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BC3 Policy Briefings

The Role of the Demand for Environmental Quality in Driving Transitions to Low-Polluting Energy Sources

Keywords: historical energy transitions, low carbon economy.

Author(s): Roger Fouquet

Date: 2012-14-08

Issue: 2012-02

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This policy briefing reports on research into historical examples where the public demanded environmental improvements, government may have responded to this demand and legislation introduced may helped lead to transitions towards low-polluting energy sources, as might occur in a transition to a low carbon economy. The research focussed on the demand for improvements in air quality in Britain over the last 350 years. In particular, it showed that while environmental campaigners may manage to get draft legislation introduced, industrialists may manage to weaken the Parliamentary bill´s effectiveness and its enforcement. Nevertheless, each time demands for environmental improvements are made, they send signals both to government (to introduce effective legislation) and to polluters (that they should seek low pollution solutions and, if they find sufficiently cheap alternatives, to introduce them rather than lobby against the bill and its enforcement). Thus, the development of effective and sustained environmental legislation is not a one-off ´game´, but rather an iterative series of demands (and opposition) that can take decades or centuries to unfold, eventually leading to a sufficiently low-cost solution for polluters to stop opposing the demands (or possibly the disappearance of the problem, because of the decline of the polluting industries). The demand for climate stabilisation and the development of successful climate policies are likely to follow a similarly protracted course.

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