Applying a complexity lens to the Dutch energy transition (or lack thereof)

The Kingdom of Orange is actually not very green. The Netherlands has become an EU laggard in environmental performance. While it still benefits from its earlier reputation as an environmental innovator, it has – in fact – fallen very far behind.

An energy transition is primarily about transitioning the energy system, right? Perhaps not. Together with collaborators from the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) we published a report earlier this year, taking an alternative view.

A Dutch energy transition ought to be simple: the country is amongst the wealthiest in the EU, it can borrow at negative interest rates and has efficient public governance. While studies abound on how to shift its energy system, we took a different approach. We assumed that progress was being tied down by the deep interconnections of the energy system with other societal systems. You can’t change the one, without changing the others, by addressing their sticky path dependencies. In fact the logistics, industrial and horticulture backbones of the country are very fossil-fuel intensive.

Through a number of interactive workshops with experts from multiple sectors, we listed possible initiatives that could plausibly shift the system, shift social norms and accelerate decarbonisation. The goal was not necessarily to find the silver bullet, but rather to introduce a language and a frame for complex systems to assist policy makers widen their horizon – and identify new relevant solutions.
Wie is de wolf? Cover

Complexity in schools

In the Huffington Post, noted education blogger Cathy Rubin publishes an interview that we did a few months ago. In it i underscore the importance for a next generation of kids to grow up being complexity-litterate.

In fact working together with the International Baccalaureate Organisation, this appears quite doable. The feedback from many teachers we engaged with is that kids are natural systems thinkers – and they would welcome a curriculum that builds on that natural capacity, rather than try to replace it with a reductionist world-view. We are currently developing a complexity curriculum, in partnership with several IB schools.

Here is a link to the interview: Huffington Post

Methane is different @ COP21

Methane accounts for a third of the radiative forcing that warms the world. Yet for mitigation purposes under COP21 its impact is simply translated into CO2. That is likely not the best approach.

The form of governance needs to fit the dynamics of the underlying system.

Methane is emitted from agriculture, waste and the oil&gas industry, in roughly similar measure. See my report “The other knob:Tackling methane emissions presented at COP21.

With COP21 the theory of change for climate mitigation has shifted from a binding top-down approach in Kyoto, to a more dynamic bottom-up framework. Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom 2009) has argued that UNFCC top-down approach was not appropriate for the governance of the carbon commons. In a lucid paper for the World Bank, she argues for a more polycentric approach. In Complexity and the Art of Public Policy (Colander and Kupers 2014) the case is made for why certain systemic problems are best addressed with ‘ecostructure policies’, a combination of diverse bottom-up and strategic top-down action. The shift in approach at COP21 is consistent with these views.

This holds for CO2 and methane from agriculture. However methane emissions from the oil&gas industry are highly concentrated in relatively few players and largely disconnected from other systems – so they would paradoxically better be managed in the earlier top-down manner. One option presented may be pricing methane emissions independently from CO2.