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The author explores the fraught politics of energy transitions in an age of climate change. She does so through an ecological modernisation and corporate social responsibility lens which she contends shapes and underpins sustainability today. Case studies cover climate policy, unconventional gas and renewable energy.





Sustainability — shorthand for sustainable development (SD) — is one of today’s new buzzwords. It is now a well-established part of the vernacular in many countries across the globe, but especially in the advanced industrial democracies. For many, the widespread penetration of sustainability into both language and culture signifies environmentalism’s success in making its case about a planet in peril. But contemporary sustainability has an additionally important meaning — signalling the centrality of business, particularly the corporate sector, to the environmental agenda today. Importantly, business was no longer to be viewed simply as the problem; it would now become a key part of the solution. While business’ embrace of a corporate responsibility ethos is critical to the sustainability enterprise, and was acknowledged as such by many, not all welcomed the sustainability route it would go on to champion. For some sustainability, and now corporate sustainability, highlights the easy fluidity of a term that can be made to mean very much or very little. Others look with increasing alarm at what they consider business’ co-optation, and subsequent dilution, of the environmental agenda. But what both sides agree on is that the conversation about environmental issues, their situation within politics and society, and the position that contemporary business adopts in relation to them, have undergone considerable transformation over a relatively short period.
Giorel Curran

Theorising Contemporary Sustainability


1. Sustainability Today: From Fringe to Mainstream

The green movement is one of the world’s most successful social move-ments. Over a relatively short period, it has succeeded in raising world-wide awareness about the impacts of unchecked development on both nature and humanity. The early days of a seemingly alarmist green fringe warning of impending ecological crisis has been replaced, five decades on, with many people alert to such crisis. Indeed, the growing recogni-tion of environmental problems has seen many former adversaries of environmentalism, including the corporate sector, now embracing it. Many are heartened by this turn of events. Others are more circum-spect. ‘Success’, after all, is a highly fluid term, and many argue that the success the green movement now enjoys has been won at much cost — to both the environment and the movement’s social change capacity as a whole. Few would nonetheless disagree that the environment move-ment has launched a convincing case for a planet in peril that many social actors, including business and governments, have to lesser or greater degrees now heeded. The penetration of the term ‘sustainability’ into the contemporary global vernacular is testament to this.
Giorel Curran

2. Ecological Modernisation: Promises and Prospects

Sustainable development (SD) relies on an economy’s capacity to grow within ecological constraints. Most economies will seek to do so in ways that do not diminish their economic and competitive advantages. An ecological modernisation (EM) approach that promises to simultan-eously generate economic growth and environmental sustainability within the existing political economy paradigm is thus very appealing. It helps explain why EM is one of today’s major sustainability discourses and ‘one of the dominant perspectives in the environmental social sciences’ (Scheinberg and Mol, 2010: 20). For many, its capacity to generate ecologically benign growth is without peer (Jänicke, 2008: 563). Through decoupling environmental degradation from economic growth, EM promotes a paradigm of co-benefits or ‘win-win’: ‘a posi-tive-sum game’ where technological innovation generates economic buoyancy at the same time as it protects the environment (Hajer, 1995: 64). This paradigm, or ‘discourse of reassurance’ (Dryzek, 2005: 172), is fundamental to explaining EM’s widespread appeal. It promises not only to contain costs and create opportunities, but also to do so in a manner that only minimally disrupts economy and society. These qualities have rendered EM central to the pragmatic task of SD. In one way or other, it is the dominant approach to environmental reform today.
Giorel Curran

3. Corporate Social Responsibility: Business Stepping Up?

‘It’s harder to lie now; the world is more transparent’. This observation was made by Colin Crouch in reference to the contemporary corporate landscape (in Stone, 2012). It is likely an observation shared by many in the corporate sector, which helps explain why corporate social respon-sibility (CSR) is a prominent feature of today’s corporate environment. Most large companies go to considerable effort to cultivate a positive CSR profile. This reflects the growing social expectation that corpo-rations extend their responsibilities beyond profits and shareholder returns, and behave in a manner that is transparent and accountable. The generality of the term ‘social’ renders these responsibilities wide in scope and reach. Certainly, corporations have worked hard over the past few decades to imprint themselves as friends not adversaries of the environment. Indeed, some corporations market themselves as leaders of the sustainability drive, championing their ‘sustaining’ corporations as emblematic of the corporate future (Dunphy et al., 2007, 2014). CSR thus signals the corporate sector’s bona fides in acknowledging its contribution to social and environmental problems and its preparedness to address them. Amid the myriad definitions of CSR its proposition is a simple one: corporations should sacrifice some of their profits in the social interest (Elhauge, 2005). In this increasingly transparent world, corporations hanker for the legitimacy that CSR confers, particularly in a neo-liberal era that has enhanced their operational autonomy.
Giorel Curran

Practising Contemporary Sustainability


4. The Politics of Climate Change: Fight and Flight

Climate change is both a major environmental problem and a major political problem. Addressing climate change challenges established economic patterns and interests, as well as the corporate cultures that guard those interests. The climate problem has been on the global radar for several decades now, with most governments and many corporations having climate action plans in place — albeit the effectiveness of these plans remains contested. A successful response to the climate problem requires, as a minimum, the kinds of modernisation strategies ecological modernisation (EM) promotes and the measures the corporate sector nominates as central to its social responsibilities. Yet the evidence thus far points to the contrary; warming is in fact accelerating, and at rates that are increasingly alarming (WMO, 2014; IPCC, 2014; Cai et al., 2014).
Giorel Curran

5. Unconventional Gas and Social Licence: Locking the Gate?

The gas industry worldwide is flourishing, with gas shaping up as the new century’s energy gold rush. Viewed as less emissions-intensive than coal — although this is vigorously contested — gas is staking its claim as the cleaner transition fuel of choice. The International Energy Agency (IEA, 2012, 2013) reports that we are in the midst of a ‘golden age of gas’, with gas predicted to overtake coal to provide a 25 per cent share of the global energy mix by 2035. This would make it second only to oil (IEA, 2012: 10). Conventional gas resources such as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) have been stepped up to meet the rapidly increasing energy demands of nations and consumers across the globe, particularly the markets of China and India. But it is the newly emergent unconventional gas industry that is experiencing some of the most stellar growth. This is particularly so in the United States, but many other countries are also undergoing unprecedented expansion of their unconventional gas resources. With recent technological innovations such as horizontal drilling facilitating access, the IEA estimates that technically recoverable unconventional gas reserves worldwide are approaching size equivalence to available conventional ones. In the United States, the shale gas boom is expected to provide over half of its domestic supplies of gas in 20 years. Australia too is experiencing its own unconventional gas boom, especially in the states of Queensland (QLD) and New South Wales (NSW). While not of the scale of its counterpart in the United States, the unconventional gas industry in Australia has gone from relative obscurity just a few years ago to assume a burgeoning status today.
Giorel Curran

6. Renewable Energy Transitions: Powering the Future?

Energy is the cornerstone of modern industrial societies, literally driving development. But energy use, particularly from fossil fuels, also drives the climate problem. As we discussed in Chapter 4, a restructuring of the energy landscape, and a rethinking of the role that emissions-inten-sive fuels play in the contemporary energy mix are critical to addressing climate change. Commitments by business to the restructuring effort are central to the achievement of this task. This is easier said than done, of course, even in the face of the increasing potential of renewable energy to assist this task — a potential tailor-made for ecological modernisation’s (EM) ambitions. Much is invested in current energy arrangements, for both producers and consumers, and change could come with consider-able disruption and cost to both. It is for this reason that much of the energy debate centres on the maintenance of energy’s ‘holy grail’: the provision of secure, stable and affordable energy.
Giorel Curran


The early 21st century is clearly an age of ‘sustainability’. Increasing numbers of governments across the globe have signalled their intention to foster environmental renewal and set the world on a more sustainable path. Many others have already achieved significant outcomes and are pursuing ambitious plans. Business too has stepped up to the challenge. Through their participation in ecological modernisation (EM), and through the conduit of their own modernisation paradigm of corporate social responsibility (CSR), many in the corporate sector have signalled their willingness to do their part to achieve sustainable development (SD). Civil society, as we have seen, has been a central prompt of sustainability throughout. Yet a paradox of this sustainability age is that as awareness of environmental problems increases, and as environmental activity among governments and business grows, key environmental problems worsen and the world — at least regarding climate change — is heading into dangerous territory (UNEP, 2012a, 2012b; IPCC, 2014). This is despite the fact that all key social sectors have stepped up to addressing the sustainability challenge, albeit to varying degrees. In light of these trends, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that while the idea of sustainability has taken root, its practice is lagging.
Giorel Curran


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