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The Overlooked Role of Discourse in Breaking Carbon Lock-In: The German Energy Transition

A strong theoretical insight into the struggles surrounding the future of coal in Germany.

If you have so far thought of the German energy transition as a success story which led from coal to renewables, the new publication by Buschmann and Oels  in WIREs Climate Change will get you thinking.

37% of the German electricity is still produced using coal, and Germany is even still clearing villages and old growth forests to make space for new open lignite mines. This article investigates why coal is still going so strong in Germany, using the concept of carbon lock-in to explain this path-dependence.

However, the article also investigates how carbon lock-ins are overcome. There is currently a strong anti-coal movement in Germany. Widely reported in international media was the clearing of 150 protesters from treehouses in Hambach forest by German utility RWE in order to continue with open lignite mining in North-Rhine-Westfalia (to which they are legally entitled). In response, 50,000 protesters showed up in solidarity and to demand the end of lignite coal mining in Germany. The so-called coal commission suggested in January 2019 to phase out coal by 2038, eight years later than most other European countries.

The new article by Buschmann and Oels offers a strong theoretical insight into these struggles surrounding the future of coal in Germany. Their starting point is the literature on ‘carbon lock-in’. This  asks why the decarbonization of Western industrialized countries is evolving so slowly – despite the availability of clean technology solutions. Carbon lock-in refers to a system in which the existing technological and institutional structures work as barriers to the creation of decarbonization pathways. According to the present body of literature, carbon lock-in is stabilized by three powerful pillars: conventional, fossil-fuel based technologies, the formal and informal institutions in support of these technologies, and thirdly  by people’s habits and behaviors.

Buschmann and Oels reveal that the literature has overlooked the role of discourses in maintaining or breaking carbon lock-in. A discourse can be understood as a system of shared meanings or mental maps, which are in turn reproduced by social practices. For instance, alliances of political actors can draw from one particular discourse over another, which produces tangible consequences like the shaping of institutions and the choice of technologies. Using the concept of discursive turning points, the authors argue that discourses are both part of lock-in mechanisms as well as important factors in explaining change towards decarbonization. From this follows the need to carefully examine the dominant discourses that constitute and justify the very technologies, institutions and behaviours that are deemed responsible for Western societies’ carbon lock-in.

Buschmann and Oels demonstrate the importance of discursive turning points for breaking carbon lock-in regarding the case of the German energy transition. They do so by conducting a systematic literature review, examining four decisive change-points in the unfolding of the German energy transition and studying the role of political discourses in each of them. The analysis helps to trace how Germany’s long-standing lock-in of nuclear power and fossil fuels was effectively undermined by the rise of a discourse promoting a radical energy transition (energy transition discourse). The discourse quickly left its marginal position and reached relative dominance through a number of factors. As a consequence, it forced back the originally dominant discourse that favoured a system based on nuclear energy and coal, with renewables merely an addition (energy mix discourse). Over time, the energy transition discourse de-radicalized, however, because nuclear power was allowed to play a role. However, the Fukushima disaster in 2011 lead to a return to formerly agreed shorter operating life-times of nuclear power plants. As a result, lignite coal took the place of nuclear energy as a bridge in the name of affordability and energy security. While renewables nowadays have a considerable share in the German energy mix and continue to grow, this happens alongside a remaining carbon lock-in.

Buschmann and Oels conclude that discursive lock-in and discursive turning points are useful analytical tools in explaining how the transition to renewable energies unfolds. They recommend that future research should study in detail the interaction between discursive lock-ins and other types of lock-in as developed by other scholars.


Kindly contributed by the Authors.

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