Governing carbon conduct and subjects: Insights from Australian cities

Robyn Dowling, Pauline Mc-Guirk, Harriet Bulkeley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


Governance to foster low carbon urban transitions occurs at multiple scales, through myriad means, and diverse institutions. Examples of each abound in the urban carbon governance literature, identifying, for instance, the importance of multilevel governance (Betsill and Bulkeley, 2006), business, government and third-sector actors, and across measures as diverse as formal regulation, financial incentives and provision of low carbon technologies. Across numerous policy domains, the increasing government focus on conducting carbon conduct is acknowledged and explored (Dilley, 2015; Barr and Prillwitz, 2014; Corner and Randall, 2011). There has been considerable policy and scholarly debate on 'behaviour change' governance measures; those designed to engender a low carbon transition by changes in the behaviour of individuals, as householders, workers, travellers and so forth. In Australian cities, for example, a recent audit found that more than two-thirds of a total of 900 local carbon reduction initiatives across Australia's capital cities, for example, had a focus on changing individual action (Mc-Guirk et al., 2014). Other key pieces of empirical research have also identified the frequency and intensity of behaviour change mechanisms in urban carbon governance (Moloney et al., 2010; Webb, 2012). Scholarly debate has focused on the effcacy of such governmental programmes, and in particular the assumption of a response being triggered by information (Moloney and Strengers, 2014), as well as critiques of the political implications of such programmes regarding individualization and responsibilization (Whitehead et al., 2011). These discussions are points of departure for our chapter; while they offer important insights they do not exhaust the purchase of such programs in understanding the possibilities for a low carbon transition. Rather than asking whether the subject addressed in behaviour change governance accords with the subject most likely to change, or whether the subject of behaviour change is politically regressive or progressive, we step back to pose a question that must precede such analyses: that is, what subjects are constituted through urban carbon governance and, relatedly, how and by whom are carbon acting subjects constituted. And we do so via an inductive analysis of behaviour change-oriented carbon governance interventions enacted in Australian cities. Such a focus serves three purposes. First, it acknowledges that governmental programs both act upon and transform subjects (Paterson and Stripple, 2010). In other words, the subject does not simply pre-exist the governmental program, but is formed through it. From this perspective, the question of what is the behaviourchanging subject comes to the fore. Second, investigating subject formation in carbon governance allows us to enrich developing notions of an ecology of urban carbon governance involving a diversity of mechanisms and practices, sites and scales of governing initiatives (Mc-Guirk et al., 2014). Third, it allows us to echo the arguments of Paterson and Mueller elsewhere in this volume (Chapter 12); in particular that addressing socially constituted desires can further low carbon urban transitions. We wish to explicitly explore and connect carbon conduct and subjects to these diverse practices. In essence, the questions for us are threefold: (i) how is the subject addressed in behaviour change governance initiatives?; (ii) how is behaviour rendered governable through these subjectivizing practices?; and (iii) what assumptions of the subject, of the social realm, and of materiality, are enrolled and enacted? The first section of the chapter sketches the existing scholarship on carbon governance as it relates to the 'conduct of carbon conduct', and signals the ways in which this scholarship is moved laterally by our thinking. In the second section, we draw inductively from our empirical audit of urban carbon governance in Australian cities to identify three forms of subjects and related forms of conduct being worked on through extant behaviour change initiatives - the rational actor, the reflexive, self-disciplining actor, and the materially-embedded actor - and we explicate how and by whom they are being shaped. In the third and concluding section we reflect on the potentials of these subjects and practices for low carbon urban transitions.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRethinking Urban Transitions
Subtitle of host publicationPolitics in the Low Carbon City
PublisherTaylor and Francis Inc.
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781351675154
ISBN (Print)9781138057357
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes


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