Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

A principal focus of climate change research comprises the kinds of governmental targets and timetables, policies, and regulations that will affect people’s carbon-emitting and -capturing activities, such as energy production and land management. Social science research has expanded from an early focus on international and national governmental agreements and policies to a broader conception of carbon-relevant governance.

“Governance” refers to the processes and structures that steer society and the multiplicity of actors who are involved in this steering. The focus on governance, as opposed to governments, highlights the multiple channels through which collective interests are now pursued in the “post–strong state” era (Jordan et al., 2005; Kjaer 2004; Pierre and Peters 2000; Rhodes 1996). The complex configurations of processes and actors governing carbon emissions—who governs, with what authority, and through what means—set the context of the social, economic, and environmental costs and benefits provided by these systems (Marcotullio et al., 2014). To understand patterns of carbon emissions and, importantly, how to facilitate sustainable emissions trajectories, researchers and decision makers not only need to understand the governance processes guiding their production, maintenance, and conservation, but also need to identify feasible governance options for reducing carbon emissions.

6.3.1 Methods in Governance Research

Governance researchers use a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to understand both how particular governance arrangements arise and the social, economic, or policy consequences of different governance arrangements (Pierre and Peters 2000). Research also has focused on more normative approaches, including how governance arrangements can be designed to enhance participation and equity, be more democratic and accountable, improve efficiency, or support environmental objectives (Fainstein 2010; Hughes 2013; Pierre and Peters 2000; Sabatier et al., 2005). Increasingly, governance research is using network-based approaches and theories to understand the complex web of actors and resources underpinning environmental planning and programs (Aylett 2013; Lubell et al., 2012; Paterson et al., 2013; Scholz and Wang 2006; see Section 6.8 and Ch. 4: Understanding Urban Carbon Fluxes for a discussion of municipal networks). Governance research is often interdisciplinary, drawing on scholarship from political and policy sciences, economics, public administration, sociology, and geography (Kjaer 2004).

6.3.2 Key Findings from Governance Research

Despite previous calls for research (Canadell et al., 2010), few projects have explicitly examined the governance of the carbon cycle in North America, although there has been some work on carbon in a global context (e.g., Bumpus and Liverman 2008; Lövbrand and Stripple 2006). Rather, research tends to address carbon indirectly through analyses of governance processes and institutions operating at different scales and in different sectors related to climate change, sustainability, resilience, and even energy efficiency (Portney 2013; Wheeler 2008). Governance research increasingly has focused on the subnational level, where many North American states, provinces, and cities have taken the lead in setting ambitious GHG emissions–reduction targets and climate concerns are reshaping policy agendas across issue areas (Bulkeley and Betsill 2003, 2013; Hughes and Romero-Lankao 2014; Rabe 2004; Schreurs 2008; see Ch. 3: Energy Systems and Ch. 4: Understanding Urban Carbon Fluxes for examples of energy and urban governance). Carbon governance research also has a tendency to focus on particular sectors, such as agriculture, transportation, the built environment, and energy systems. (See Ch. 4 for a more detailed discussion of urban carbon governance.)

The work presented in other chapters indicates that energy use and production, urban areas, and agriculture are the key sectors shaping the North American carbon cycle. While scholarship typically engages with these sectors as distinctive governance realms, in reality they overlap and contradict one another in important ways. Urban form, policies, and lifestyles are responsible for more than two-thirds of global energy-related GHGs (IEA 2008), setting the demand for energy supplies and transportation behavior (see Ch. 3 and Ch. 4). Agricultural policies and priorities also shape the energy needs of this sector and, with the rise of biofuel production, can play an important role in facilitating or inhibiting renewable energy goals (Roberts and Schlenker 2013; see Ch. 5: Agriculture). Governance research indicates that the governance systems for these three sectors differ from one another and, potentially over time, in three important ways—their sources of power and authority, institutional arrangements, and sets of their stakeholders engaged by governance processes.

Sources of power and authority can vary from more formal (e.g., U.S. federal regulations) to less formal (e.g., customer demand and preferences), and from more local (e.g., municipal governments) to more global (e.g., international agreements). Each sector engages a spectrum of power and authority sources. For example, power over land-use planning is largely local, but the forces shaping urban development patterns run the gamut from local to global (Glaeser and Kahn 2010; Salkin 2009; Stone Jr. 2009). Although U.S. federal agricultural policy plays a large role in setting incentives and policy priorities (Klyza and Sousa 2008), there is no equivalent mechanism for cities (Barnes 2005). Governance also can be driven in a more “bottom-up” fashion, as local actors and organizations seek to challenge prevailing power and authority sources that sustain existing carbon-related practices (Geels 2014; Seyfang and Smith 2007; Shove and Walker 2010).

The institutional arrangements of governance—the sets of rules, norms, and shared practices that underlie decisions—also differ among energy, urban areas, and agriculture. Institutional arrangements vary among these sectors in ways that have important consequences. Institutions may allow for greater or less public participation and engagement from the private sector. Differences in institutional arrangements have implications for accountability of decision making and the sets of preferences and incentives shaping decision making. For example, accountability in urban governance typically lies with local elected officials—city councils and mayors—while accountability in energy production often lies with private utilities operating under widely varying mandates.

Finally, the sets of stakeholders involved in and implicated by the governance of energy, urban areas, and agricultural systems differ in terms of their priorities and position. Farmers’ priorities may be entirely different from—even at odds with—those of regional energy companies or urban planners. Even within the U.S. federal bureaucracy, different agencies operate under very different sets of priorities and occupy very different positions in relation to congressional committees and regulated stakeholders; these priorities and positions may change from one presidential administration to the next. Understanding who governance stakeholders are and their priorities and positions is important for understanding carbon cycle dynamics.

6.3.3 Open Questions and Applications for Carbon Cycle Research

The differences and intersections inherent in these three sectors—agriculture, urban, and energy—mean that the path to understanding and improving governance of the carbon cycle requires knowledge of both the particularities of the different realms and the ways in which they reinforce and undermine one another. In particular, there is a need to incorporate a carbon cycle lens in research on their governance. A key area for future research will be shifting from a focus on individual policy tools (e.g., carbon pricing and energy efficiency incentives) to understanding how governance arrangements (i.e., in terms of their power structures, institutions, and stakeholder sets) shape the carbon cycle by encouraging or inhibiting energy conservation and carbon emissions reductions. Issues of fragmentation (e.g., multiple sources of partial authority) and misaligned incentives (e.g., low prices for energy supplies with large social costs) are likely to be pervasive. Another important area to examine is how emerging climate change governance arrangements (e.g., emissions trading schemes, renewable portfolio standards, urban plans, and land-management systems) interact with energy, urban, and agricultural governance systems, individually and together. Given the policy and political intersections among these realms, a focus on reducing carbon emissions may serve as an organizing force for effective carbon governance.

Despite the differences in how energy, urban areas, and agricultural systems are governed, these systems share a set of governance needs to effectively and sustainably govern carbon. All three systems require adaptability and resilience, coordination among sectors and scales, and a reorientation toward conservation and, ultimately, reducing carbon emissions (Bomberg et al., 2006; Voß and Bauknecht 2006). Research should continue to explore and identify patterns of coordinated governance among these realms and opportunities for greater coordination.

Finally, carbon governance research will benefit from more explicit attention to understanding which governance arrangements perform best according to a range of criteria.

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