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Shifting Gear – The Politics of Sustainable Mobility

October 12, 2012 in Reflections & views, Research, Visioning


Mobility is the elixir of modern society. Man has been a travelling species for longer, of course. The quest not only for food, power and wealth, but also for ideas has inspired people to travel for ages. But during the modern era, we have perfected the mobility system. We now have a global economy that is not only functionally highly integrated, but celebrates this interconnectivity as well. This cultural celebration of the sheer endless opportunities is symbolized by the intercontinental holidays of middle class families. Sending images and story lines from faraway places and bringing insights and paraphernalia have become an indicator of social success. Less discussed but increasingly significant: Modern society thrives on the fuels, food and other resources (from rare earth to phosphates) that we extract or grow at faraway places and ship between different continents.

This era of ‘hypermobility’ has long been known to be unsustainable.The metabolistic dimension, the flows of resources and environmental effects, from oil drilling to CO2 to spillage of phosphates into the seas, are the flip side of our progress and are something we now urgently have got to come to grips with. The knowledge of ‘limits’ dates back to the 1960s but is now finally giving way to knowledge that focuses on potentials, on transformations and on transition. Interesting is what this shift in emphasis could also mean for the debate on (car) mobility. After all, it was in the 1960 that the initial idea of allowing as many people into the world of car mobility (a car for everyone) started to arouse feelings of discomfort, something Phillip Larkin describes so well in his bleak 1972 poem ‘Going, Going’ (Larkin, 1972).The new post-war generations grew to matu- rity holding ‘post-material’ values (Abramson & Inglehart, 1995) and eloquently stated to raise question about the price of progress and growth.

While the occasional faraway holiday is a symbolic marker of success, it is the everyday reality of ‘auto mobility’, which has become the comfortable basis of Western day-to-day life.1 This article focuses on this cornerstone of the system: the car. Cars are no longer a luxury belonging to the middle classes but are within reach of nearly everybody. What is more, the car can no longer be regarded as an individual technological artefact but has evolved into a ‘large technological system’ (Summerton, 1994) that has been perfected to include multilane motorways with giant petrol stations, parking houses in the inner cities, out of town shopping malls and also much of our urban fabric and form, from the cul-de-sac to the very idea of a suburban life styles as a blend between city and country living. This large technological system also comprises a powerful ‘car industrial complex’, that is crucial component of the economy, for instance, in terms of jobs, knowhow and innovation.

Car-based mobility is our default option, well embedded into our routines. It is our ‘normalcy’. It is a cultural cornerstone that we cannot simply remove. Organizing mobility on a sustainable footing is a tremendous challenge. But it is one that, somehow, needs to be met. The ‘small’ agenda is one of direct environmental impacts, of health-related effects, of noise, particles and spatial impacts. There we at least know where to find solutions. The ‘big’ agenda is that of climate change and natural resources. Here many options to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport have been identified. But strategic decision makers stare the scientific facts and predictions in the face like a rabbit looks at the headlights of a car approaching.There is a scientific consensus that achieving the 2°C target is technically feasible, for rich countries this would require a stunning effort to reduce emissions with a factor 5 (Rogner et al., 2007). Unfortunately, little progress towards the ultimate goal has been made over the last 15 years. In fact, current policy scenarios predict that the share of transport (which of course is more than merely cars) in greenhouse gas emissions may rise from the current 25 to 50% in the year 2050 (European Commission, 2011a). Hence we simply have to rethink the mobility strategies in a fundamental sense.

Hence the question is not if this legitimizes government intervention but what sort of intervention can be envisaged in the first place that may be promising to bring this transition about. Here serious ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking is required, or, in this context perhaps appropriate, ‘gearbox’ thinking, as we need to urgently shift gears.

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A glimpse of Europe’s blue future

May 8, 2012 in Reflections & views

A couple of weeks ago I visited Iceland. It is home to vast quantities of renewable natural resources. The familiar tourist image of geysers, spouting steam and hot water into the air, brings the abstract idea of geothermal energy to life. Hot water and steam can be harnessed for heating homes and producing electricity. Apart from that the country has majestic rivers that are a powerful hydro-electric resource in their own right.

What makes Iceland especially interesting is that it presents a real existing example of a possible ‘blue’ future for Europe. A mere fifty years ago Iceland was dependent on imported coal and oil for its energy consumption. The images of black clouds of smog that covered the air over Reykjavik are still in the local popular imagination. Now Iceland has nearly phased out coal and oil. Geothermal and hydropower have been developed and 82% of its primary energy comes from domestic renewable sources. The sky over Reykjavik is clear from health-damaging smogs.

How did this transition work? Interestingly, while Iceland literally sat on top of endless renewable resources, it did not use them. Like other countries, it was locked in a fossil fuel regime. The oil crisis of the 1970s led to a rethink and, as so often, the key to the breakthrough was institutional change. Part of this was the National Energy Fund (NEF) that provided a risk insurance: NEF would reimburse up to 80% of cost of unsuccessful drillings. This helped entrepreneurs to really go at it. Now 99% of houses is heated with renewable energy and in 2008 savings were equivalent to 91% of the total imports of refined oil products.

Fascinated by the vast resources I asked people at the National Energy Authority about the possibility of using Iceland’s resources for foreign energy consumption. In terms of energy there is ample opportunity. The IDDP-1 well drilled in Krafla is at the moment the hottest well in the world with a temperature of 450°C at 40 bar pressure and 12 kg/s steam flow on surface with an estimated 25-35 MWe electric production capacity. New techniques allow for tapping into reservoirs with temperatures above 450 degree Celsius. It would yield around 50 MWe of electricity, from a single well. That is the equivalent of roughly ten state-of-the-art wind turbines. And there is ample possibility to drill new wells.

Iceland has vast ‘blue capacity’ in heat and water streams. Export of electricity is possible. A feasibility study had been done and the exploitation could be profitable. It would be costly but the money would be recouped. But there is a domestic political hurdle. What would it bring the country? It would be direct export, with hardly any jobs on the Icelandic side (indeed, a well is remote controlled, even in an operational site there literally is no one there over the weekends). In the wake of the Icelandic banking crisis, it was Björk, the celebrated pop star, who led a protest against selling off the right to exploit the wells to a foreign company. The revenues of exploiting Iceland’s natural resources should go to the Icelandic society rather than disappear in foreign corporate pockets, she argued. Björk as symbol of Iceland’s energetic society. After Iceland experienced a near meltdown of its banks this argument has only become more powerful.

Iceland’s citizens now enjoy low electricity prices and high disposable incomes. But the fear is that this would change once Iceland would be made part of a Northwest-European grid. But is this a necessity or a matter of political choice? After all, the particular way in which Iceland wants to exploit its natural resources is very much up to them.

The story of Iceland’s resources shows how politics stands at switch points. The experience of the move to using its geo-thermal resources shows how creating an Energy Fund facilitated entrepreneurs to become active.

Innovation to create the clean ‘blue’ technologies of tomorrow is a powerful story for the elites of Brussels. But a persuasive story must be able to convince ordinary citizens that there is something in it for them as well. Here it seems to be the one that shows how exploiting the vast renewable resources can be used to create public welfare. Revenues captured by the state and come to the benefit of the public. In making the next step it could make sure that the revenues go to the state and create a fund that would allow Iceland to pay for a very convenient welfare state with high investments in education and well being. So how to combine the energy strategy with a persuasive story about the future? Export the blue gold or Iceland becoming an internet hub by the virtue of the fact that it can host the datacenters of google and apple (with their high cooling / energy bills) at relatively low costs?

The example of Iceland shows that we need to put much more work in solid positive stories of what a clean ‘blue’ economy could look like, what it could bring and what they would require. It calls for a new emphasis in our science, in our thinking. Iceland and its dilemma’s should have a place in this.



Picnic Stories: Fix It!

December 11, 2011 in New video or audio registrations

Fix it! The Energetic Society as a New Perspective on Governance for a Clean Economy.

Maarten Hajer on Fix it! The Energetic Society as a New Perspective on Governance for a Clean Economy / PICNIC Festival 2011 from PICNIC on Vimeo.

The ambitious goal of a clean economy and a high-quality society can be achieved. 

It is “the existing powers of creativity and innovation within society that offer opportunities for green growth,” says Maarten Hajer in The Energetic Society, the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency Trends Report. Yet in order to exploit the potential of this energetic society, Hajer says, governments need to adjust and act in a timely way, otherwise they will be exposed to the powers of the energetic society that may effectively obstruct government initiatives. We need a new partnership and a new division of responsibilities.

Innovation means planning for action and initiative, accepting the fact that mistakes will be made, and making certain that improvements are identified and implemented rapidly. Such innovation calls for a different type of government based on the notion of “radical incrementalism.” Putting the sustainable achievements of institutions and businesses in digital, shareable form is important for providing valuable examples and feedback.

The challenge is to do more with less – something for which there is no instant solution. New ideas will constantly be required and may be stimulated by a government that commits itself to clear objectives and engages in new forms of social engagement.