Oil and gas prices skyrocketed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in spring 2022, creating a global energy crisis similar to the oil crisis of the 1970s. While some countries used the price shock to accelerate the transition to cleaner sources of energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal, others have responded by expanding the production of fossil fuels.
A new study appearing today in the journal Science identifies the political factors that allow some countries to take the lead in adopting cleaner sources of energy while others lag behind. The findings offer important lessons as many governments around the world race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the devastating impacts of climate change.
“We are really interested in understanding how national differences mediate the responses of countries to the same kind of energy challenge,” said study lead author Jonas Meckling, an associate professor of energy and environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “We found that the political institutions of countries shape how much they can absorb costly policies of all kinds, including costly energy policies.”
By analyzing how different countries responded to the current energy crisis and to the oil crisis of the 1970s, the study reveals how the structure of political institutions can help or hinder the shift to clean energy. Meckling carried out the analysis in collaboration with study co-authors Phillip Y. Lipscy of the University of Toronto, Jared J. Finnegan of University College London, and Florence Metz of the University of Twente, in the Netherlands.
Because policies that promote the transition to cleaner energy technologies are often costly in the short-term, they can garner significant political pushback from constituents, including consumers and corporations. The analysis found that the countries that were most successful at pioneering cleaner energy technologies had political institutions that helped absorb some of this pushback — either by insulating policymakers from political opposition or by compensating consumers and corporations for the extra costs associated with adopting new technologies.
For example, Meckling said, many countries in continental and northern Europe have created institutions that allow policymakers to insulate themselves from pushback by voters or lobbyists or to pay off constituencies impacted by the transition. As a result, many of these countries have been more successful at absorbing the costs associated with transitioning to a clean energy system, such as investing in greater wind capacity or upgrading transmission grids.
Meanwhile, countries that lack such institutions, such as the U.S., Australia and Canada, often follow market-driven transitions, waiting for the price of new technologies to drop before adopting them. [Continue reading…]