Rapid Switch: potential pathways and political bottlenecks to deep decarbonisation in Australia

Decarbonisation of the world’s energy systems is arguably the most critical global technological infrastructure transformation anticipated during the next few decades.  All countries, especially developing but also advanced economies, will face significant and diverse challenges in managing the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In response to these challenges, Rapid Switch, led by principle investigator Professor Chris Greig (UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation) in collaboration with Princeton University (USA), Tsinghua University (China), IIT-Bombay and IIT-Delhi (India), is a cross-discipline, multi-country project designed to expand and deepen our understanding of pathways to decarbonisation and to contribute to solving one of the most pressing public policy problems of our time. The project focuses particularly on decarbonisation challenges in India, China, the United States, and Australia.

Researchers from the UQ Centre for Policy Futures are engaged in Activity 5 of Rapid Switch: Identifying politically feasible pathways to decarbonisation and potential bottlenecks that can be anticipated.  

(Princeton: Keohane, Kohli, Oppenheimer, IIT-D: Sagar. UQ: Hussey, Malakar, Herington.)

The principal disciplinary focus of this work will be political science, administrative science, and organizational analysis.  We recognize that pathways to decarbonisation will be vastly different depending on the nature of a country’s political system.  Comparative work on this subject has emphasized a variety of factors, including policies of major fossil-fuel firms and industries, social movements, electoral politics, initiatives taken by political leaders, bureaucratic competence and initiative, and the impact of international pressure.   With respect specifically to the politics of India and Australia we will focus on the following key issues:

  1. Under what conditions might national and regional leaders prioritize decarbonisation as a pressing policy issue?  While the role of national leadership is important in all countries, ground realities in India will make the state’s role central in any decisive effort towards decarbonisation: nearly all commercial coal-mining in India is in the public sector, as is nearly 70 percent of electricity generation.  We will investigate which leaders (across parties as well as across regions) are more supportive of a decarbonisation policy agenda and why.  From such an analysis we hope to identify the factors that might shift policy priorities in India.
  2. Business groups will be major stake holders in any effort by the Indian state to shift energy policies.  Not only does their profitability depend on regular supply of cheap energy, in post-liberalization India they now seek to invest in coal mining and energy production.  Over the last few decades the Indian state has also forged political alliances with business groups [24, 25, 26].  It is not likely that the Indian state will pursue a set of energy policies that are opposed by major business groups.  Our research effort will try to understand the role of firms who are likely to oppose any major shift from the status quo, as well as the role of innovative energy firms that might push for a new policy framework.
  3. The role of media and a variety of environmental activist groups (NGOs) is important in shaping public opinion.  The poor quality of air in major Indian cities, including New Delhi, is a constant source of stories in newspapers and television.  Our research efforts will try to understand the role of these more diffuse factors that also influence the making of public policies, including why and how such concerns of air quality can be linked to deeper connections with high carbon-dependence in the country.
  4. In the case of Australia, there is likely to be increasing tension between businesses and states who benefit from fossil energy exports, their customers (including India) and domestic climate action policies including medium-term (2030) state-based targets for renewable energy levels, which are among the world’s most ambitious. We will study the potential for this tension to impact on the pace, adversely or positively on the expansion of fossil fuel exports.

Project members

Professor Karen Hussey

Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee
Matt Herington

Matt Herington

CSIRO-UQ Alliance Researcher
Centre for Policy Futures