Policy communities: small world, big deal


Climate change is kind of a big deal. It will affect all life on the planet in some way. The precise details (on a scale of bad to unthinkable) depend on how human societies can reorder themselves in response to what we know about the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and the climate system. Over the long-term, the human and environmental cost of inaction hugely outweigh the cost of doing whatever it takes to change course. Even in the short term, the net costs of climate action are modest, particularly when some of the spin-off perks of limiting emissions such as new jobs and cleaner air are accounted for.

So why has public policy almost universally been so slow to change, so difficult to make and, by most measures, so wholly inadequate to the task? How can our collective decision making fail so badly to bring about change that is not just economically sensible but existentially imperative? These questions have inspired an entire generation of researchers and scholars and the answers are predictably diverse. Technological innovation is uncertain by definition. We know that complex socio-technical systems’ primary characteristic is inertia or resistance to change. Perhaps, even, human psychology is fundamentally incompatible with assessing and acting on complex information about intangible, long-term risks.

Who knows? But when looking for answers, the European Union, self-declared global climate policy champion, seems like a good place to start. Collectively, the countries of the EU are the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, beaten to the top spot only by China and the USA. Brussels, home to the institutions of the EU, also happens to be the world’s largest, most intense, non-stop jamboree of lobbyists, wonks, pundits, policymakers, diplomats, and bureaucrats. Those in the know call this city-within-a-city the Brussels bubble.


Guidebooks recommend travellers visit Brussels in the spring or autumn, known as the ‘shoulder seasons’. The weather is cooler than in high summer, the crowds less frenetic and hotel prices more moderate. Although, there is a downside: in common with most of North West Europe, Brussels in autumn can spend days or weeks at a time stewing under a leaden blanket of oppressive low cloud.

On one such cool, overcast Thursday morning in autumn 2014, the European Council met at 175 rue de la Loi. The monumental pink granite building, named for sixteenth-century Flemish philosopher, Justus Lipsius, is the venue for the quarterly summits of the heads of state and government of the EU’s member states.

At this particular summit, on the 23rd of October, the twenty-eight politicians were due to take a decision with implications for Europe’s energy system, the environment and the global climate. The decision was set to shape the priorities for EU’s climate and energy policy between 2020 and 2030. The European Council was working from proposals made by the EU’s executive, the European Commission, which proposed that several ‘targets’ be set for 2030. Recommendations had been made for the level and nature of the targets, backed up by hundreds of pages of analysis.

Like any big decision, the ‘EU 2030’ framework was riven by trade-offs and compromises. With climate change accepted as a real and epoch-defining challenge and transforming Europe’s dirty energy systems into sustainable ones proving extremely complex, the stakes were high. Some countries wanted to move faster than others. There were disagreements over the proper role for the EU in promoting specific clean technologies. The strongly held differences of opinion about the right way ahead meant that the potential for disagreement around the huge oval table was palpable.

And then, in the face of what many describe as the “greatest challenge of our time”, Europe blinked.

The consensus that emerged from the European Council that day represented a significant change in course from the one set just seven years earlier by the 2020 targets. The overall target for emissions reduction was the lowest that could be said to be commensurate with the EU’s goal of deep decarbonisation by 2050, itself informed by the desire to limit global temperature increase to 2̊ degrees. The targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency were both low, and would not carry any legal weight. ‘Politics’ was seen to have trumped ‘climate’.

But many of the crucial choices that determined the outcome had not been taken by the Council at all. They had been taken, in fact, in the months and years leading up to the meeting and were contained in the European Commission’s proposals, published earlier in 2014. By the time the Prime-Ministers, Presidents and Chancellors took their allocated seats that morning, the ‘2030 framework’ and the ideas it represented had been debated, discussed and raked over by scores of experts and analysts in Brussels and elsewhere – relatively few of whom held official positions in the EU.

In the course of developing their proposals, the European Commission had consulted national and European interest groups. Those same interests had prepared and published proposals of their own. They had undertaken modelling exercises and formed coalitions. They had plotted, planned, persuaded and sought at every turn to make their mark on the options that faced Europe’s leaders that dreary Thursday in October.

So, while the grand politics of the summit table played a defining role in the 2030 climate and energy framework, so did the intense activity of a small community of interest groups, lobbyists and campaigners, living and working within a few kilometres of the Justus Lipsius building.


Pretty much every policymaking venue has a ‘policy community’ of advisors, experts, lobbyists and hangers-on that discuss and debate policy developments. This never-ending parley is closely observed (and participated in) by policymakers seeking the verdict on their ideas while also eyeballing new ones. These communities are distinct and unique social settings, with their own dynamics, norms, and taboos.

They represent a kind of gated-community in which participation is based on not just what you know and who you know, but also how you say what you know to who you know. The Brussels bubble is perhaps an extreme example. Far removed from corporate headquarters and national capitals, it resembles something more like a remote island or hidden valley than a suburb. Behind the clouds that shroud this wonkish Shangri-La, specialist tribes of perhaps only a few hundred people set up camp in the territory around various policy briefs: finance, energy, environment, trade, and so on. It is here that the corporations, NGOs, and citizens groups who wish to influence policy from the outside must ply their trade.

But more than just policy is on the agenda. As in any such close-knit community, there are friendships, sports teams, weddings, nights out, fallings out. Favours are called in, grudges held and vendettas pursued. Intense dramas play out, almost invisible to outsiders, but which have real impacts on the policy agenda. That is not to say that big political events are not important. Economic crisis? Let’s talk more about how to save than spend money. Security crisis? Let’s present our product, service or idea as more secure than the alternatives.

The truth is, some people are just better suited to life in the bubble. They are more persuasive, better at networking, better at reading people, than others are. Some people just spin a better yarn. If you want to be influential, having bags of cash and access to decision makers certainly helps, but human relationships, built on trust, are as significant as they are easy for the researcher to miss. From this perspective, the ability to gain the trust of the community can become the ability to lead the community, to influence on how others think and act. To lead a policy community is, in other words, to wield real political power.

Power over policies that affect the lives of half a billion EU citizens? Surely, that is not something to be sneezed at.


If knowledge is power, then ideas are one of its levers, and in many ways, the story of the 2030 targets is the story of an idea. More accurately, it is a small part of a much larger story. The idea is ‘technology-neutrality’ and its story stretches all the way back to Arthur Cecil Pigou’s suggestion in the 1920s that putting a price on economic ‘externalities’ is the best way of modifying the behaviour of businesses and individuals in a way that reduces or eliminates the externality at the lowest cost. The externality here being the damage our civilisation is doing to our climate.

This idea has long been contested within the fields of climate and energy policymaking. The debate about climate and energy policy is not simply a uni-dimensional ‘pull and push’ between low and high climate ambition (e.g. between achieving climate goals or maintaining European industry). The additional, crosscutting tension between technology neutral and more technology specific approaches gives rise to an inherently multi-dimensional and altogether more complex debate.

The idea of technology neutrality manifested itself in the form of a ‘single-target’ approach with only a GHG emissions reduction target, making the EU-ETS the primary European policy instrument for promoting the decarbonisation of the energy system. The dialectic alternative is a targeted technology policy represented by a ‘multi-target’ approach that included targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Technology neutrality is invoked and manipulated in support of a wide range of interests, defining the battleground on which the 2030 targets were debated. Utility companies worried about the rate of renewable energy growth, oil and gas firms concerned about a future for gas in the energy mix, energy intensive consumers concerned about the cost of climate policy, and member states attempting to assert sovereignty over energy policy decisions all invoked the idea at some point.

The colossal political costs sunk in the EU’s beleaguered emissions trading system, an inherently technology neutral edifice, meant that this ‘cornerstone’ of EU climate policy cast a shadow over any suggestions that EU policy should so much as think about ‘picking winners’. The policy community, mindful of these factors and skilfully led towards technology neutrality began to police its ideas. Proposals that were not seen as technology neutral enough could be rebutted as, if not beyond the pale, then faintly ridiculous and barely worth consideration.

Simple, malleable, coherent; technology neutrality is a powerful idea indeed. The only real problem: it is outdated and, in the context of a large-scale sustainability transition, almost always wrong. The evidence from decades of research into how complex systems change over time leads repeatedly to the conclusion that providing markets into which known, valuable technologies can expand is at least as important as the efficiency of an economy wide price on carbon. Compared to the 20/20/20 policy package, in which specific renewable technology targets were derived for each member state, the 2030 package is characterised by weak European-level renewable energy and energy efficiency targets in a distinct shift of EU policy in favour of technology-neutrality.

The eventual targets are still politically live and the implications of what happened in October 2014 for the global climate will only become clear once the EU’s legislative processes grind their way to a conclusion over the next few months.

One thing is for certain, though: if we want to understand how to tackle the climate challenge, we need to understand how ideas turn into policy. Big politics, summits and institutions are of course important, but so are the tiny, almost invisible human dramas of the policy community.



Negotiating the EU’s 2030 Climate and Energy Framework: Agendas, Ideas and European Interest Groups by Oscar Fitch-Roy and Jenny Fairbrass is out now, published by Palgrave Macmillan



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