Tag Archives: urban transformations

Scaling-up climate action: a geographer’s primer

By Stefan Bouzarovski, University of Manchester & Håvard Haarstad, University of Bergen


‘World gets climate change ultimatum’ declared the UK Independent’s front page on the 8th of October 2018, following the publication of the International Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) long-awaited report on 1.5°C global warming. The IPCC report highlights the need for rapid and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society: land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Employing an unusually urgent tone, it places an emphasis on connections between climate action, on the one hand, and the work of non-state actors as well as policies on jobs, security, and technology, on the other. A call for scaling-up and intensifying the global response to climate change is evident throughout the report.

The IPCC’s message resonates with the findings of our recently-published paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers on the development of relational thinking around the upscaling of low-carbon urban mitigation strategies. The paper starts from the premise that mainstream understandings of sustainable energy transitions have, to date, lacked a significant engagement with core human geography debates on the production and articulation of spatial scale. We contend that dominant policies and theories on climate change mitigation have tended to think of scale as a linear and nested hierarchy of ‘levels’ – not too different from Russian ‘matryoshka’ stacking dolls – unfolding against the background of seemingly passive urban and regional landscape. There has been limited recognition of the non-hierarchical conceptions of scale that have been proposed and developed by numerous geographers over a period of several decades (e.g. Marston et al. 2005).

At the core of the paper lies a case study of the multi-sited ‘Reduce Energy Use and Change Habits’ (REACH) project. REACH was funded by the European Union and implemented by a coalition of non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, think tanks, small businesses, and practitioners working across several Southeastern European countries. It aimed to address household-level energy inequities at both the ‘practical and structural level’ (Živčič et al. 2016, 789). REACH focused its attention on undertaking energy efficiency improvements, in homes via overlapping communities of place and interest. At the same time, REACH activists actively lobbied governments and companies to promote climate-friendly policy and legislation. Using informal exchanges and public announcements – press releases, conferences and publications – project members pointed to underpinning injustices in the privatization and regulation of the energy sector, as well as the continued political neglect of energy efficiency and affordability among low-income households (Bouzarovski and Thomson 2017).

In the paper, we argue that REACH’s ability to effect transformational change hinged upon its ability to enroll a variety of actors operating at different levels of governance, while exposing the power relations and inequalities that underpin the production of urban space. Through this example, REACH shows how low-carbon energy initiatives travel and expand across multiple spatial sites – in other words, ‘rescaling’ – via three sets of processes. First, this involves processes of politicization, expressed by the ability to challenge established power relations, ideological systems and logics of capitalist social reproduction beyond the territorial location of a given LCUI. Second, it requires enrolment: interaction, knowledge exchange and engagement with actors operating at multiple levels of governance, and involving state and non-state organizations alike. Third, we recognize a dynamic of hybridization, involving the entanglement of humans, technologies and nature in the provision and regulation of energy.

The combined effect of all three processes is the positioning of cities as active agents in the process of low-carbon development. However, environmentally and socially transformative change in the energy domain is both strategic and messy, involving alterations in household-level practices and the introduction of new governance configurations at the same time. Even if our paper starts from a critique of existing thinking and policy approaches, the framework that it develops – we hope – may provide the starting point for more explicit human geography engagements with the much-needed expansion of climate action across society and space.

About the authors: Stefan Bouzarovski is a Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Manchester, where he convenes the People and Energy Programme within the Manchester Urban Institute while chairing the EU Energy Poverty Observatory, and the COST ENGAGER network. Håvard Haarstad is a Professor of Human Geography and Director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen.

Bouzarovski S, Haarstad H. Rescaling low‐carbon transformations: Towards a relational ontologyTrans Inst Br Geogr2018;00:1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12275