There is a need to understand the increasingly complex governance dynamics that are inherent to new approaches for sustainability transitions. In the context of regional climate governance, these dynamics and their barriers for effective governance are still little understood. At Technopolis, we studied these barriers in the context of the Dutch Regional Energy Strategy (RES) programme and their implications for policymakers that increasingly have to work in complex polycentric governance environments.

The need for more proactive polycentric climate governance

To support the radical societal transitions that are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a more proactive climate governance is needed. In recent years, the top-down approaches in which rules, decisions and norms are passed down the chain of command have been complemented with more polycentric arrangements whereby interactions transcend traditional governance levels, actions are decentralized and authority is increasingly dispersed. These approaches acknowledge that climate governance is a multi-scale and multi-level problem, while the role of the central government is gradually shifting from ‘rowing’ towards ‘steering and facilitating’.

The Dutch Renewable Energy Strategy

In 2019 the Dutch government initiated the Regional Energy Strategy (RES) programme to govern the energy transition in a more decentralised, network-based way. The Netherlands are divided into 30 energy regions that collectively have to produce 35 TWh of renewable electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaics by 2030. In the RES, multiple governance levels (a.o. municipality, province, and energy distributors) collectively set out the regional choices for renewable energy implementation.

Barriers for effective regional energy governance

Our findings point at an inherent tension between the old, hierarchical and the new, networked governance.[1]

What dynamics? Implications for policymakers

We identified a number of avenues to address these barriers to the mission of the RES. First, policymakers in the RES should be incentivised to strengthen cooperation within the RES. This requires a shift from prioritising local and provincial preferences towards prioritising regional preferences. To make policymakers aware of the necessity for regional collaboration, an important role is given to the regional process coordinator and the chair of the regional steering group to stimulate this change of mentality. Second, it is essential to continuously engage the municipal and provincial councils in the RES process. By actively involving members of these councils, commitment is created and information asymmetries between council members and regional policymakers are resolved. Consequently, this reduces the risk that regional decisions will not be locally implemented in a later stage. Third, it is important to create stronger mechanisms of accountability between peers in the RES network, in particular in the later stages of the RES. This can be achieved through defining clear rules and norms of decision making. Finally, the central government should provide region-specific guidance in finding the balance between setting clear scopes and targets but also allowing for flexibility to tackle region-specific issues, and providing more clarity on the role of different players in energy governance.

The findings point at a number of trade-offs in the design of the RES. These trade-offs involve choices concerning democratic legitimacy versus effective energy governance, local preferences versus regional preferences, and strong accountability mechanisms versus fluid and flexible arrangements. These trade-offs suggest there is no ‘best choice’ for organising governance arrangements for effective transformative energy governance. However, being aware of these trade-offs contributes to making informed policy choices concerning arrangements such as the RES.

[1] It is important to note that the extent to which these barriers are present, varies for each of the 30 energy regions. For example, the role of the province is different for each cluster of energy regions, whereby some provinces are more restrictive than others.


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