Low-Carbon Frontier: Towards a Relational Geography of Energy Transitions

Dr Tyler Harlan1

1Cornell University, Ithaca, USA


Scholars typically talk about decarbonization through the lens of energy transitions, which entail the eventual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy. Recent work in economic geography complicates this notion by analyzing how localized policies and institutions shape transition pathways across space. Yet few studies examine the relations between places that influence how and why low-carbon technologies are deployed. Such analysis is crucial to understand how the costs and benefits of energy transitions are distributed, especially between resource-rich regions that produce energy and cities that consume it.

This paper argues that the transition to large-scale renewable energy is creating new ‘low-carbon frontiers’. By low-carbon frontier, I mean the discursive and material construction of spaces as stores of low-carbon value, extracted through energy installations and transmitted to cities. I show how ‘frontier’ discourse, the lack of state regulation, and histories of extraction and dispossession can enable energy firms and governments to profit from natural resources at the expense of local livelihoods. At the same time, low-carbon frontiers are subject to the boom and bust cycles that accompany traditional extractive industries. This paper thus argues that frontiers are central to the relational geographies that accompany and shape energy transitions.


Tyler Harlan is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. In August, he will begin as Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies at Loyola Marymount University. His research examines the political economy and uneven socio-environmental impacts of China’s low-carbon transformation, and the implications of this transformation for other industrializing countries. He received a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Los Angeles, an MPhil in Resource Management and Geography from the University of Melbourne, and a BA in Anthropology and East Asian Studies from Vanderbilt University. He can be reached at tyler.harlan@cornell.edu.

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