Book Review: Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions by Peter Newell



In Power Shift: the global political economy of energy transitions, Peter Newell examines energy transitions at all levels of governance, drawing lessons from past energy transitions to unlock a concrete understanding of the current struggle to decarbonise the global economy. Although the book does not present a detailed comparative analytical framework, researchers can learn much from Newell’s activism, his ideas, and his extensive study of the existing literature, writes Marc S. Langevin.

Power Shift: the global political economy of energy transitions. Peter Newell. Cambridge University Press. 2021.

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Climate change and the debates over energy production and consumption are attracting the attention of policymakers around the world and academics from all disciplines. Peter Newell took full advantage of the attention paid to the climate crisis to shed light on the world of energy policies and the literature on energy transitions. His new book, Change of power, is based on the scientific premise that climate change is a threat that calls for a rapid and transformative global effort to decarbonize energy systems.

His analysis begins and ends with the overall objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels, inserting this reference throughout its discussion of energy transitions at local, national and global scales and at the complex intersection of economic development, public health, energy security and poverty. Newell’s analysis and advocacy for energy transitions fits into his greater political and academic concern for contemporary global capitalism and its climate change-induced “crisis of legitimacy”.

Newell’s approach to examining the political economy of energy transitions makes sense, even for those who don’t want to embrace his use of the Gramscian. ‘transformism’ concept to tackle such a complex science puzzle. According to the author, well-established fossil fuel producers (called incumbents) are pushing their small investments in renewables in the hope of thwarting the challengers (decentralized and community-based renewable energy producers), who are pushing for a rapid transition to clean energy. He argues that current rates of global warming limit capitalist growth, the critical precursor to the legitimacy of the current system. As a result, “green” or low-carbon capitalist growth cannot keep up with demands or resolve system-wide contradictions (related to wage labor and the unequal division of labor and resources among developed countries. and developing countries) which are further exacerbated by global warming.

Conversely, Newell postulates that climate change has triggered a set of power shifts that could result in a transformation of fossil fuel energy systems at local, national and global levels. It aims to shed light on the possibilities of such transitions by providing a “more comprehensive political analysis of historical precedents. […] large-scale socio-technical and economic changes ”. His approach draws lessons from previous energy transitions to unlock a concrete understanding of the current struggle to decarbonize the global economy.

Image Credit: photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic to Unsplash

Unfortunately, Newell does not formalize his theoretical and methodological claims for benchmarking, although he does deliver a plethora of information for both policymakers and energy policy researchers. First, the author does not carefully conceptualize and empirically mobilize the “energy transition” for comparison. In Chapter Two, Newell presents a detailed discussion of the relevant elements of energy transitions and their underlying political economies, highlighting his analytical impetus around “when and how transitions occur”. In doing so, it also informally specifies an almost exhaustive bank of economic, ecological, political, social and technological variables that could be applied to a political economy analysis of energy transitions, but it refrains from identifying with precision the comparable historical cases and support. set of explanatory statements to explain their results.

In particular, Newell references and partially documents the incomplete transition of the last century from coal to liquid fossil fuels without a full description and explanation of this case to compare and contrast with current decarbonization efforts. It offers occasional historical information that raises questions about the military and naval shift from coal to bunker fuel during the first half of the twentieth century, but does not use this case, among many others, to sketch a framework. comparative analysis to examine the economics of energy production and consumption over time.

In chapter three, Newell overlooks an opportunity to propose and test a political economy framework for understanding changes in energy production, particularly in the current context of global warming politics. Similar to Kathryn Hochstetler (2020), Newell could have adopted or developed a framework to guide a comparative examination of the overlapping political economies of particular energy and production sources to assess whether the right mix of nested incentives are present to trigger a change or transition. . However, he seems more interested in punctuating the literature on climate change policies and energy transitions than in explaining the emergence, evolution and institutionalization of specific energy systems, especially those that could shed light on our understanding of the struggle. world for decarbonization. Closer to Newell’s initial point, the book does not present formal explanatory statements to account for these transitions as part of broader developments in the global political economy.

For example, Newell proposes that “disciplinary neoliberalism,” understood as a recent evolutionary development of global capitalism, has forced national governments to privatize state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the energy sector, thereby limiting or eliminating energy transition pathways. He cites constraints imposed on developing countries by multilateral development banks (MDBs) as an example of the unequal distribution of power to shape transition outcomes, but he does not explore specific cases.

Conversely, the World Bank has established an Energy Subsidy Reform Mechanism (ESRF) with the stated purpose of helping developing country governments design and implement energy subsidy reforms aimed at diversifying and integrating renewable sources without compromising the well-being of the poorest citizens. Is this program an anomaly to Newell’s argument or, despite its explicit purpose, does it act to restrict the capacities of recipient countries to shape their own energy futures? Without a comprehensive conceptualization of energy transitions, linked to a disciplined political economy framework to glean the economic interests and political action underlying the MDB’s energy-related technical assistance and lending programs, it is impossible to assess the ESRF and whether it constitutes a constraint, an outlier or an innovative program that could broaden the energy transition pathways available to beneficiaries.

The book’s lack of a solid analytical framework to explain the politics of energy transitions amid the current decarbonization campaign is disappointing. However, Table 7.1 on page 229 categorizes “competing energy pathways” that could serve as a starting point for researchers in advanced efforts to conceptualize scenarios based on the types of energy producers and consumers and their interrelationships. within the larger global political economy. Such a research cornerstone would allow comparison and guide empirical examination of incumbent and challengers interests as well as a full range of political actions by stakeholders.

We can learn a lot from Newell’s activism, his stakeholder-based observations, and his extensive study of the existing literature. His book offers an ambitious and inspired plethora of scholarly knowledge and documentation that deserves the attention of researchers. Moreover, Newell’s insight leads him to regularly highlight the touchstone of any study of the political economy of energy – “Ownership is the key” – in his broader advocacy for community control of energy. production and distribution of renewable energy. Yet the book fails to translate the author’s ideas and experiences into a comparative analytical framework to guide future research or to serve as text for the undergraduate class.

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Note: This review provides the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Marc S. LangevinGeorge Mason University
Mark S. Langevin, PhD, is Director of BrazilWorks and Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government and Fellow of the Center for Energy Science and Policy (CESP) at George Mason University in Virginia, USA. Mark can be contacted at: [email protected] On Twitter: On Linkedin:

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