Disassembling the power of high-carbon imaginaries
The incumbency of fossil fuels, and the landscapes and infrastructures dedicated to mobilising coal, oil and gas, cast a long shadow over society’s capability to imagine a different energy future (Kuchler and Bridge 2018). This powerful grip of the past is particularly evident in the efforts to mitigate climate change. Fossil fuel use in the energy and industry sectors remains the primary source of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide (UNEP 2019). There is a growing realisation that the massive deployment of low-carbon energy systems does not help societies replace high-carbon energy carriers. The persistence of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, cannot be prevented solely by assembling new energy systems and institutions that support them (Tyfield 2014). Equal attention must be placed on disassembling old but powerful and seemingly durable fossil fuel incumbencies.
Fossil fuel energy spaces are historically durable but potentially precarious landscapes in the context of climate change mitigation efforts. In these landscapes, high carbon incumbents and emergent low carbon actors struggle to define the form and pace of decarbonisation. Thus, high-carbon landscapes are also key sites of contestation and socio-cultural innovation. The imaginaries that have taken shape in and around high-carbon energy landscapes – or carbonscapes (Haarstad and Wanvik 2017) – associated with coal and oil are not simply contested: they are also fluid and dynamic, as both high and low-carbon actors seek to reimagine their activities – and relation to one another – in the context of climate change. Furthermore, carbonscapes are sites of dynamic interactions between the material (such as infrastructures and resources) and discursive (i.e., discourses underpinning described and prescribed visions of the future). Within these carbonscapes, political boundaries and power relations are blurred by historically rooted, informal and flexible spatial collectives that overlap with administrative borders.
The overall purpose of this project is to critically examine and better understand how powerful carbon-intensive imaginaries can be disempowered – either realigned or dismantled - to accelerate low-carbon transition. By analysing and comparing four distinctive carbonscapes – two coalscapes in Poland and two petroscapes in the UK – the project aims to: 1) identify and critically examine impulses of resistance to change, exemplified in the way powerful fossil fuel incumbencies (re)imagine or discursively rework coal and oil as means of stabilising and sustaining their legacy; 2) determine how the material-discursive dynamics and power relations associated with high carbon landscapes constrain and/or enable the power to (re)imagine energy futures; 3) identify openings and opportunities for dismantling and destabilizing incumbent fossil fuel imaginaries in selected carbonscapes.
Coal has been vital for Poland’s economic development and energy security (Kuchler and Bridge 2018). Almost 80% of Poland’s total electricity continues to be generated by coal-based power plants. We examine coalscapes associated with deep-mined hard coal, extracted from around 20 deep mines concentrated in the Upper Silesia Region in the south of Poland; and with open-pit brown coal (lignite) in central Poland (Wielkopolska and Łódź Regions), including Bełchatów which remains the largest opencast brown coal mine in the EU. Hard coal represents half of Poland’s electricity supply, but access to deposits of hard coal is increasingly difficult, rendering the resource uneconomical. Relatively easy and cheaper access to brown coal deposits is prompting national policymakers to consider opening new opencast mining sites in the future to sustain coal use in electricity generation, despite pressures from the EU to phase out the production completely.
The UK government continues to auction licenses for oil and gas production, and to support development of high carbon infrastructure both onshore (petrochemical production) and offshore (e.g., drilling platforms, pipelines), notwithstanding a legally binding commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. We will examine petroscapes associated with offshore oil in the North Sea, and with the onshore petrochemical industry (a downstream segment of the oil sector) via the case of Teeside in the North East of England. Oil industry associations (such as Oil and Gas UK) are already discursively aligning further oil recovery with the net-zero target - encapsulated in a vision of the UK North Sea as the world’s ‘first net-zero carbon offshore oil sector’ (OGUK Roadmap to 2035). Teeside is one of the largest petrochemical clusters in Europe and illustrates many of the challenges of decarbonising heavy industries.
In this project, we are guided by a scholarly proposition that the complex mesh of sociotechnical, socio-spatial and socio-political relations underpinning energy futures is best unravelled by using a multi-perspectival lens (Delina and Janetos 2018). Accordingly, our theoretical toolbox mobilises three conceptual frameworks in combination – socio-technical imaginaries, assemblages, and materialities – to transcend the boundaries of conventional approaches to researching energy transition.
The project is based in the research programme Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRHU) at the Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University. The study will be conducted in collaboration with the Department of Geography, Durham University.
Delina, L., & Janetos, A. (2018). Cosmopolitan, dynamic, and contested energy futures:
Navigating the pluralities and polarities in the energy systems of tomorrow. Energy Research & Social Science, 35, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.11.031
Haarstad, H., & Wanvik, T. I. (2017). Carbonscapes and beyond: Conceptualizing the instability of oil landscapes. Progress in Human Geography, 41(4), 432–450. https://doi.org/ 10.1177%2F0309132516648007
Kuchler, M., & Bridge, G. (2018). Down the Black Hole: Sustaining National Socio-technical Imaginaries of Coal in Poland. Energy Research & Social Science, 41, 136–147. https://doi.org /10.1016/j.erss.2018.04.014
Tyfield, D. (2014). ‘King Coal is Dead! Long Live the King!’: The Paradoxes of Coal’s Resurgence in the Emergence of Global Low-Carbon Societies. Theory, Culture & Society, 31(5), 59–81. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0263276414537910
UNEP (2019). Lessons from a decade of emissions gap assessments. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/30022/ EGR10.pdf
January 2021- December 2024
Swedish Research Council