Protesters at a "Fridays for Future" demonstration in Taranto, Italy.
Protesters at a "Fridays for Future" demonstration in Taranto, Italy. Shutterstock/Massimo Todaro

Headline: Measuring progress in the energy transition from a systemic change perspective


To decarbonise energy systems and meet the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement, ambitious policy action is crucial. But how do we know if energy transition policies are advancing the systemic change that is needed? In this project, the researchers develop and apply a transition policy evaluation framework to assess progress in the energy transition in European countries, seeking to draw context-specific policy lessons.

The temperature targets of the Paris Agreement imply that net carbon emissions must reach zero as soon as possible in every country. This requires a profound and rapid transformation of carbon-intensive sectors like transport, electricity, and heating, supported by climate mitigation policy. Although the energy transition is a multidimensional process that will take decades, past and today's developments have a decisive influence on achieving a carbon-neutral system. Therefore, assessing transition progress is of considerable importance.

Measuring CO2 emissions is not enough to determine progress

Traditionally, progress in the energy transition has been measured by assessing changes in CO2 emissions. Emissions are a highly relevant metric because cumulative carbon emissions are the key determinant of global warming, and emissions must reach net zero. However, measuring only emissions says little about how the system is changing - whether existing policies are putting a country on a credible trajectory towards zero, not just less, emissions.

Decreasing emissions and increasing amounts of renewable and zero-carbon energy are necessary, but they are insufficient. For full decarbonisation, we need to adapt the entire system: we need to create and strengthen new supply chains for zero-carbon technologies, we need innovation in new technologies and development to improve what we already have, we must redesign existing networks and infrastructure systems or build entirely new ones, and we need institutional and regulatory reforms to support the new zero-carbon technologies and no longer the old fossil-based ones. To know how well the transition is going, we must investigate the underlying progress in technological and systemic change, and not only the effects past efforts have had on emissions.

Are we on the right path? Developing an evaluation framework

In this project, the researchers address the question of how to measure progress in the energy transition - is the system transforming into a new state that could possibly be carbon-neutral by mid-century? Our research has the following main objectives:

  • development of an evaluation framework to systemically assess progress in sectoral energy transitions
  • application of such a framework to Germany and a set of selected countries both to illustrate the usefulness of the method and to draw context-specific policy lessons for these countries.

The analytical framework will be supported by theoretical and applied research on socio-technical transitions and innovation systems and will be co-developed with stakeholders.

This project is funded by and developed in collaboration with the Bertelsmann Stiftung.