Australia, like many industrialised nations, is in the midst of a major change in how we produce and consume energy, shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
In my research, I use the multi-level perspective (part of what’s called transition theory) to explain where we are, how we got here and where we might be going next. Transition theory is a way of thinking about changes that take place within society over time.
It has been used to examine historical changes, such as changes in communications (from letter to telegraph to phone to computer to mobile) and outlines three levels in which transitions take place: landscape, regime and niche, as set out below:
Rooftop solar is an example of such an innovation.
The question for local governments is where do they fit? While they do play a minor role in maintaining the current regime (such as through land use planning regulations), they have less of a stake in the outcome than state and Federal governments. This allows them to help push solar out of the experimental niche to a point where it replaces fossil fuel energy.
Seeing yourself as part of a transition can be useful in engaging the community. I noticed at a conference I attended last year in France, that European local governments don't frame their communications around climate change. Rather, they talked about "helping you through the energy transition", which was more appealing to a broader audience.
It may also mean thinking about taking on new actions that can be measured for how much they disrupt this regime, as much as for how much they reduce carbon emissions.
What’s crucial for local government to understand is that it is playing this role. It is not just providing services that the local community wants, it is also driving major socio-technical change.
This may give local government a different perspective on its role. It is no longer the “third tier” of government, it is an important actor in creating a low-carbon future and needs to accept this responsibility.