The Political Economy of Energy Systems Transitions: Implications for Climate Policy

EPA Grant Number: FP917188
Title: The Political Economy of Energy Systems Transitions: Implications for Climate Policy
Investigators: Huberty, Mark Edward
Institution: University of California - Berkeley
EPA Project Officer: Michaud, Jayne
Project Period: August 1, 2010 through July 31, 2013
Project Amount: $111,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2010) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Science & Technology for Sustainability: Environmental Behavior & Decision Making


Climate change mitigation will require replacing fossil fuels with lower-emissions alternatives. Transforming the energy system at this scale poses major economic and political challenges, which may interfere with successful climate policy. How to reconcile climate, economics, and politics thus becomes a central concern for successful policymaking. This project will improve the understanding of the role of politics and policy in major energy systems transformations in order to inform better policy approaches for climate change.

Successful action to prevent global climate change will require replacing fossil fuels with other fuel sources. This will require replacing both the fuels and the technologies that depend on them. Studying the politics of how complex energy systems change can improve policies to expand the use of renewable energy and reduce emissions. This project will study past and present examples of energy systems, such as electrification and the European Union’s transition to low-emissions fuels.


This project takes two approaches to understanding energy systems transformation. First, it will study historical examples of energy systems transformation in industrial economies. Climate change requires energy systems transformation on par with earlier transitions from wood to coal, coal to oil, or electrification. These cases can illuminate our understanding of the roles played by politics and markets in large-scale changes to how we produce, distribute, and use energy. Second, the project will examine European Union policy presently underway to identify its origins, political characteristics, and prospects for success. In both cases, learning from past efforts can inform better choices about future action.

Expected Results:

This research will identify characteristics common to major energy systems transformations. These will include both the economic and political barriers to transformation, and the public and private solutions that succeeded in overcoming those barriers. Given the essentially political nature of responses to climate change, this information will provide valuable input to the design and execution of long-term climate policy. Getting the mix of regulation, market pricing, technological innovation, and private initiative right is vitally important to effective and sustainable climate solutions. By drawing on past and present efforts to do so, this research can help inform the design of this policy mix for the future.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection
Pollution from fossil fuels has created some of the most widespread health and environmental risks of the modern age. But fossil fuels also power economic advances that generate substantial improvements to standards of living worldwide. A successful energy systems transformation must replace fossil fuels with other sources without disrupting economic prosperity. This research will seek to identify how earlier energy systems transformations have supported, not merely accommodated, improvements to human well-being.

Supplemental Keywords:

climate change, renewable energy, energy systems,, RFA, Economic, Social, & Behavioral Science Research Program, Scientific Discipline, Air, Air Pollution Effects, decision-making, Ecology and Ecosystems, Economics & Decision Making, assessing ecosystem vulnerability, climate change, climate studies, decision making, economic incentives, energy consumption, energy efficiency

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2011
  • 2012
  • Final