Debating energy policy at two levels

What makes good policy? How are current and future policy choices justified in political speech? These are some of the questions I have looked at in the context of debates on energy futures at two distinct levels of policy-making: in the national parliament of Finland and in the city council of Helsinki. I focused on recent debates from the years 2011-2015. What I found is an interesting tension, where the end-goal of a carbon-neutral future is the same for both the city council of Helsinki and the national parliament of Finland. However, the means proposed for achieving that future differ.

Parliamentary debates stress the importance of persistency and predictability in energy policy. For example, as a politician stated in the parliament in 2013: ”Regulation regarding energy production needs to be persistent and unambiguous, so that companies can calculate the profitability of their energy investments long enough into the future”. In contrast, a city councilor from Helsinki found it “very good decision-making that changes in the operational environment can be acted upon”. There is a difference between the two, where parliamentarians focus on creating predictability whereas city councilors highlight the importance of adapting to changing circumstances. How could the differences between the two levels be explained?

I suggest the proposed means are so unalike due to the actors’ conceptions of their own possible spaces of action. While the end-goal of carbon neutrality is the same, actors at distinct governance levels conceive the means they have for achieving that in quite a distinct manner. National level actors debate the general regulatory environment and the role of the state in ensuring regulatory stability. Uncertainty over the future is seen as something that can and should be controlled and minimized. Parliamentarians see the role of the state as facilitating favourable investment conditions in Finland, and decreasing the political risks associated with large-scale investments. To achieve such conditions, politicians demand anticipatory knowledge of the future and stabilizing energy policy based on that knowledge for longer periods.

City level actors, in contrast, make choices within national and regional regulatory environments, taking into consideration the technological, legislative and societal changes they see. Views of good policy stress adaptability, agility and the willingness to revisit past decisions. Uncertainty over the future is taken for granted, as something that both constrains making decisions over the future, but also enables responding to and taking up, for example, technological developments. This suggests that cities may be better equipped to incite changes in acting on climate change, as also others have recently argued. City actors are pursuing change through a variety of means, including international networks, such as C40 or the Covenant of Mayors, and more localized efforts. However, favouring adaptable policy in the short-term requires having a sense of direction in the long-term.

The analysis reveals the importance of looking at questions of scale and agency when debating energy policy. Long-term goals, such as carbon neutrality in 2050, will translate into different means, policies and practices at distinct governance levels.

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About Kamilla Karhunmaa

Kamilla Karhunmaa is a doctoral student in the Environmental Policy Research Group at the University of Helsinki. Her PhD examines the debates on change and stability in energy policy and transitions in Finland. Kamilla has an MSc in Social and Public Policy from Helsinki University and a BSc in Environmental Policy from London School of Economics and Political Science. Kamilla is interested in knowledge, expertise and future imaginaries in environmental policy. She has previously worked on climate and development issues at Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku.