland and the United Kingdom

Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems are often backed not only because they satisfy basic mobility functions, but because they can revitalize urban centers, affirm the legitimacy of state planners, support innovation and even cultivate an image of a city or region as progressive and modern. In this study, we argue that electrified, automated LRT systems can fulfill private functional frames, private symbolic frames, societal functional frames, and societal symbolic frames. In particular, we argue that light rail can fulfill private functional frames (making passengers feel safe, offering a cheap and efficient mode of transport), private symbolic frames (signifying political identity or exclusionary planning), societal functional frames (environmental stewardship), and societal symbolic frames (such as modernism or innovativeness, or the lack of it). Essentially, these frames encompass not only what light rail is and does, but what it means and represents, and even some of its failures and challenges. The article then identifies ten specific frames associated with two case studies of automated light rail systems, the established Docklands Light Rail (DLR) in the United Kingdom, and the emerging Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) in Poland. We find that the DLR is not only a vital part of meeting (functional) demand for mobility, it is innovative and exciting to ride, legitimation of a conservative approach to project development, a social injustice (to some), an environmentally friendly alternative to cars, and a perceived magnet for global investment into the greater Docklands area. Similarly, the PRT is not only a reliable and safe mode of transit, but also a technical marvel, a monopoly breaking symbol, a clean and sustainable form of mobility, and a reflection of either progressive Polish innovation and entrepreneurship, or enduring failure.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Asieh Haieri Yazdi

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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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