Re-inserting politics in the European quest for ‘green’ technologies

By Frederik De Roeck, Centre for EU Studies (CEUS) of Ghent University

With the European Green Deal, the new Commission is firmly committed to launching an all-encompassing process that should result in Europe becoming the first climate neutral continent by 2050. According to the Commission’s Green Deal communication, “New technologies, sustainable solutions and disruptive innovation are critical to achieve its objectives” (European Commission 2019: 18). This is indicative of the central role of technology development in climate governance: current debates on all major transitions encapsulated under the Green Deal (e.g. in agriculture, transport, and energy-intensive industry) centralize the importance of technological innovation as fundamental drivers of this process.

Technological neutrality?

This is of course nothing new. Social scientists have repeatedly identified the dominance of an ‘ecological modernization’ paradigm in climate governance, both at the global level as well as within Europe (e.g. Bäckstrandt & Lövbrand 2006). Central to this paradigm is a firm belief in the power of market forces and technological innovation to kick start action on climate mitigation and drive sustainability transitions forward. Within the EU, a concrete example of this paradigm is the principle of ‘technology neutrality’, which implies public actors creating a level playing field for technology development, allowing market forces to pick the optimal solution (Carton 2016). The concept has taken a central role in the EU’s climate and energy policies, and has for example been an important argument in defense of the EU Emission Trading System (ibid.). The sanctity of this principle also often comes up in current debates on the governance of sustainability transitions in the transport sector and the energy sector (e.g. Maubanc et al. 2020; Morgan 2017). With regards to the latter, the Green Deal communication also explicitly states that “it is essential to ensure that the European energy market is fully integrated, interconnected and digitalised, while respecting technological neutrality” (European Commission 2019: 6).

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This includes favoring short-term interests, which can manifest itself in more market support for technologies compatible with existing infrastructure, and a preference for more incumbent companies and technologies.

But can an ambitious new governance framework in the making like the European Green Deal simply remain ‘neutral’ when it comes to green technologies? Within academic literature, some notable critiques have emerged in recent years. First of all, some authors identify a number of inevitable biases in ‘neutral’ governance schemes for renewable technology as a result of basic market functioning. This includes favoring short-term interests, which can manifest itself in more market support for technologies compatible with existing infrastructure, and a preference for more incumbent companies and technologies (cf. Carton 2016). Hence, what is perceived as ‘neutral’ can still implicitly favor certain technological options. This leads some authors to label technology neutrality an elusive objective that cannot (and should not) be prioritized as a central governance principle (cf. Azar & Sandén 2011).

Second, insights from Science- and Technology Studies (S&TS) point to the fundamentally political nature of technological innovation for sustainability. Such innovation trajectories are coproduced with societal order, as they shape – and are shaped by – the societal structures in which they ought to be implemented (Jasanoff 2004). In other words, technologies designed in the context of sustainability transitions are underpinned by a certain ‘imagined’ form of social order that should result from this transition. For example, a technology like carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) implies that fossil fuels will continue to play a role in sectors like industry and transport. As such, this technology is very much shaped by the current organizational model in these sectors, and suggests a future in which – apart from the production cycle and infrastructure – very little has to change in terms of societal consumption practices and the current dominant vision on industrial development, based on continuous economic growth. Second, putting forward nuclear power as a potential part in a carbon neutral energy system implies preserving the highly centralized nature of energy production. Not only is nuclear power inherently centralized in terms of infrastructure (large-scale reactors), they also require highly specialized technical expertise to operate and manage them. Hence, this also dictates a need for centralized management of this technology (Winner 1980). This as opposed to a renewable technology like solar power, which allows both decentralization in terms of spatiality (solar panels) and management (local energy communities).

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technologies designed in the context of sustainability transitions are underpinned by a certain ‘imagined’ form of social order that should result from this transition.

Despite these misgivings, technological innovation within the EU remains highly depoliticized. Innovation trajectories are still mostly dominated by a coalition of academic, industrial and governmental actors (the so-called ‘triple helix’) through a linear innovation model (Carayannis & Campbell 2010; Pegkas et al. 2019). This assumes a one-way innovation path from initial research and development towards market uptake. Hence, we arrive at what seems to be a contradiction: despite the European Green Deal being presented as a new grand plan for governing sustainability transitions within Europe, a large part of the governance of these transitions is outsourced to apolitical actors in academia and industry. At the same time, any political vision on the direction these transitions should take is obscured through the principle of technology neutrality.

Towards a more democratic form of technological innovation in Europe

Given the political nature of technological innovation for sustainability, it is worthwhile to think about improving the democratic quality of these innovation processes (e.g. Nahuis & Van Lente 2008). One of the main difficulties in this regard is that technological innovation can be considered a form of ‘displaced’ politics, as it manifests itself throughout various settings, in various institutions and on different levels of governance (ibid.). Usually, these settings “lack democratic features like transparency, equality, accountability, or division of power” (Nahuis 2008: 13). In the context of the European Green Deal, a good starting point for experimenting with more democratic innovation practices could be the newly erected Horizon Europe program, which is to become the main scientific innovation platform for climate mitigation and adaptation in the context of the Green Deal (European Commission 2020). Already in its design, the program aims to “bring together a wide range of stakeholders including regions and citizens” (European Commission 2019: 18). This provides a promising starting point for projects funded by Horizon Europe to become settings for experimenting with so-called co-creation practices. Such practices should aim to bring together a diverse array of scientific disciplines and societal actors to come to more robust and democratically legitimate forms of technology development.

Such an exercise would go far beyond merely ‘informing’ or ‘consulting’ stakeholders and other scientific disciplines on research developments and progress. It would require a fundamental openness towards alternative framings of central innovation objectives and goals, rooted in other disciplines (by means of trans- or interdisciplinarity) as well as in non-expert knowledge and experiences. As such, actors able to bring in such alternative visions are to become equal partners in the knowledge production process. This implies selecting participants based on diversity in knowledge and differences in interests, involving these participants in the very early stages of innovation trajectories and devoting attention to reducing power asymmetries between scientific and non-scientific stakeholders. Hence, installing co-creation practices in (technology-centered) research projects will have a profound influence on all aspects of that research project.

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experimenting with such new forms of democratic participation could be a valuable step in politicizing green technology development in the context of the European Green Deal and beyond.

Co-creation is by no means a silver bullet, and all sorts of potential caveats (e.g. difficulties in finding consensus and elevated transaction costs) resulting from such practices come up (Steen et al. 2018). Yet, experimenting with such new forms of democratic participation could be a valuable step in politicizing green technology development in the context of the European Green Deal and beyond. Currently, large-scale, international research initiatives like Future Earth are also experimenting with centralizing co-creation in their activities, in order to come to more holistic, robust and democratically legitimate forms of scientific innovation in response to complex, socio-technical issues like climate change (cf. van der Hel 2016). The EU could give additional impetus to generating international best practices in this regard by further strengthening co-creation in programs like Horizon Europe. When done right, innovation projects aimed at developing green technologies in the context of sustainability transitions could then facilitate a broader debate on the kind of society that such transitions should help create (cf. Garcia et al. 2018; Goeminne 2011).



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