A Paradigm Shift in Energy Policy
Tristan Brömsen // 12 October 2023
Is it all just about electrons and molecules? Far from it. Anyone who believes that energy policy is defined by technical boundaries alone is mistaken. Energy policy is in fact largely determined by social discourse narratives. This is particularly evident in the discourse on energy policy given events in recent years: an energy crisis in the wake of a war of aggression; a world cup in a country that’s one of the largest exporters of natural gas; the Fridays for Future demonstrations followed by the German Federal Climate Change Act; and a new federal government with ambitious expansion targets for renewable energy. All of these factors influence how we talk about energy. Whether a wind turbine can generate electricity or not depends on the weather, but its construction in the first place depends on its acceptance in the political discourse. Even if experts and politicians like to present their positions as fact-based, our energy system is at least as much driven by ideas and discussions as by physical laws.
Discourse theory analyses how concepts operate in political discourse. One example is the concept of Energiewende, which refers to the transition from a fossil-based to a climate-neutral energy supply but which is interpreted in completely different ways by different agents, from the Greens to the FDP. Another example is the interpretation of nuclear power. Questions surrounding the danger of terrorism and nuclear waste arise for Germany just as they do for France. But nuclear power is portrayed in Germany as dangerous and environmentally harmful, while our French neighbours perceive it as contributing to energy security and climate protection.
In concrete terms, discourses in energy policy can usually be located in a trilemma of security, affordability, and environmental compatibility. Energy, in other words, must be reliably generated and delivered, affordable, and not burdensome for the resident red kite. Within these boundaries, narratives, positions, and arguments circulate in discourse. Narratives that prevail in social discourse determine how the majority thinks and talks about issues concerning energy policy. These priorities can shift according to circumstances in everyday political life.
Statistical text analysis software can be used to uncover such a shift within the energy trilemma in the German energy policy in recent years: using a dataset of 18,000 news articles from leading German media from September 2018 to September 2022, filtered by specific energy policy terms, it is possible to identify the discursive elements that shape coverage. Thus, a changing picture of the discourse on German energy policy emerges, which shows that three content blocks have been decisive in the last five years: renewable energies and the energy transition, the energy crisis resulting from the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the phase out of nuclear and coal power. What changed was not only the issues being talked about but also how these issues were being addressed.
For example, renewable energies were mainly discussed from two points of view: they were strongly associated by the leading media with the energy transition and increased ambitions of climate and environmental protection. But after the outbreak of the Russia–Ukraine war, the share of renewables in the discourse declined significantly, and the energy transition was reinterpreted discursively: rather than focusing on the environmental benefits of renewables, the debate centred on securing an energy supply that did not rely on fossil fuels from authoritarian states. Rather than environmental policy, renewables became associated with defence policy as they were seen as a means to reduce Germany’s dependence on imports.
In addition, nuclear power was perceived as dangerous owing to the risk of meltdown. These representations changed in the course of the discussion surrounding the Ukraine war. Coal and nuclear power plants were identified as reliable sources of electricity, providing the discursive rationale for a policy shift that included lifetime extensions of nuclear and coal plants as a contribution to energy security.
While the technical realities have remained unchanged, a shift in energy policy discourse has taken place: away from climate policy goals and towards affordability and energy security. The changed discourse is driving policy forward – it is partly responsible for a green economy minister now feeling compelled to ramp up coal and nuclear power plants. Therefore, the power of social discourse on contemporary politics should never be underestimated.
This article was originally published by Prometheus in German.
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