Clean and contextual: Developing country-specific social movements for a clean energy transition

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Clean and contextual: Developing country-specific social movements for a clean energy transition

To successfully lobby for a greener future, it is key to examine the country-specific social movements and tactics used to mobilize clean energy technologies. 

Sovacool, B. K., Hess, D. J., Cantoni, R., Lee, D., Brisbois, M. C., Walnum, H. J., … & Goel, S. (2022). Conflicted transitions: Exploring the actors, tactics, and outcomes of social opposition against energy infrastructure. Global Environmental Change, 73, 102473.

The world needs to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent a rise in global average temperature above 1.5ºC. Researchers have concluded, with high confidence, that the burning of fossil fuels for energy generation is a major source of rising greenhouse gas emissions. While there are grassroots movements around the world demanding a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, there are organizations that oppose the transition to cleaner fuels. International and national politics, and social movements advocating for clean energy play an important role in shaping the future of energy systems. Analyzing the nuances in strategies of advocacy adopted in different countries can inform actions taken by citizen-led initiatives and lobbyists. 


A recent study, published in Global Environmental Change, examines how international and national politics interact to influence the pace of energy transition at a country level. Led by Dr. Benjamin Sovacool, the study examines 130 global case studies on social movements targeting changes in energy infrastructure. Because international regulations are often non-binding, they fail to have the desired effect on national policies. As a result, country-level politics often decide the pace of a country’s energy transition. For instance, although the European Union (EU), a supranational entity, has issued regulations to accelerate low-carbon energy transitions, member countries have complied at varying levels. Greece—a country facing financial insecurity and, therefore, indirectly dependent on the EU’s financial sanctions—has continued on its low-carbon pathway despite protests by coal miners. By contrast, Poland delayed its energy transition to 2049 due to a change in the governing political party in 2015. The current government supports coal miners, as a tenant of its nationalist agenda. Moreover, the Polish government’s opposition to the EU’s structure adds another level of nuance to the country’s outlook on the EU’s clean energy regulations. Because national politics can heavily influence a country’s energy policies, citizen-led movements, and the strategies they use, are especially important in creating momentum for a greener future.  


According to the study, social movements are designed using either institutional or extra-institutional tools, depending on the country. Institutional tools involve the use of litigation, successful meetings with government officials, and collaborations between local-level actors. Extra-institutional tools typically take the form of protests and community townhalls. Countries that have a history of resolving conflict through discussions and dialogue between different stakeholders often see dissent channeled through institutional tools. For example, the high frequency of meetings and consultations between local and government actors is a defining feature in the case of Norway. On the other hand, countries that have complicated litigation processes, or prolonged periods with no government response to public opposition, see a higher use of non-institutional channels of dissent. For example, in India the public often resort to protests rather than seeking official litigation, due to the complex state and federal relationships in matters concerning electricity transmission. These case studies demonstrate how citizens can successfully direct attention towards their cause by designing social movements in alignment with their country’s political structure. 

Policy makers and clean energy advocates are often inspired by new technology that promises a shift from dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy. Using the finding of this study, these stakeholders can tailor their advocacy for new clean energy infrastructure for their political environment. In particular, these case studies provide a blueprint to propose successful policies and organize effective forms of resistance. 

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