Transformative governance

How do we navigate to a more sustainable future?
Transitions will allow us to navigate to a more sustainable future.

When talking about climate change, the focus is most often on the climate side, and the ecological changes we face given current emissions trajectories. 

This theme explores the transitions required across a range of institutional spaces including politics, economics, food, finances, and energy. It examines the interconnections, opportunities and barriers, and the myriad ways in which individuals, communities, and governments are responding to these transitions in a climate-changed and climate-challenged world.

We aim to:

  • Examine the opportunities and barriers relating to transitioning systems at a variety of scales.
  • Elevate the role of communities in leading systems transitions to ensure communities receive optimal benefits from the transitions that impact them.
  • Develop innovative policies and practices to support efficient and just systems transitions.

Research clusters:

Featured research projects


Critical minerals

Examining the impact of mineral extraction for the renewable energy transition.

Explore new research and listen to the podcast mini-series Unearthing Critical Minerals.

All current research clusters and projects

Energy systems provide services that are essential for wellbeing, including access to heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, cleaning, communication, and leisure. Disconnection from electricity removes access to these services, and can have strong adverse consequences for wellbeing and health. Households facing energy security may also be unable to pay for sufficient electricity to access all of these services at the necessary level, likewise with potential negative impacts on wellbeing and health. Current measures for energy poverty and energy insecurity have not converged around a simple yet holistic measure of energy insecurity and energy poverty, and instead range from simple universal thresholds of energy poverty indicated by a >10% household energy expenditure threshold, to highly customised local measures that capture many dimensions but are not transferrable between locations.

This project aims to illuminate who is underserved by current energy systems and governance by creating a holistic measure that captures energy poverty in terms of peoples’ ability to live a life that they value. The project’s intended outcome is to develop a short series of questions suitable for large scale surveys to assess energy poverty. Visibility of who is facing energy poverty under current energy systems is one critical piece of pursuing an energy transition that achieves energy justice. In developing a holistic yet concise measure for energy poverty inclusive of wellbeing, this project aims to create a tool to determine which policies entrench versus alleviate existing inequities. This will help design policies for energy system reform that address social as well as environmental goals. The project will both develop the new measure and apply it to an initial study of energy poverty across Australia, then internationally.


Related research:

White, L.V., Riley, B., Wilson, S. et al. Geographies of regulatory disparity underlying Australia’s energy transition. Nat Energy 9, 92–105 (2024).

Longden, T., Quilty, S., Riley, B. et al. Energy insecurity during temperature extremes in remote Australia. Nat Energy 7, 43–54 (2022).

Bradley Riley, Lee V. White, Simon Quilty, Thomas Longden, Norman Frank-Jupurrurla, Serena Morton Nabanunga & Sally Wilson (2023) Connected: rooftop solar, prepay and reducing energy insecurity in remote Australia, Australian Geographer, 54:3, 325-346, DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2023.2214959

Bradley Riley, Lee V. White, Sally Wilson, Michael Klerck, Vanessa Napaltjari-Davis, Simon Quilty, Thomas Longden, Norman Frank Jupurrurla, Morgan Harrington, Disconnected during disruption: Energy insecurity of Indigenous Australian prepay customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 99, 2023,

This project will develop a climate transition plan for the Australian property sector, focusing on performance, maintenance, retrofits, and asset management.

Researchers will benchmark against the National Australian Built Environment Rating System to help industry deliver on global decarbonisation targets. 

They will evaluate the property sector for potential climate risk and forecast the trajectory of the rating to reduce the climate risk of properties nationally by 2050.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2024 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

This project is run in partnership with the Net Zero Initative.

Contributors: Dr Aysu KuruAssociate Professor Arianna BrambillaDr Ozgur Gocer, Dr Emma HeffernanDr Nader NaderpajouhDr Alastair Fraser

This project seeks to design a carbon footprint calculator for medical procedures. 

The calculator will be designed using NSW Health cost data and environmentally extended input-output analysis.

The work will serve to inform public health policy so that it aligns with the nationally determined contribution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030. 

This proof-of-concept project will build on Sydney Environment Institute research that analyses the carbon costs of common cardiovascular procedures.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2024 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Dr Fabian Sack

Current clinical decisions are almost exclusively made based on medical outcomes, with some cursory considerations to health economics and value-based care calculations. Carbon and environmental costs in health are not yet considered routinely, but in future will likely become more of a focus in decision making.

This project will investigate the carbon footprint of two comparable cardiac procedures with identical or very similar clinical outcomes but different clinical pathways. The study will compare the carbon cost of coronary bypass surgery with that of coronary stent insertion.

This comparison will provide additional information for clinicians and patients when considering the best treatment options for them. It will also be relevant to Health Systems planning.

Contributors: Professor David Celermajer, Dr Chris Kocx, Lorraine Ho, Professor Danielle Celermajer, Kirsten Jackson, Dr Fabian Sack, Associate Professor Arunima Malik, Dr Amanda Irwin, Raymond Van Der Zalm, Dr Kristen Pickles, Dr Scott McAlister, Jake Williams, Philomena Colagiuri.

Australia’s health system contributes 7% of the country’s total emissions. Anaesthesia is a carbon hotspot, with volatile anaesthetic gases alone accounting for 2% of the entire health system’s footprint. Nitrous oxide (N2O, “laughing gas”) is an inhalational anaesthesia and potent greenhouse gas still in common use in hospitals in Australia. There is currently no data available on the use of N2O in maternity wards from an economic perspective, so it is impossible for clinicians and policymakers to know the full impact of N2O.

This cross-disciplinary project will measure clinician’s use of N2O in maternity units in Australia, and identify challenges and opportunities for switching to low-carbon alternatives. In close collaboration with SEI and newly-appointed NSW Health Net Zero Leads, this project will combine expertise in behavioural science, qualitative methods, and lifecycle assessment to contribute to a research agenda of global environmental interest: transitioning healthcare to a net-zero future.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2023 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Dr Arunima MalikDr Kristen Pickles

Climate change is reshaping all aspects of Australia’s economy. The evolution of climate change is, in turn, increasingly governed by climate finance. The extant research demonstrates the limits of using financial tools to manage mitigation and adaptation; yet finance remains a powerful mediator of climate futures.

The project will investigate different contracts for purchasing renewable energy as a timely and illustrative pilot study of the reparative potential of climate finance. The study will:

  • Examine how different actors use the purchasing of energy for social and environments goals, and thereby pursue progressive, democratic, and socioecological outcomes.
  • Build a conceptual framework on ‘reparative climate finance’ that accounts for institutions, ideas, markets, and strategies to chart paths to transformed socioecological futures.

Develop an extra-academic network working towards repairing Australia’s diverse climate economies through a series of panels/workshops on innovations in climate finance.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2023 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Dr Sophie WebberDr Gareth Bryant

Attempts to reduce fossil fuel emissions to 1.5 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement and limit catastrophic climate change means drastically reducing greenhouse gases and shifting to renewable energy

We investigate the dependence of our energy use and systems on conventional energy and the global shift to renewables. In doing so, we critically evaluate how fossil fuels continue to be extracted and used, how they are financed, managed, and regulated, and their environmental and social impacts locally, regionally and globally. We question the political and economic viability, and the accountability and justice of current energy use and systems, and how this is being transformed through ‘smarter mining’ of critical minerals for renewable technology.

Contributors: Professor Susan Park, Dr Rebecca Lawrence, Dr Katherine Owens, Dr Madeline Taylor, Gemma Viney, Oliver-Summerfield Ryan, Michelle St Anne, Nathaniel Pelle

Read more about the research cluster

As the climate emergency worsens and heads of state prepare for COP26 in Glasgow, Australia’s domestic electricity remains coal-dependent while Australia remains the world’s largest coal exporter. The nation's ability to achieve a just transition will have significant implications for broader efforts to decarbonise in both Asia-Pacific and the world, both directly through the coal supply chains it enables and indirectly through Australia’s regional diplomacy and development aid.

By conducting a rapid evidence review that builds on existing work combined with new interviews and focus groups drawn from Government, industry and civil society in Canberra, NSW and Queensland, this project examines how a ‘just transition’ is being defined in Australia. It explores the key challenges to achieving it, and sets out a new, broader approach to just transition which will help shape global efforts to justly achieve the climate action that is urgently needed.

This project is funded through the British Academy’s Just Transitions to Decarbonisation in the Asia-Pacific programme.

Contributors: Associate Professor Gareth Edwards, Professor Susan ParkDr Robert MacNeil

This project is part of the Unsettling resources cluster.

Read more about the research project

South Pacific Small Island Developing States face devastating climate change impacts from rising sea levels, drought and increased severe weather events. The region is also powered predominantly by imported fossil fuels and suffers from low electrification rates in many areas, making the transition to renewable energy a policy priority to reduce emissions and promote energy security and resilience.

Many Pacific Island states have committed to 100% renewable energy targets by 2030 under Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs), but these ambitions come with complex implementation challenges, involving technical, social and financial barriers that are unique to each island context. There is also scant evidence of the governance arrangements capable of producing this scale of change within Pacific Island Small Island States.

This project builds on the successful Pacific Renewables Symposium in September 2021 to investigate the public and private ingredients necessary to bring sustainable renewable energy projects to the Pacific. Drawing on theories of orchestration (eg Abbott 2013) and place-based intervention (eg Keller & Virag 2021), the project aims to demonstrate how public and private arrangements, from the global to local scale, can be combined and sequenced to deliver renewable energy projects that serve and sustain Pacific Island people.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2022 Collaborative Project Fellowship scheme.

Contributors: Dr Kate OwensProfessor Susan Park

This project is part of the Unsettling resources cluster.

Download the Renewable Energy in the Pacific report

Critical minerals are vital for renewable energy technologies, particularly wind, solar PV, and lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles and storage. Exploring the international political economy, regulation, and environmental and social impact of mining for critical minerals is imperative as we seek a just and sustainable transition. Our project examines how critical minerals are being extracted at the beginning of the global value chain of renewable energy, including how jurisdiction, ownership, and local context shape whether the impacts of such extraction be can and are being mitigated. The analysis will inform studies on the life-cycle of renewable energy, the potential to avoid known harms from extractivism, utilising fossil fuels mines, and energy security.

This project is part of the Unsettling resources cluster.
Explore more about the research project.

Contributors: Professor Susan Park

Propelled by the race towards a low-carbon economy, private and public sector investors from superfunds to university endowments are setting Net Zero and Paris Aligned emission reduction targets. The carbon metrics used to demonstrate progress towards these targets are socio-material assemblages and thus carry the weight of both the greenhouse gas emissions we seek to manage, control and reduce, as well as the social orders from which they are designed, and through which they are then diffused and implemented. As socio-material constructs, carbon metrics need to be legitimised to be successful. The sociology of finance literature shows that diffusion of financial models occurs not necessarily because they are ‘good’, but because they are useful.

The methods underlying carbon metrics demonstrate this; they quantify and attribute emissions to investors and the companies they invest in ways that can show alignment with Net Zero or Paris Agreement targets, while allowing emissions to rise.

Through multi-disciplinary mixed-methods research, this project aims to examine how carbon metrics are assembled, so that actual emissions and progress towards actual emissions reductions are measured.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2022 Collaborative Project Fellowship scheme.

Contributors: Dr Tanya FiedlerDr Alastair Fraser

The climate crisis has spurred the global race for renewables, dramatically increasing solar energy and lithium-ion storage battery use. This project investigates the global governance of these technologies environmental and social impacts. This is significant because regulation lags technology: there are governance 'gaps' for protecting communities, ecosystems, and developing states, and accountability 'traps' that prioritise governance processes over outcomes. The project examines how solar and storage production, use, and disposal is governed and whether governance initiatives can account for harm. The expected outcomes are to determine whether global governance can regulate renewables, with benefit for improving global protection rules. 

This is an ARC Discovery project (2023-2025) entitled "Global governing gaps and accountability traps for solar energy and storage". 

Contributors: Professor Susan Park; Dr Ainsley Elbra; Assistant Professor Yixian Sun; Associate Professor Teresa Kramarz; Professor Craig Johnson. 

Related research outputs:

Kramarz, T., Park, S., & Johnson, C. (2021). Governing the dark side of renewable energy: A typology of global displacements. Energy Research & Social Science74, 101902–.

International efforts to tackle climate change are leading to a global surge in demand for 'critical metals' - so named for their strategic material value in the low-carbon energy sector writ large, and especially for batteries in electric vehicles and electricity storage. Primary among these critical metals is lithium, for which global demand is projected to grow fivefold by 2025. Feeding this demand is a global network of mining and extractive processes whose most destructive (and least documented) effects are happening at the far ends of the value chain -- i.e., extraction and disposal. The research seeks to understand the consolidation and contestation of lithium mining in five of the world's principal lithium-bearing countries: Australia, Canada and the "lithium triangle" of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Importantly, the work will study these processes in the context of two very different forms of lithium extraction: hard-rock mining and brine evaporation. Through comparative research across these regions and socio-technical landscapes, the research will pursue two inter-related empirical questions and objectives. 1. How are states governing this process and what accounts for political variation?

This project was founded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant (2021-2026), entitled "In the shadows of climate change mitigation: the politics of extraction for a just energy transition"

Contributors: Professor Craig Johnson, Associate Professor Kirby Calvert, Associate Professor Teresa Kramarz, Professor Susan Park, Associate Professor Javiera Bandanrian

Theme lead

Kate Owens
Associate Professor Kate Owens
View Associate Professor Kate Owens' profile

Theme lead

Lee White

Theme lead

Susan Park

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