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Energy systems transformation (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, abstract, edited)

[Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, full page: (LINK). Abstract, edited.]

Energy systems transformation

A. T. C. Jérôme Dangermana,b,1 and Hans Joachim Schellnhuberc,d,1

Author Affiliations: aTransitions to New Technologies, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, A-2361, Laxenburg, Austria; bInstitute for Management Research, Radboud University Nijmegen, 6500 HK, Nijmegen, The Netherlands; cPotsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Telegraphenberg A 31, 14473 Potsdam, Germany; and dSanta Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Contributed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, November 21, 2012 (sent for review December 5, 2011)



Energy systems based on fossil fuels and uranium have brought about modernity and its specific agro-industrial metabolism. Although this achievement creates a deep lock-in effect, collateral damages such as climate change and large-scale contamination cast doubts on the sustainability of the current mode of global socioeconomic operation. This article analyzes why the incumbent energy systems are so rigid and still outcompete their more sustainable rivals. We elucidate the role of contemporary corporate law in this context and argue that the stiffness of current energy systems could be overcome by assigning unlimited responsibilities to shareholders.



The contemporary industrial metabolism is not sustainable. Critical problems arise at both the input and the output side of the complex: Although affordable fossil fuels and mineral resources are declining, the waste products of the current production and consumption schemes (especially CO2 emissions, particulate air pollution, and radioactive residua) cause increasing environmental and social costs. Most challenges are associated with the incumbent energy economy that is unlikely to subsist. However, the crucial question is whether a swift transition to its sustainable alternative, based on renewable sources, can be achieved. The answer requires a deep analysis of the structural conditions responsible for the rigidity of the fossil-nuclear energy system. We argue that the resilience of the fossil-nuclear energy system results mainly from a dynamic lock-in pattern known in operations research as the “Success to the Successful” mode. The present way of generating, distributing, and consuming energy—the largest business on Earth—expands through a combination of factors such as the longevity of pertinent infrastructure, the information technology revolution, the growth of the global population, and even the recent financial crises: Renewable-energy industries evidently suffer more than the conventional-energy industries under recession conditions. Our study tries to elucidate the archetypical traits of the lock-in pattern and to assess the respective importance of the factors involved. In particular, we identify modern corporate law as a crucial system element that thus far has been largely ignored. Our analysis indicates that the rigidity of the existing energy economy would be reduced considerably by the assignment of unlimited liabilities to the shareholders.



1To whom correspondence may be addressed. E-mail: or

Author contributions: A.T.C.J.D. designed research; A.T.C.J.D. performed research; A.T.C.J.D. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; A.T.C.J.D. and H.J.S. analyzed data; and A.T.C.J.D. and H.J.S. wrote the paper.

Conflict of interest statement: The research conducted by A.T.C.J.D. for this article was partly funded by Shell Research Foundation and Nuon Energy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Shell Research Foundation and Nuon Energy.

*The essential difference with the commonly used Matthew effect (i.e., “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”) lies in the wording “in his hand.” Quispel (1) explains that at the time of writing of the Gospel of Thomas the phrase “to have in your hand” had a particular meaning in Coptic: that one was willing to give away, to let go of what one possessed. The Matthew effect represents unlimited, runaway growth or decline, whereas the statement from the Gospel of Thomas incorporates stabilizing behavior, which, if not used, will be succeeded by runaway decline.