Much discourse on low-carbon transition envisages progressive social change towards environmentally sustainable and more equitable societies. Yet much of this literature pays inadequate attention to the key question of (productive, relational) power. How do energy infrastructures and socio-technical systems interact with, construct, enable and constrain political regimes, and vice versa? Conceiving low-carbon energy transitions through a power lens, the paper explores a case study of huge, but overlooked, significance: the paradox of the ‘phenomenal’ resurgence of coal in an era of low-carbon innovation. Through exposition of the strong connections between coal-based socio-technical systems and a political regime of classical liberalism, illustrated in two eras, we trace an emerging constellation of energy and political regimes connecting ‘clean coal’ with a ‘liberalism 2.0’ centred on a rising China. This affords a critique of the low-carbon society emergent from these developments – a society more reminiscent of coal's previous Dickensian heyday than the progressive visions of much ‘low-carbon transition’ literature.
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