Essay Contest 2019 - Second prize in category Energy Transition: Supra-national collaboration lies at the core of local success
Nov 22, 2019
Decentralized, bottom-up, small-scale, participatory, grassroots, local and many paraphrases of these adjectives have emerged as popular terms to describe sustainability efforts. Sadly, their popularity seems to have been accompanied by a universal aversion towards terms that convey an, at first sight, antonymous meaning: top-down, large-scale or supra-national. How did “supra-national” become a bad word?
Supra-national, globalization and the status quo Perhaps the issues within the existing system fostered an aversion towards any conventional form of governance or change, and therefore against top-down decision making and international collaboration. In this sense the unpopularity or under-appreciation of supra-national sustainability efforts might be related to their intuitive association to a term that has an entirely different spelling: globalization. Admittedly, the two are inherently connected and undoubtedly influence, or perhaps even create each other. Nevertheless, it is important to make a clear distinction between them. Like globalization and internationalization, supranational organizations have their pros and cons. Supra-national entities however, are, unlike the first two terms, the democratic result of us, citizens. As such, they constitute the exact tools that can give us the power to give shape to what globalization looks like.
Perhaps desire for change incites a natural repulsion from every aspect of the status quo, regardless of whether it was part of the problem. However understandable, the unwritten consensus among a large part of environmentalists and concerned citizens about the undesirability of anything top-down or large-scale with regards to the transition to a low-carbon economy has derailed. Conventional, top-down, or supra-national is not the problem that is keeping us from developing sustainably. Rather, it is part of the solution. Supra-national collaboration lies at the core of local success and can put the EU at a competitive advantage with respect to the rest of the world. Not only does the EU have the power to give shape to what globalization looks like, also it facilitates comprehensive, cross-sectoral and cross-border solutions for challenges that are so by nature. As such, supra-national collaboration is crucial for reaping the benefits of local opportunities and allowing for specialization.
Global issues, local solutions? Like our present-day societal developments, many societal challenges that we are facing are global ones. Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and ozone depletion are just some of the examples. Addressing these challenges will require a transition to a low-carbon economy, for which energy efficiency and renewable generation are two of the crucial components. Especially the dispersed nature of renewable energy sources suggest that a more decentralized energy system can be expected in a low carbon economy.
Furthermore, the historical variety of cultures, languages, climates and resources of the European Union is unparalleled by any economic superpower in the world. This diversity reflects directly on the opportunities at hand for the energy transition. Indeed, decentralized, bottom-up and local initiatives will be vitally important for exploiting context-specific opportunities, restructuring the energy system and accomplishing security of supply. Perhaps surprisingly however, it is also, and especially, in this role that the EU plays a vital role for its member states to collectively achieve leadership as a society of the future. Why? Because local opportunities can more effectively be exploited if there is cohesion at the larger scale, collaboration and differentiated areas of expertise.
Specialization requires collaboration Cross-border collaboration is, to a large extent, what makes local specialization feasible, valuable, and sometimes even possible. It can ensure that collectively the most cost-effective solutions are implemented while avoiding sub-optimal investments and duplication. Yes indeed, perhaps the most cost-effective renewable source to deploy in a certain location could be identified by merely considering local contextual factors. As obvious as it may sound, solar power generation makes more sense than wind power in a region that has plentiful solar irradiation but very little wind. However, without considering the rest of the continent and system it would never become clear that the same money would even more cost-effectively be spent on efficiency improvements, storage solutions or decarbonisation of industrial sectors in that specific region. The efficiency of the collective European transition to a low carbon economy as a whole, would benefit from a comprehensive look at the alternatives and options.
A charming metaphor of this point is given by civilised society itself. The doctor, baker, musician, engineer, politician and guard all play a unique role in society and to a larger or smaller extent, depend on each other. Regardless of one’s personal or political beliefs about the importance of each individual task in society, few will disagree that each should focus on the tasks that they do best so that others can focus on theirs and overall efficiency is increased. Bluntly put: Even if no one dies if the doctor’s house is not cleaned by the cleaner, it would cost a lot more money to educate doctors if all of them could only work half-time because they are caught up in household tasks. The synergy of their combined commitments to specializing creates time to do science, medicine, entertainment and culture. Consequently specialization, at least up to some extent, results in a larger overall “efficiency” or development of society. Similarly, the diversity of Europe can result in greater collective sustainable development if each member state and region does what it does best while collaborating with its peers.
Competitive advantage for the EU By increasing the cohesion and thereby facilitating local specialization the EU can accelerate the transition to a low carbon society and as such put itself at a competitive advantage with regards to the rest of the world. Supra-national collaboration is essential to fully exploit the opportunities that the European diversity contain. It can alleviate ineffective burdens from countries and regions by allowing them to commit to their areas of expertise and collectively deal with challenges. Simultaneously, the joint impact of their efforts can be larger than when this would not be possible. Turns out local and supra-national are more tautological than antonymous in meaning after all.