Promoting low-carbon technologies in the European Union: stories of hope and hype

2017-02-27T03:58:27Z (GMT) by Martinez Arranz, Alfonso
The European Union (EU) approved in 2009 an ambitious “Climate and Energy Package” with measures for the promotion of low-carbon technologies to fight human-induced climate change. This Package provided unprecedented EU-level support for carbon capture and storage (CCS), a new technology first mentioned in the EU’s political agenda in 2005. This dissertation answers the question: “what or who drove the sudden decision to support CCS in the EU?”; thereby covering important gaps in the literature. This literature largely explains away the EU’s choice for CCS as a logical measure to step up climate change mitigation. However, CCS is just one of many potential “innovative technologies”. Indeed, the vision of a European Supergrid acquired prominence as soon as CCS projects began floundering in 2010. A fraction of this EU literature does analyse the legal intricacies of support for CCS, but does not delve into the politics behind the laws. The thesis argues that a loose coalition led by traditional electrical utilities successfully pushed for the support of CCS at the EU level, subtly emphasizing its use in new coal-fired power plants as an innovative way to enhance European security of supply. The thesis contends that this coalition downplayed the uncertainty surrounding CCS deployment, disregarded the EU’s strengths in industrial CCS, and its increasingly coal-importing, low-growth economy. More coal power hardly addresses the EU’s supply worries and adds pressure on climate targets; yet it absorbed all EU funding made available to CCS – with few results. By contrast, steelmaking provided a trial ground for CCS with no current low-carbon alternatives, a fact that was widely ignored. A constructivist understanding of technological change underpins this thesis. This means that debates about technologies are assumed to socially “construct” their future development (or at least support for it) along “storylines” describing such development. The dissertation also drew on insights about the pitfalls of economic modelling as well as the relevance of the concept of “hype” in decision-making about future technologies. Documental analysis and interviews were used to reveal the social construction of low-carbon technologies in the EU, and the role of modelling therein. These methods also helped analyse the extent of hype. In its exposition, the dissertation traces chronologically the process of EU decision-making on CCS. Process-tracing highlights the influence of a dominant “storyline”, used by the aforementioned coalition, to extol the potential of CCS for coal-fired power plants in the EU. This EU storyline was based on a largely unrelated (and partly unfounded) global storyline, which originated in the early influence on CCS of the coal-rich USA and in a global community awestruck by the coal-propelled rise of China in the 2000s. The global storyline was relayed and relied on by authoritative organisations (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the International Energy Agency). Eventually, the utility-led coalition adopted it in the EU – in order to safeguard not only the climate, but also its coal assets and interests. Two further points on modelling and hype can be derived from the process-tracing exercise. Firstly, a classic hype dynamic can be observed in the fact that, after a decade of being largely ignored and with little more data available, CCS for clean coal suddenly appeared essential worldwide. Secondly, this research reveals that the dominance of this CCS storyline sidelined other existing low-carbon options, such as the Supergrid. Notably, the economic modelling that backed CCS in the EU was fundamentally biased, assuming that only CCS would be capable of breakthroughs and that conditions not conducive to CCS deployment were “extremes”. Literature on CCS generally has failed to consider in depth the potentially very different role of CCS in each world region or its relation to other technologies. Drawing lessons from the findings above, this dissertation suggests a strategic approach to CCS promotion in the EU that takes into account (1) the possibility of breakthroughs in non-CCS low-carbon technologies and (2) the advantages of promoting CCS in industrial sectors with no other mitigation options.