Transitions to a Sustainable Future: Opportunities for Transformational Change in Canada

Authors: Policy Horizons Canada
Document Type: Archives
Published Date: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 5:00am
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  • Conventional approaches to policy making and program development have been unable to address meaningfully a range of persistent environmental problems; innovative approaches are needed to facilitate transformative change.
  • Governments across the OECD are wrestling with how to promote major structural changes such as those required to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over coming decades.
  • A transition approach provides a practical and flexible framework for facilitating fundamental change that is grounded in long-term visions, innovation, learning and shared responsibility.

Addressing Persistent Problems

Many of the development challenges that we currently face have been with us for some time. Despite progress in dealing with certain environmental issues, persistent problems like climate change, waste management, traffic congestion and water pollution remain largely unresolved. Although governments have generally embraced the notion of sustainable development, existing institutions and structures have had great difficulty addressing such troubling challenges in a meaningful way. Part of the explanation for this difficulty is that these persistent problems have their roots in deep seated features of current economic and social arrangements. Incremental changes to existing practices and policies are not enough to achieve real solutions. Instead, governments across the OECD are increasingly realising that transformational change is required.

The movement towards a low carbon economy provides a good example. Scientific assessments now suggest that we will need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80% over the next 40 years if we are to avoid the most serious risks of climate change. Such a dramatic shift cannot be achieved by small adjustments to present ways of doing things – cutting one percent of emissions here and one percent there. Instead, it will require a dramatic transformation of current patterns of consumption and production, especially in the energy sector, but also in areas such as transportation, construction, industry and agriculture. However, bringing about such an ambitious transformation is not easy.

What is the Transition Approach?

The transition approach is a way of understanding and managing transformative change to promote sustainability. As its name suggests, it regards transformative change as a process of transition> – a movement from one set of arrangements to another. The transition approach focuses on how to get from 'here' to 'there'. It implies an effort to:

  • understand exactly where we are today: identifying the key features of the current situation, of the persistent problems we are seeking to escape, and of the underlying sources of these problems;
  • establish alternative visions of the future – of just where we want to go and what sort of arrangements we would like to see come into being; and
  • tie together the present and the future, using long term perspectives to inform current decision-making, and to orient change in favourable directions.

The transition approach is concerned with long term transformative change in complex contexts. This is the sort of change which may take a generation or more to complete. Obstacles to facilitating such change are significant, as all sorts of mechanisms ‘lock-in' established ways doing things and inhibit the emergence of alternatives. Traditional approaches to policy have difficulty coming to grips with transformative change, and the tendency is to concentrate on the short term and defer action. But precisely because some problems are deeply embedded, and will require long term solutions, we need to get going today to orient developments along promising lines. And here a transition approach can help.

Internationally, transitions and transition management are increasingly being applied to action around sustainability. A transition approach was pioneered by the Dutch government in their 2002 National Environmental Policy Plan. Since then the Netherlands has developed a range of activities around the energy transition, that integrates transportation, agriculture, construction and other sectors. More recently, they have begun a transition in the field of health care.

Transition Approach in the Netherlands

In its 2002 National Environmental Policy Plan (NEPP4), the Netherlands government introduced its transition policy for sustainability to deal with persistent problems by encouraging system innovation in seven major areas including energy, natural resources, agriculture, the chemical industry, safety, human health, and land-use/quality of living environments. The plan outlines a sustainable vision for 2030 and the policy framework that will be needed to achieve it. The approach is both integrative and collaborative. The period it takes to achieve transformation is referred to as a transition and is comprised of technological, economic, socio-cultural and institutional change. The government plays a leadership role and provides funding (along with the private sector), though responsibility for transition plans and actions in each of the seven areas is shared by government, the private sector, the research community and civil society.

The United Kingdom has recently issued a Low Carbon Transition Plan, and deployed a series of initiatives to address long term climate policy, including creating the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and other new institutions dedicated to research (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research), funding (the Carbon Trust) and independent advice (Committee on Climate Change).

Transition Approach in the United Kingdom

In July 2009 the UK government tabled in Parliament its Low Carbon Transition Plan – a comprehensive strategy to achieve legally binding reductions in green house gas emissions by 2020 and 2050. The plan includes specific actions to transform the energy, transportation, agricultural sectors as well as land and waste management. It incorporates actions to reduce energy consumption in homes and workplaces and encourages experimentation and competition at the community level in efforts to become green. Funding is provided to help businesses and citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, through the transition. The Transition plan is supplemented by a detailed Renewable Energy Strategy and a Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, aimed at supporting British competitiveness through leadership in low carbon industries. Key government departments have been assigned a carbon budget with requirements to reduce their own emissions, but also those in the sectors of the economy which they influence. The UK strategy adopts an adaptive management approach, with five year carbon budgets that will be adjusted based on progress toward the targets. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is an independent body established under the Climate Change Act to advise the UK Government on setting carbon budgets, and to report to Parliament on the progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Key Features of the Transition Approach

Over time, societies go through many transitions such as rural to urban dwellers, craft production to industry, from the pony express to Web 2.0). For the most part these transitions have been unplanned, although governments have often played an active role (think of the building of the railroads). But change processes can be painful and disruptive. The goal of the transition approach is to accelerate necessary change, orient it in fruitful directions, and reduce associated societal costs. Given the complexity of interactions involved in significant technological, institutional and societal changes, transitions can not be engineered. Nor can their outcome be predetermined. However, certain elements of change can be deliberately influenced and guided to nudge a system transition towards a more sustainable path.

Key elements of the transition approach include:

  1. A focus on long term transformational change. Often our efforts to improve sustainability focus on incremental changes (system improvements) which can have a positive impact. While a transition approach aims to exploit and support these gradual improvements, it is ultimately oriented towards transformational change (system innovation) which can yield even greater benefits.
  2. Visioning the future. Shared visions are important because perspectives on the future influence the way we act today. A transition approach encourages the development of such future visions. Scenarios trace forward current trends; but visions go further to include values and goals. And visions remain plural, because a transition approach does not try to force everyone into one mould, but to explore alternative prospects.
  3. Managing a portfolio of transition experiments. By experimenting with new technologies, new products and process, and business models and social innovations it is possible to explore pathways to a better future. The emphasis here is on cooperation among all types of societal actors (from business, civil society, universities, government, and so on) to develop partnerships to trial innovations. Just as a fund manager with a diversified investment strategy reduces risk and exploits a range of opportunities, so the transition approach employs a wide portfolio of experiments to explore a broad terrain, identify promising openings, and gather knowledge about barriers to change.
  4. A priority on innovators. Traditional regulatory and policy approaches cannot avoid concern with laggards and non-compliance; and multi-stakeholder processes often bog down in the quest for complete consensus. A transition approach puts the emphasis squarely on innovators – on the dynamic individuals, groups, departments, firms and organizations that are working to realize new visions. It works to mobilize these change agents, to involve them in collaborative activities, and to share responsibility.
  5. Learning from experience. A learning philosophy is central to the transition approach. We can't know in advance which technological and social innovations will prove successful. So it is important to allow different experiments to compete, to draw lessons from practical experience, and to adjust behaviour on the basis performance.

Government has an important role in implementing a transition approach – establishing forums for innovators, encouraging networking among social actors, and providing strategic funding. But the approach depends on the active involvement of business, communities and citizens. This is not old style planning, or an attempt to re-brand all the other activities of government. Rather governments can act as facilitators, motivators, and participants. Nor is this a simple recipe that involves a set number of steps that must be performed in a certain order. Instead, it is a general approach, and the various elements (such as visioning, experiments, and so on) can be combined in different ways according to the specific needs of the sectors or communities involved.

Opportunities for Canada

The transition approach could make an important contribution to addressing persistent sustainability problems in Canada. It encourages us to reconsider established institutional mindsets, administrative arrangements, and relations with stakeholders. It provides a dynamic, learning-oriented approach. It does not require the abandonment of existing policies; rather it can complement work already underway and widen the range of policy alternatives.

Models developed in other countries cannot be directly applied to Canada – for we have our own political and administrative culture, jurisdictional issues, and policy norms. But there are a number of commonalities across approaches being taken elsewhere, and the experience of others can be useful as we strive to develop our own solutions to complex problems such as climate change and identify opportunities for Canada as we make the transition to a low carbon society.

Dr. James Meadowcroft is a Professor at Carleton University in both the Department of Political Science and the School of Public Policy and Administration and holds the Canada Research Chair in Governance for Sustainable Development. Anne Morin is a Senior Policy Researcher at the Policy Research Initiative.