The project on Governing Sustainability Transitions: Technology Phase-outs in Germany and Japan is a joint project with partners at two universities in Japan, funded by the DAAD and the JSPS.


Project aim

This comparative and interdisciplinary research project on sustainability transitions asks: “How are Germany and Japan governing the phase-out of unsustainable technologies in the electricity and automobile sector?” To answer this question, two research teams are conducting a structured comparison of governance approaches in each country for accelerating the abolishment of coal power, nuclear power and internal combustion vehicles.

Researchers from the Technical University Munich and two prestigious research universities in Japan (Kyoto University in Kyoto and Waseda University in Tokyo), are conducting this joint research project over two years. This includes multiple research stays in the partner country abroad and field work to gather data via stakeholder interviews, document analysis and site visits. The objective behind bringing together Japanese and German scholars with complementary research agendas is to tackle one of the big challenges of our time: “How to accelerate the transition to a sustainable low-carbon electricity and transport system?”

Germany and Japan pledged to become carbon-neutral by the middle of the century but are currently at different stages of their electricity and transport sector transitions. Technology is essential for achieving the required fundamental restructuring of the electricity and transport systems in place. Efforts are required to accelerate the abolishment (i.e. phase-out) of old technologies that are problematic from a sustainability perspective such as nuclear power plants, fossil fuel powerplants and internal combustion engines (ICEs). Germany has made much progress in initiating the phase-out of nuclear and coal but Japan has not developed public policy to this purpose. Japan, on the other hand, has adopted the decision to phase out ICEs, while Germany has not developed a similar policy, yet.  

Recent transitions scholarship (Kivimaa and Kern 2016; Markard 2020) highlights a dual task for policymakers: to foster the creation of new technologies and industries that promote environmental sustainability, while hastening the phase-out of those that impede sustainability. However, scholars of sustainability transitions and innovation management have mostly focused on the diffusion of new sustainable technologies. As a result, there is a lack of empirical understanding into governance measures for phasing out unsustainable technologies (Geels, 2018). Recently, scholars are taking a greater interest in governance measures to phase out unsustainable technologies. The line graph on phase-out papers by target over time (in the section on the previous project progress) clearly reflects this. Yet, as an emerging field, more research is required to explain the factors that affect differing transition progress in different sectors and countries. This must also encompass political power play and resistance from industry (Köhler et al 2019). The increase in scholarship in recent years speaks to the topicality of phase-out research. But greater empirical and theoretical knowledge is needed about how countries will actually pursue these abolishment goals.

Concretely, this research addresses three knowledge gaps. Looking at the electricity sector, this literature cannot explain why a country such as Germany can overcome vested interests of the coal and nuclear industry and commit to phasing out these technologies and industries while Japan is unable to. Similarly, there is a knowledge gap as to why Japan has already introduced explicit policies like France, England and China to ban the sale of internal combustion engines, while such a policy is still under discussion in Germany. Thirdly, political conflict and the power play involved in sustainability transitions remains understudied.

To address this gap, the research project examines governance measures to accelerate the abolishment of technologies across sectors and across countries. For the analysis, we will apply a multi-methods design using Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA; Ragin 2008; Schneider and Wagemann 2012) in combination with in-depth case studies on selected typical and deviant cases (Schneider and Rohlfing 2016; Beach, Pedersen and Siewert 2020). The QCA will enable us to derive cross-case inferences by modelling associations via set relations. These, in turn, can be interpreted in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for phase-outs. By means of Boolean algebra, QCA identifies (ir)relevant factors across cases. The strength of QCA is that it captures aspects of causal complexity by i) identifying combinations of conditions rather than single factors, ii) detecting patterns of equifinality, i.e., different explanatory paths leading to phase-outs, and iii) being sensitive to asymmetric relations, i.e., that instances of phase-out and no phase-out need to be explained separately. The QCA also identifies different types of typical and deviant cases: These can then be further studied in order to identify the underlying (causal) mechanisms behind a phase-out decision, or to explain why certain cases have no phase-out although the cross-case pattern would lead us to expect so.

Pre-project work

The two research teams had previously submitted a funding application for a project titled “Governing Energy Transitions: Phase-in and Phase-out of Technologies in Germany and Japan. They successfully won funding for the years 2020 and 2021, but were unable to make use of it due to the travel restrictions imposed as a result of the CoVid-19 pandemic.

As research trips became impossible as of Spring 2020, the two PIs turned to a comprehensive review of the existing literature on phase-outs. Using a string of keywords on Scopus, they identified about 630 relevant papers for which they have coded the abstracts. The two research teams presented a paper draft at the International Sustainability Transitions Conference (IST) in October 2021. The graph below presents one of the empirical findings. Two messages can be derived. First, the volume of literature on phase-outs is growing rapidly, testifying to the topical relevance of this proposed research. Second, if focusing on energy specific technologies, coal and nuclear are the main technologies discussed as phase-out targets. We thus focus on these in our current research project in addition to internal combustion engines, where literature is also increasing (not shown on graph).

Interestingly, the above data includes two types of phase-outs: those discussing real-world phase-out strategies and those discussing hypothetical phase-outs for which no strategy exists. Over the entire study period (1985-2021), we found that around 60% of papers discuss actual phase-outs. But in recent years, the share of hypothetical discussions that prescribe phase-outs has grown rapidly. Thus, scholars are advocating for phase-outs more than before. Again, not only does this show that this topic is receiving more attention by scholars, it shows that there is a need for empirical work to understand what types of policy approaches are used to pursue these contemporary phase-out targets, and what conditions influence the attainment of effective phase-outs. Furthermore, very few papers address Japan or a comparison between Germany and Japan. This highlights the need for further comparative studies.


In addition to joint research, both research teams produced individual work related to energy transition governance. Florentine Koppenborg published a paper on “Nuclear Restart Politics: How the “Nuclear Village” Lost Policy Implementation Power” in the Social Science Japan Journal in 2021. Gregory Trencher and co-authors published a paper on “Revisiting Carbon Lock-in in Energy Systems: Explaining the Perpetuation of Coal Power in Japan” in Energy Research and Social Science in 2020. Another paper that came out of 2020/21 project, written by Hiroshi Ohta and published in Energies in 2020, is on “The Analysis of Japan’s Energy and Climate Policy from the Aspect of Anticipatory Governance.”

Principal Investigators (PIs) and Research Teams

Germany: Florentine Koppenborg (PI), Miranda Schreurs, Markus Siewert

Japan: Gregory Trencher (PI), Hiroshi Ohta, Pinar Temocin, Nhi Truong 

List of References

Beach, Derek, Rasmus Brun Pedersen & Markus B. Siewert. Case Selection and Nesting of Process Tracing Case Studies. In Beach, Derek & Rasmus Brun Pedersen (2019) Process Tracing Methods. Foundations and Guidelines. 2. edition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 89-155.

Geels, Sovacool et al. (2017) Sociotechnical Transitions for Deep Decarbonization. Science 357, 1242-44.

Geels, F. W. (2018) Disruption and Low-carbon System Transformation: Progress and New Challenges in Socio-technical Transitions Research and the Multi-Level Perspective. Energy Research & Social Science 37, 224-231.

Goertz, G. (2020) Social Science Concepts and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kivimaa, P. & F. Kern (2016) Creative Destruction or mere Niche Support? Innovation Policy Mixed for Sustainability Transitions. Research Policy 45, 205-217.

Köhler et al. (2019) An Agenda for Sustainability Transition Research: State of the Art and Future Directions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 31, 1-32.

Markard, J. (2020) The next phase of the energy transition and its implications for research and policy. Nature Energy 3, 628-633.

Ragin, Charles C. (2008) Redesigning Social Inquire. Fuzzy Sets and Beyond. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Rosenbloom, D. & A. Rinscheid (2020) Deliberate Decline: An Emerging Frontier for the Study and Practice of Decarbonization. WIREs Climate Change, e669.

Schneider, Carsten Q. and Claudius Wagemann (2012) Set-Theoretic Methods for the Social Sciences: A Guide to Qualitative Comparative Analysis. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Schneider, Carsten Q., and Ingo Rohlfing (2016) Case Studies Nested in Fuzzy-Set QCA on Sufficiency: Formalizing Case Selection and Causal Inference. Sociological Methods & Research 45 (3), 526–68.