Accountability and Sustainability Transitions

33 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2020

See all articles by Siddharth Sareen

Siddharth Sareen

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Steven A. Wolf

Cornell University - Department of Natural Resources

Date Written: May 22, 2020


What constitutes a sustainability transition? This question is important for analyzing energy transitions and in the broader realm of socio-material systems. We identify sustainability transitions as premised on changes in flows of legitimacy and on shifts in the accountability mechanisms that regulate these flows. Legitimacy flows to organisations through accountability regimes of inputs (standards and assessments), outputs (sanctions) and outcomes (structural and material change). This legitimacy allows organisations to access resources necessary to compete and to thrive. Changing accountability regimes lead to sectoral transitions, and the values underlying these changes determine implications for sustainability. We define accountability as the basis of legitimacy, and identify accountability relations as legitimacy tests. Conformance with norms yields legitimacy. Failing tests of accountability yields sanctions that undermine the relevant actions and actors. Contestation and adaptation of accountability mechanisms lend themselves to empirical observation. Their analysis evidences whether accountability is strongly substantiated, a hollow performance, or an expression of authoritarianism or radical liberalism. It enables characterisation of sectoral transitions in relation to sustainability, and identification of mechanisms to institutionalize accountability relations that integrate ecological limits and justice considerations into socioeconomic dynamics, to advance sustainability transitions. To demonstrate its explanatory power, we analyse solar energy uptake in Portugal, a rapidly growing niche, as a purported case of sustainability transitions. This empirical analysis juxtaposes the promise of movement to a more equitable, low-carbon energy future with institutional and material inertia. We draw on expert interviews, field observation and secondary research to apply accountability analysis to this energy transition case. Our approach targets both formal and informal means of legitimation. Assessment and sanctions serve as markers of the changing accountability regime that characterises sectoral transition.

Suggested Citation

Sareen, Siddharth and Wolf, Steven A., Accountability and Sustainability Transitions (May 22, 2020). SWPS 2020-07, Available at SSRN: or

Siddharth Sareen (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Steven A. Wolf

Cornell University - Department of Natural Resources ( email )

206F Fernow Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
607-255-7778 (Phone)
607-255-0349 (Fax)


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