EAN/FAN Workshop 2023: Contested Carbon

Pauline Destrée, Durham University

Energy transitions are and will be far from smooth: they mobilize contradictory visions and competing interests on how energy should organise societies in the future. A transition to low carbon energy systems seems inevitable for planetary survival; but how do we make this global imperative locally acceptable and materially feasible? In our panel on “Contested Carbon”, we discussed the socio-cultural challenges of moving “post-carbon” in communities where hydrocarbon extraction and infrastructures are tightly linked to questions of identity, belonging, heritage, and justice. The four entries here suggest that whilst decarbonisation is often promoted as a universal good, it also provokes fears of dispossession, loss, and marginalisation – from post-industrial towns in Montenegro and Massachusetts, to Ireland’s peat bogs and Kenya’s cooking practices. Contestations around carbon remind us that energy transitions are first and foremost social projects, replete with contradiction and tension that go well beyond environmental concerns.

Patrick Brodie looks at this tension through the material ambiguity of peat. As a source of fuel and carbon storage, peatlands in Ireland, which constitute 20% of its landmass, have become sites of contested transitions and claims about property, heritage, and history. As part of Ireland’s decarbonization strategy, peatlands that formerly provided turf to power national electrification are now seen as opportunities for green development: as “wastelands” that can be used for wind turbines, or as carbon sinks that can be turned into new assets in net-zero carbon accounting. The green datafication of Ireland’s peatbogs prompt new ways of reading, measuring, and valuing the Irish landscape that bear resonances to its colonial past.

In North Poland, Magdalena Dąbkowska looks at the contested meanings of coal in light of a recent embargo on imported Russian coal following the invasion of Ukraine. The embargo, she argued, became a turning point in her fieldwork: in towns bordering Russia where residents depend on imported coal for their livelihoods, the embargo suddenly prompted a reckoning with the necessity of coal and its contested future under geopolitical conflict and the EU’s climate policy.

Next, Miloš Đurović takes us to Pljevlja, a border town in northern Montenegro that hosts the country’s biggest coal mine and thermal power plant and provides half of the country’s electricity. Once a booming industrial town in the socialist era, Pljevlja is today characterised by high unemployment and one of the worst levels of air pollution in Europe. Đurović describes the controversial plans for the closure of the town’s coal-fueled power plant, to meet the European Union’s decarbonization targets. Residents’ resistance to the plant’s closure in Pljevlja, he argues, exemplifies the pitfalls of Europe’s green growth agenda: while moving beyond coal becomes a new criterion for Europeanness, it is also perceived as a form of dispossession, alienation, and injustice by mining communities on the peripheries of Europe’s decarbonization agenda.

This resistance to a post-carbon future is further explored by Krista Harper and colleagues in the case of a gas moratorium in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke, a former industrial hub, faces industrial decline, high unemployment and an ageing infrastructure that make decarbonization targets hard to translate into practice. Gas explosions elsewhere in the state have led to gas moratoria in several districts and have turned gas into a contentious issue. While some residents welcome the need for lower emissions, others fear that the ban may have come too soon, with the city’s infrastructure unable to fill in the gap. This tension, Harper and colleagues argue, is characteristic of the “mid-transition” – the awkward and uncertain period of the transition when planning for a decarbonized future coexists with a (reluctant) reliance on fossil fuels.  

Finally, Serena Saligari turns our attention to the micropolitics of gas as a clean cooking fuel in Kenya. In the Global South, LPG has been promoted as a cleaner alternative to more polluting fuels like kerosene and charcoal whose widespread use disproportionately affects women’s health. Delving into the domestic, social and economic dimensions of LPG use and circulation, Saligari describes the complex experience of LPG use in cooking and its contested acceptability amongst residents. Despite gas subsidies, people have not switched unilaterally to gas, instead combining different fuels in a practice known as “stacking” – selecting the appropriate fuel based on the type of food and cooking process. Taste, time, tradition, and social status all shape the acceptability of gas, reminding us of the necessity to attend to the multiple meanings and values attached to energy.

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