Marie-Claire Brisbois: Overall access to energy brings healthier democracies
Date: August 4th 2021
Author: Alenka Lena Klopčič
“As the energy transition creates turbulence in energy systems, it is natural that we are also seeing turbulence in political systems,” Dr. Marie-Claire Brisbois of the University of Sussex says.After her lecture during the recent virtual conference organised by the Slovenian NGO Focus, Energetika.NET sat down with Dr. Brisbois, an Energy Policy Lecturer at the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit and Co-Director of the Sussex Energy Group, and delved a bit more deeply into the topics of ‘energy turbulence’, ‘old fossil boys’ and energy democracy in the latest video interview.
“We are going to keep seeing turbulence and we're already seeing it. This isn't something that we have to wait to find out about. It's happening right now and it's happening all over the world. And when I was talking at the conference, I was talking about how our democracies have really evolved alongside fossil fuel interests and energy interests. And so they are really quite tied with our democratic decision making processes. So as we are seeing shifts to more renewable energy, to different companies, to different ways of organising our energy system, we're really seeing a lot of change. So we can see or we can expect to see more debates and controversies in the halls of government around the world. So, for example, in the US, you can see right now there has been lots of debate over the American jobs plan,” says Dr. Marie-Claire Brisbois on the matter of future turbulence.
Big clash of interest
“The initial proposal was for all sorts of clean energy infrastructure, for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, for higher corporate tax rates, the things that really impact fossil fuel industries and that fossil fuel industries have been quite instrumental in trying to control to make sure that they they're not affected by them. And there's been quite high profile lobbying of politicians to make sure that these more progressive measures don't go through. And the agreement that they've actually reached at this moment, it's not final, but is very much watered down. Therefore, it is much easier for fossil fuel industries. But a lot of people are really unhappy about that because they want to see greener policies. We need more electricity infrastructure, not more fossil fuel infrastructure. So that's the US. But in in Europe, you're seeing it across the board as well. The German government, for example, recently had a court case which they lost. So the environmental interests won that court case, saying that the German government wasn't going fast enough in their fossil fuel phase out, that their measures aren't aggressive enough,” she further says on the topic of ‘energy turbulence’, adding that the process of phasing coal out is quite political.
“We are seeing it at that level around the world, and it’s happening in the UK. It's happening in Poland, Estonia, everywhere – it is happening. But you're also seeing it in on the streets, in public, so you're seeing political turmoil in the U.K. where I live and work, you're seeing Extinction Rebellion [a UK-based protest movement]. Maybe it has been a bit quieter due to Covid-19, but it is ramping back up again where we are seeing public protests, where people are in the streets demanding political action on climate change. In France, they had the Gilet Jaune protests, which were protests against taxes on fuel and so on.” That said, she believes that we can expect even more of the same, essentially “because there's a big clash of interests and the clashes are also over the ways that we as citizens live our lives”.
Oil boys and their political power
“Oil and gas industries have tremendous political power. They generally use that political power to ensure themselves safe and profitable operating conditions. Corporations have a legal obligation to pursue profits, which tends to mean opposing or watering down progressive energy, climate, environmental and, occasionally, social policies. Since these corporations have held such an important role in our economies, they have often been successful in realising their political goals,” Dr. Marie Claire Brisbois stated, among others, during the same event organized by the Slovenian NGO Focus.
Who, or what, might replace the fossil fuel industry in this regard in an era of increasingly decentralised energy sources? Answering this, Brisbois hopes that no one replaces them in the same role. “It would be ideal if we could have political systems or an energy system where we didn't have such a massive concentration of political power by fossil fuel industry. It makes it difficult for a democracy to work. Democracy is intended to represent the will of the people.”
But fossil fuel industries have political influence, so she remains realistic. “They have the power to have decisions made that do not necessarily represent the interests of the general public and so they pervert democracies. It would be wonderful if we could have an energy system where no one interest fills the role that the fossil fuel industry is playing right now. And ideally, it would be more dispersed, so that influence and that power would be diffuse. And if we could have many more companies or interests producing energy and providing that essential social service of making sure that we have access to energy, then the political power would be distributed and then we would have much healthier democracies because you wouldn't just have one interest.”
“You could actually have more democratic deliberation and debate and competing interests. That being said, the fossil fuel industry is really trying to maintain its central role in the energy system. And in some ways, that's by trying to make sure that fossil fuels are used for as long as possible. And no matter what they say, in public about being interested in transitioning, about moving the world away from fossil fuels, they are still very, very much motivated and fighting for the opportunity to use every single last drop of fossil fuels that they can get because they can make a lot of money off of it.” - Dr. Marie-Claire Brisbois
How long could this ‘war’ between the ‘old fossil boys’, such as the Koch brothers, and the new energy, such as renewables, last? In her lecture Brisbois cited the example of the influential U.S.-based Koch Brothers oil family, who realised that solar would impact their profitability, so they proactively lobbied state governments and were successful in pre-emptively blocking legislation that would have supported the development of solar energy. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers also successfully lobbied for changes to weaken numerous environmental acts in 2013. With this in mind, Brisbois says that the fossil fuel system is still firmly locked in the existing energy system.
“The old system is still hanging on but eventually we will get to a later transition phase where the shift to renewables is mostly complete and society is oriented around this new system.”
Cities in the front row of the energy shift
Decentralisation of ownership is a key part of energy democracy. In the aforementioned lecture Brisbois said that this is an ideal political goal in which citizens are the recipients, stakeholders and bearers of the entire energy sector policy. She also hinted that energy democracy is characterised by the principles of broad participation, local economic development, community development, political engagement and a focus on justice and environmental responsibility. So, does the solution to a really sustainable energy future lie in cities and local communities, or perhaps somewhere else as well?
Answering this question, Brisbois again remains realistic when saying that “it depends”. Despite the fact that the centralized energy systems have served (and still are serving) society well, she believes that cities and local areas and decentralization at that scale are really important in spurring change. “But still for a long time, we will be seeing a mix of centralized and decentralized resources and there are really good reasons for that – such as centralized sources like hydropower plants, offshore wind and solar parks.”
Therefore, such centralized generation is here to stay - at least for the foreseeable future, Brisbois says, adding that such generation is best organized by governments, often with private interests involved as well. However, cities with their infrastructure are also incredibly important. “They are used to organizing big projects and they are closely connected with people - their day-to-day concerns, like affordable housing, the ability to heat and cool homes, transportation and air quality.”
When talking about energy sustainability, Brisbois already sees cities and regions stepping up to assume this role. She also recalls an interesting fact that the fossil fuel industry has close working relationships with politicians at the level where energy policy is made, whereas it lacks the relationships with staff at city levels. “This means that cities have a bit more flexibility and a bit more freedom to make progressive energy decisions than national politicians who are working with these really entrenched locked-in relationships with the fossil fuel industry.”
Check the whole video interview with Dr. Marie-Claire Brisbois, in which she also warns about the thoughtless support for ill-advised hydrogen projects, HERE.
This article is available also in Slovene.