Do indicators have politics? A review of the use of energy and carbon intensity indicators in public debates

Miguel Rodriguez, Mario Pansera*, Pablo Cabanelas Lorenzo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


In this paper we analyse how energy and carbon intensity indicators, which have huge popularity among policy makers, are framed in the discourse of think tanks, consulting groups and other stakeholders. What emerges from the analysis of public documents, reports and policy briefs is that intensity indicators are often framed uncritically and unreflectively. Our analysis highlights three fundamental themes that emerge from public debates around intensity indicator. First, ‘efficiency’ and ‘intensity’ – often framed in terms of productivity – are used equivalently. Second, intensity is perceived as a measure of win-win sustainability in which economic growth can be decoupled from energy consumption without a substantial restructuring of the productive system. Third, the analysis suggests that energy and carbon intensity indicators are attractive for policy makers – especially in the so-called developing world – because they can be used to design political targets (e.g. Paris agreement) without questioning the right to economic growth of powerful emerging economies like the BRICS. The paper shows the strong limitations of intensity indicators and their potential do misguide policymakers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118602
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Early online date26 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2020

Structured keywords

  • SPS Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research


  • Carbon intensity
  • Energy efficiency
  • Energy intensity
  • Energy productivity
  • Policy
  • Think tanks


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