Sociotechnical imaginaries of low-carbon waste-energy futures: UK techno-market fixes displacing public accountability

Levidow, Les and Raman, Sujatha (2020). Sociotechnical imaginaries of low-carbon waste-energy futures: UK techno-market fixes displacing public accountability. Social Studies of Science (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312720905084

Abstract

To implement EU climate policy, the UK’s New Labour government (1997–2010) elaborated an ecomodernist policy framework. It promoted technological innovation to provide low-carbon renewable energy, especially by treating waste as a resource. This framework discursively accommodated rival sociotechnical imaginaries, understood as visions of feasible and desirable futures available through technoscientific development. According to the dominant imaginary, techno-market fixes stimulate low-carbon technologies by making current centralized systems more resource-efficient (as promoted by industry incumbents). According to the alternative eco-localization imaginary, a shift to low-carbon systems should instead localize resource flows, output uses and institutional responsibility (as promoted by civil society groups). The UK government policy framework gained political authority by accommodating both imaginaries. As we show by drawing on three case studies, the realization of both imaginaries depended on institutional changes and material-economic resources of distinctive kinds. In practice, financial incentives drove technological design towards trajectories that favour the dominant sociotechnical imaginary, while marginalizing the eco-localization imaginary and its environmental benefits. The ecomodernist policy framework relegates responsibility to anonymous markets, thus displacing public accountability of the state and industry. These dynamics indicate the need for STS research on how alternative sociotechnical imaginaries mobilize support for their realization, rather than be absorbed into the dominant imaginary.

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