Wicked governance problems and experimentation for decarbonisation

2 March 2023
SEI researcher Kate Owens’ pioneering research examines how governance frameworks can produce the scale of activity and coordination required for decarbonisation by increasing the speed and impact of experimentation.

By Dr Kate Owens, Sydney Law School, and Emma Holland, Sydney Environment Institute

Emma Holland: Congratulations on being awarded a 2023 Sydney Research Accelerator (SOAR) Prize! Can you tell us about the research you’ll be focusing on?

Kate Owens: The SOAR Prize will provide the necessary time and funding for me to undertake a large body of empirical work into new pathways for future climate laws and institutions. 

The escalating climate crisis, among other matters, is a wicked governance problem: not only must we develop technologies capable of transforming our energy, land, infrastructure and industry sectors, but we must also implement those technologies at all levels of government and within complex, dynamic and interconnected socio-technical systems. 

Increasing public funding for research and development and scaling up investments for climate change solutions will not be sufficient. Public and private organisations must also coordinate and synchronise their efforts to identify what ‘works’, and rapidly develop and propagate transformative solutions. But examples of governance frameworks that can produce this level of coordination and change are rare.

My project will demonstrate how legal and governance structures can grapple with the uncertainties and complexities of decarbonisation by coupling public funding with deep forms of public-private experimentation. 'Experimentation' here refers to government or publicly-funded interventions made in a real-world context to generate, develop, and test new climate solutions or prototypes.

In my presentation for the 2023 Iain McCalman Lecture, I’ll introduce some elements of this project and discuss the governance required in Australia to enable experimentation to achieve rapid and critical climate-led transformations. 

What case studies will you be investigating as part of this research?

I will be undertaking four case studies in Australia and Europe (Finland and Germany) on renewable energy and circular economy experimentation, which all provide intense and critical examples of this phenomenon.

Why should Australian governments be focusing on climate governance?

Australia's overreliance on non-renewable fossil fuels, underinvestment in the grid, and an absence of a concrete plan to get to 'net zero' emissions by 2050 are not just political, economic or engineering problems, but fundamentally problems of governance. Building climate governance capacity must be a central focus of our solutions, based on a deep understanding of the transition process and the coordination required.

There will be several important features of future climate governance, and my presentation for the Iain McCalman Lecture will address four of the key pillars that have informed my most recent research.

To hear more from Dr Kate Owens, don’t miss her keynote presentation on harnessing the potential of climate governance for the Iain McCalman Lecture on Monday 20 March. Register here.

Kate Owens is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney Law School and Director of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law. Her research combines both social and legal methods to address significant issues of environmental law and governance, including how law and governance should manage climate change, energy transitions, environmental water, environmental finance and the risks of coal seam gas mining. Her 2017 monograph, Environmental Water Markets and Regulation: A Comparative Legal Approach (Routledge/Earthscan), focuses on how law and governance can enable innovation and ecologically sustainable transformation, particularly in the context of climate and water governance. Kate was one of SEI’s 2022 Collaborative Fellows, working with Professor Susan Park on the project Powering a Pacific led renewable energy transformation and is a key researcher on the Unsettling resources research cluster. Before joining the University of Sydney in 2015, Kate practised for a number of years in State Government and leading commercial firms in Australia and New Zealand, specialising in environmental and planning law.

Header image: Solar panels installed on the roof in South Australia via Shutterstock, ID: 513272902.

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