COALSTAKE: The Political Economy of Coal Policy

Why do countries differ in their policy choices on coal energy?

Project Summary

Coal-fuelled power generation is the single largest source of CO₂ emissions worldwide. In order to fulfil the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in global average temperature to below 2℃, over 80% of the world’s coal reserves must remain unused. Therefore, many countries are considering adopting policies to reduce the use of coal and its mining. This project aims to reveal why some countries have opted for phase-out policies, whereas some others have not even included the issue on their political agenda.

These differences cannot be explained only by country-level factors, such as the economic development level, coal reserves, trade patterns or the number of interest groups advocating for environmental protection. This project thus pays attention to the interests, goals and activities of different policy actors.

The project asks the following questions:

  • What are the key energy stakeholders’ interests related to coal and what coalitions emerge among them?
  • Why are some actors more influential than others in translating their interests into policy outcomes?
  • What lessons can countries draw from coal policy trajectories in other countries?

Conceptually, the project will first bring the relevant theories from different disciplines together. Subsequently, the research team will analyze the links among energy stakeholders’ resource endowments, their policy-related activities and the evolution of discourses around coal energy.

These analyses include a special emphasis on the role and the abilities of local resource -production industries, their positioning in global resource trade and their employees.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

Despite global discussions about transitioning away from coal, its use for power generation has reached record levels in 2021, mainly due to “status-quo” institutional and private actors who ensured its perdurance.

The COALSTAKE project analyzed coal policies in Australia, Germany, and Japan, focusing on how different actors attempt to either maintain or disrupt the coal industry.

The study employed interviews, surveys, and analysis of documents and media data, comparing employment and industry emissions across countries.

It also developed a novel framework to examine the actions of “status-quo” actors who support the coal industry and “challengers” who oppose it.

It appears that “status-quo” actors rely on inside connections with trade unions, government officials, and the coal industry, while also engaging in outside activities such as alliances, studies, media campaigns, demonstrations, conferences, and legal actions. “Challengers” struggle to match their influence but commission scientific studies, share findings through traditional and social media, and organize demonstrations. In Japan, where environmental concerns are less prominent, “challengers” focused on engaging investors and financial institutions. “Status-quo” actors consistently emphasized the potential economic and job losses associated with phasing out coal, which has proven to be an effective argument.

The project’s main message is that transitioning away from coal requires addressing the concerns of actors within the industry, and initiatives like the German Coal Commission offer valuable insights for incorporating the needs of coal regions, particularly regarding job security. The research contributes to a better understanding of sustainability transitions and highlights the importance of considering actor-oriented perspectives. Policymakers and practitioners can benefit from these insights in accelerating sustainability transitions across different disciplines.

The project’s main message is that transitioning away from coal requires addressing the concerns of actors within the industry, and initiatives like the German Coal Commission offer valuable insights for incorporating the needs of coal regions, particularly regarding job security. The research contributes to a better understanding of sustainability transitions and highlights the importance of considering actor-oriented perspectives. Policymakers and practitioners can benefit from these insights in accelerating sustainability transitions across different disciplines.

Article

Divestment trends in Japan’s international coal businesses

Continued investments in coal-fired power plants (CFPPs) and coal mining are incompatible with the Paris Agreement. As a major investor of both upstream coal mining and downstream CFPP construction, Japanese firms play a large role in sustaining the international coal market. Yet since mid-2018, numerous Japanese companies have announced a range of coal divestment policies. This situation, however, has not been unexamined by scholarship. Additionally, divestment literature outside Japan has focused overwhelmingly on financial institutions rather than the roles of other industry players driving the coal market. To address this gap, this paper examines four industries comprising Japan’s international coal market (trading companies, electric utilities, plant equipment manufacturers and financial institutions) to empirically assess the extent of divestment behaviour and identify drivers and barriers. The empirical data reveal a slowdown, but not a cessation, of new and existing coal-related investments. Results also show that the extent of divestment trends can be largely explained by commercial factors, although institutional and structural factors are also at play. These findings have important policy implications.

Article

The politics of technology decline: Discursive struggles over coal phase-out in the UK

In the ongoing energy transition, the decline of carbon-intensive technologies such as coal is a key element to tackle climate change. Our understanding of technology decline and of the associated policies and politics is growing but still incomplete. This paper builds on the sustainability transitions perspective, a novel approach to analyze socio-technical and political transformations. We study the decline of coal-fired power generation in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2017 by analyzing the discourse in The Guardian. We find scientists and environmental NGOs criticizing coal for climate and health reasons, while governments and incumbent firms tried to uphold the legitimacy of burning coal. After industry resistance collapsed, coal declined rapidly in just a few years. Essential for the decline were failed promises around ‘clean coal’, rapid diffusion of wind energy, and pressure from various policies. Foregrounding the political contestation around the decline, our study points to the interplay of discursive struggles, technology change and public policy in sustainability transitions.

Article

Preparedness of Swiss Citizens for the Future Energy Debate: How Political Predispositions Influence Factual and Perceived Knowledge

A common understanding in public opinion studies is that we, the public, often turn to mental shortcuts to form an opinion on important policy issues: in particular, we reflexively adopt the positions of the political parties with which we identify. The use of political heuristics is prevalent especially when the topic is highly politicized or technical (i.e., cognitively demanding), such as is the case in climate and energy policy. However, recent research on climate beliefs has shown that not only opinions but even our supposedly objective knowledge about the topic correlates with our political ideology. Moreover, research shows that these innocent and natural mental shortcuts may lead us to think we know (subjective knowledge) more than we do. Much of existing research in sustainability transitions has focused on the effect of policy-related information or its framing on public support for a hypothetical policy that is designed to achieve climate and sustainability goals. In reality, however, the amount and type of “relevant” information people seek is not exogenous as it is assumed in many of these studies. Instead, as marketing research has shown in the context of people’s product choice, our objective and subjective knowledge influence how much and what type of information we seek. This is why we argue that the potential effect of political heuristics on our knowledge-building is concerning whether or not our political parties espouse accurate information. In this paper, we investigate whether and under what conditions our perceived or factual knowledge might be influenced by our ideological predispositions.

Article

Decline in Carbon Intensive Arrangements Can Help Mitigate Climate Change

Over the past decades, climate change mitigation has tended to focus on green innovation as the primary means through which to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Governments have spent billions of dollars to promote low-carbon alternatives in electricity (renewables and storage), transportation (electric vehicles and charging infrastructure), and other domains. Businesses have begun to commercialize low-carbon services and technologies, households have started shifting their purchasing arrangements such as combustion-based vehicles, gas heating, and coal-based electricity generation are not being displaced at a sufficiently rapid pace. This has prompted societal actors to attend more seriously to the deliberate decline of such arrangements.

Article

Decline: an emerging frontier for the study and practice of decarbonization

It is increasingly well understood that decarbonization will require sustained efforts to encourage the rapid emergence and widespread diffusion of an array of complementary low-carbon innovations, giving rise to new carbon-neutral societal systems spanning from transport to agri- foods. The role of innovation has, therefore, been a central preoccupation within both the practice and theory surrounding climate change mitigation. However, deep lock-ins suggest that existing carbon-intensive systems will not be displaced or reconfigured by innovation alone. Rather, it is more appropriate to consider both innovation and decline as inextricably interlinked in the pursuit of decarbonization. There is a growing recognition of this in both research and practice, with a recent proliferation of studies and efforts engaging with the deliberate decline of carbon-intensive systems and their components (e.g., technologies). Yet, despite this, the role of intentional decline in decarbonization remains poorly understood and the emerging body of research in this area continues to be dispersed among different strands of literature and disciplines. In response, this article structures the fragmented strands of research engaging with conscious decline, interrogating the role it may play in decarbonization. It does so by systematically surveying concepts with particular relevance for intentional decline, focusing on phase-out, divestment, and destabilization.

Article

A tale of two coal regimes: An actor-oriented analysis of destabilisation and maintenance of coal regimes in Germany and Japan

Phasing out coal-fired electricity is an urgent global task, critical to efforts to mitigate climate change and air pollution. Despite the growth and increasing competitiveness of renewable energy, phase-out progress is slow, with coal-fired power even reaching an all-time global high in 2021. A key factor blocking or delaying this energy transition is the active resistance of coal regime actors with vested interests. However, there is still a lack of a systemic understanding of why some actors are more influential in shaping transition processes such as changes in policies or institutions. In this article, we present a comparative case study of the political struggle around the coal policy in Germany and Japan. We use the Endowment-Practice-Institutions (EPI) framework to analyse how actors try to destabilise or maintain the institutional arrangements underpinning the coal regimes in these countries and why some are more influential in shaping the policy outcomes. Our findings show that while actors’ strategies are largely determined by the socio-political context they are embedded in, there are also certain patterns and common sequences of practices. These include commissioning a study, disseminating it through various networks and social media channels, mobilising the public through demonstrations, and engaging in advocacy with the aim of increasing the political bargaining power. Our analytical framework, which can be applied to various settings, helps to understand why certain policy outcomes occur amidst efforts to spur or stall energy transitions, and why regimes are destabilised in some case – but not in others.

Research Team

Aya Kachi
Coordinator
University of Basel

Adrian Rinscheid
Co-Coordinator
University of St. Gallen

Mert Duygan
Principal Member
University of Basel

Fintan Oeri
Principal Member
University of Basel

Tabea Baumgartner
Principal Member
University of Basel

Thiago Dumont Oliveira
Principal Member
University of Basel

Roman Stutzer
Principal Member
University of Basel

Heinrich Wild
Principal Member
University of St. Gallen

Daniel Rosenbloom
Principal Member
University of Toronto

James Meadowcroft
Associated Member
Carleton University, Canada

Quynh Nguyen
Associated Member
Australian National University

Karoline Rogge
Associated Member
University of Sussex, UK

Volker Schneider
Associated Member
University of Konstanz, Germany

Sonia Seneviratne
Associated Member
ETH Zurich

Florian Weiler
Associated Member
University of Basel

Status

completed

Disciplines

SDGs

Policy domains

Regions

Countries

Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan

Host Institution

Coordinator

Co-Coordinator

Year