The food-energy-climate change trilemma: developing a neo-Polanyian analysis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: Sociology


The world is facing three historically unprecedented problems: anthropogenic climate change, the depletion of finite energy and material resources such as oil, and a growing population with increasing and changing demand for food. These three problems are deeply interconnected, combining together in 'the food-energy-climate change trilemma'. Understanding how this trilemma is developing in different parts of the world presents a challenge to social science. We need comparative and global sociological, political and economic analysis. One approach which is particularly fruitful develops two key ideas of Karl Polanyi: the shifting place of economy in society, and the propensity of market economies to self-destruct as a consequence of unbridled exploitation of nature. The Fellowship aims to develop this analytical approach to provide an integrated understanding of the global development of the trilemma that is innovative and informative to social and natural scientists, relevant to policy makers, and engages with the wider public.

It is now widely recognised that all forms of agricultural land use and conversion are major sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, two and a half times greater than global transport energy use. So, uncontrolled growth of agricultural production presents a significant risk for climate change. On the other hand, economies cannot run, let alone grow, without sustainable and adequate sources of energy. High oil prices during a global recession already point to the economic risk arising from depleting oil resources. The trilemma concept captures the interdependency between, one, the development of renewable energy alternatives to depleting and finite resources (fossil carbon fuels, 'peak oil') to meet growing energy demand; two, the growing demand for food both to meet rising standards and population growth; and three, the competition for land, and pressures to convert land for both food and energy, so accelerating global climate change. The world is increasingly subject to pressures to increase or diminish the risks of these conjoined economic and ecological crises. This complex challenge to mitigate anthropogenic climate change underpins Sir John Beddington's drive to develop a strategy for the 'sustainable intensification' of agriculture.

Different regions of the world, partly through natural endowments, partly through level of development, and partly through their economic and political systems, have both driven and responded very differently to trilemma challenges. The Fellowship research will compare differing trilemma dynamics in four regions: the USA, Europe, Brazil and China. It will do this by employing strategic food+energy crops as research probes into changing economic configurations, undertaking 150 in-depth interviews with stakeholders, policy-makers and experts. In this comparison, the research will highlight the critical tension between, on the one hand, varied pathways of transition to escape the horns of the trilemma, and, on the other, the extent and depth of technological, socio-economic, and indeed political lock-in, to the fossil carbon economy and high GHG-footprint agriculture. The research will seek to explain the different regional political and market actor responses to the trilemma challenges, and assess whether and how these are intensifying or diminishing the risks of economic crisis and damaging climate change. A neo-Polanyian analytical framework will develop the concept of 'instituted economic processes' to illuminate these critical changes in socio-economic organisation. The world is facing the stark alternatives of transition or fatal entrapment. By improving understanding of the socio-economic dynamics of the trilemma, social science can assume its responsibility in facing these challenges. The research process itself engages directly with policy-makers and shapers and aims for wider public engagement through publication and dissemination.

Planned Impact

The Fellowship topic of climate change, land, energy and food demand is one of direct interest to a range of different actors, and promises a variety of societal impacts. It will build on the applicant's established connections with a number of key actors, both nationally and internationally.

The listing of beneficiaries is exemplary rather than exhaustive.

Key stakeholders
Who: BP Biofuels Division, British Sugar, Vivergo Fuels, Ensus, European Bioethanol Producers Association, European Biodiesel Board; BioSciences Knowledge Transfer Network, the National Non-Food Crops; Copersucar and Petrobras (Brazil)
Roundtables for Sustainable Palm Oil, for Sustainable Soy, and the Better Sugarcane Initiative.

How they will benefit: Engagement of key stakeholders in the research process (including workshops and the final conference) and production of tailored publications will deliver stakeholders a novel comparative global perspective to assist in their strategy making. Comparative analysis of the development of sustainability regulation will further inform stakeholders of the developing context within which they operate. The research will also assist in the evaluation of risks of pursuing different strategies in a global context.

Who: UK: officials in Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs; Department of Energy and Climate Change; Department for International Development, Department for Transport; Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (including Government Office for Science).
EU: officials from Directorates General for Environment, for Agriculture and Rural Development, for Transport and Energy, and for Health and Consumers.

How they will benefit: The engagement of policy-makers in the research process (including workshops and the final conference) and production of tailored publications will deliver a comparative global perspective on different policy orientations in different contexts. Raising policy-makers awareness of issues of climate change and competition for land, and the need to develop radical innovation strategies for a new and more beneficial agricultural revolution through 'sustainable intensification' is a central aim of the research process. For policy-makers the research outputs and engagement will assist them in rethinking innovation processes and the roles of international, state, market and non-governmental actors. Comparative analysis of the development of sustainability regulation will inform those engaged in sustainability regulation design, placing it in a global context where other regions are pursuing different regulatory strategies.

Policy-shapers and public perception
Who: Carbon Trust, environmental NGOs (WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth), Oxfam

How will they benefit: Contributing to a shift in general public perception of the food-energy-climate change trilemma is a critical impact at the broadest level, entailing more integrated recognition of the linkage between the risks of economic and ecological crises. Changing perception of trilemma dynamics may challenge entrenched interests and agendas in a way critical to the further development of public opinion.


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Description Three main findings are summarised here.
Sociogenesis. The concept of the sociogenesis of climate change, as against anthropogenesis, represents a significant development of the social scientific contribution to the understanding of what drives climate change and its mitigation. By comparing the radically different political economies of China, Brazil, India and Germany, in their equally radically different natural resource environments, the research has shown that they generate contrasting greenhouse gas footprints to which, to varying degrees, they respond with different regulatory policies. On the one hand, different political systems, national economic institutions, and strategic political orientations to the use of environmental resources, whether renewable or fossil carbon, have fundamental significance for climate change. On the other, these diverse political economies are in turn powerfully conditioned by the contrasting resource environments they inhabit. The concept of sociogenesis captures the dynamic interaction between specific political economies and their resource environments.

Trilemma. With its empirical focus on land use and land use change for food and renewable transport energy, the research highlights a dimension of climate change often neglected by research and policy agendas centred on the use of fossil carbon for power generation. A major unanticipated outcome of the research shows how, in different ways in the different national contexts, the expansion of biofuels as an alternative to oil, has stalled or been reversed. In Brazil, a leading pioneer, biofuel development (petrol or diesel), has stalled, including for new generations of biofuels. In China, use of biofuels has been reversed and strictly limited by regulation. In India, biofuels failed ever to take-off in spite of policy objectives. And in Germany, biodiesel, once a significant element of transport energy, has largely been abandoned as a projected alternative to fossil fuels. In nationally contrasting ways, in spite of the as yet marginal adoption of electric power for transport energy, the consequence has been one of a 'lock-in' to the continued, and indeed in some cases rapidly growing, use of fossil fuels.

Nutrition transitions.
If biofuels have ceased to represent a major driver of land-use change, food, as the other main dimension of the trilemma, presents an ever-growing challenge to climate change. In terms of the analysis of its sociogenesis, the research demonstrated the need to adopt an integrated approach from agricultural production through trade and markets to food consumption. National policies of food security, deeply contrasting patterns and scales of landownership, and of agronomies of crop and meat production, result in markedly different and growing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, China's rice production has combined nitrogen oxide emissions from excess chemical fertilisers with methane, in contrast to Brazil releasing CO2 from deforestation combined with methane from expanding cattle production. However, nationally contrasting agricultural production systems combine with equally contrasting cultures of consumption. Brazil's per capita meat consumption dominated by beef overtaking Germany's red meat 'ceiling'; China's socially broadening pork consumption; and India's vegetarianism and beef suppression, each represent diverse societal trends and cultures of consumption fundamentally conditioning future climate impacts of changing food demand.
Exploitation Route The principal objective for achieving impact from the research is to bring about a shift of perspective amongst key stakeholders, NGOs, and policy makers towards a more social science understanding of the dynamics of climate change. This is a long-term process, involving engagement at different levels with different actors. One strand of engagement has been with environmental scientists, notably through continuing collaboration with Imperial College's Centre for Environmental Policy. Another has been engagement through workshops including the principal environmental NGOs. A third has been engagement with stakeholders and experts by holding workshops in Brazil and China.
Future plans for impact will carry this process of engagement forward, following publication of key papers and a monograph arising from the research.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport