As an actor in the multilateral marketplace, IRENA must compete with other international organizations and actors in defining problems and proposing solutions (Seabrooke and Sending 2015: 2). In the field of international energy, the best-established organizations are the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Thus these organizations make up the organizational ecology that IRENA must relate to. Obviously, the IAEA and OPEC do not focus on renewable energy. As for the IEA, it was originally established to provide emergency mechanisms to protect against oil supply shortages. Over time, it has become the leading international institution for international energy market analysis and related policy advice, while retaining its focus on oil and other fossil fuels. It has also gradually become more active in the field of renewable energy, establishing a Working Party on Renewable Energy Technologies in 1982 and a dedicated renewable energy unit in 1999 (Van de Graaf 2013b). However, it still includes only OECD countries as member states.
Urpelainen and Van de Graaf (2015: 171) take the IEA’s increasing attention to renewable energy as evidence of IRENA’s influence, arguing that the creation of IRENA has made the IEA more competitive in this area. However, they do not quite prove that the IEA’s growing interest in renewables is due to the creation of IRENA. The two developments coincided in time, but that may have been due to the global surge in interest in renewable energy rather than a direct causal linkage between the two. To get a clearer idea of IRENA as an actor among other international energy organizations, we examine its levels of financial and human resources, juxtaposing them with those of the other international energy organizations.
Proximity search for IEA and IRENA and renewable energy in national policy documents
If a policy-oriented multilateral organization such as IRENA plays an important role in policy-making at the national level, that organization should be mentioned in government policy documents. The more that a given state pays attention to the recommendations of an international organization, respects its views, uses its reports and data, and participates actively in its work, the more likely is that state to refer to the organization in its policy documents. As IRENA gains traction and begins to play a role alongside the other international energy organizations, its name should appear more frequently in national policy documents.
However, this assumption may not always hold true—in some cases, an organization may be mentioned because of scandals or conflicts. There also ambivalent cases. For example, if a report refers to “OPEC production,” one could argue that this is a reference to the oil production of the countries that are members of OPEC rather than to OPEC as an organization; or one could argue that the only reason for referring to that decidedly disparate group of oil producers is precisely that OPEC as an organization brings them together and (attempts to) coordinate their oil production. The connection between references to organizations in documents and their actual policy impact is therefore not definite, and we include this metric solely for explorative empirical purposes.
We compiled a primary dataset of 639 governmental policy documents related to energy from the period 2011–2014 from the following 16 countries: Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Germany, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK. The documents are white papers, green papers, framework programs and similar documents that represent official government policy.
We conducted proximity searches for “IEA” and “renewable” to identify cases where the IEA was mentioned specifically in connection with renewable energy. These searches had a proximity range of 20 words; thus, any occurrence of “IEA” and “renewable” 20 or fewer words apart was counted a hit. The proximity search was case-sensitive, and was re-run with “renewable” in four languages and in lower and upper case: in English, German, Norwegian, and Swedish (“renewable,” “Renewable,” “fornybar,” “förnybar,” “erneuerbar,” “Erneuerbar”).
For IRENA, such a search would be difficult, because the word “renewable” is included in the organization’s name itself. However, with IRENA it could be argued that all occurrences are relevant to renewable energy, as the organization is dedicated to its promotion.
We then calculated the ratio of occurrences of “IRENA” to proximity search hits for “IEA” and “renewable energy.” As shown in Fig. 3, IRENA appeared more and more often than did the IEA in connection with renewable energy in government policy documents. Although this result should not be over-interpreted, it may indicate that IRENA is playing a steadily greater role in regard to renewable energy, reaching parity with the IEA in 2014. Thus, although the IEA may still get much more attention regarding other energy topics, IRENA may be taking over the renewable energy niche. On the other hand, the IEA, which has only 29 member countries and deals with all types of energy, is still receiving as much attention related to renewable energy as IRENA, which has 150 member countries and deals exclusively with renewable energy. In this perspective, IRENA still has some way to go.
To supplement this quantitative content analysis, we conducted a qualitative examination of the search results in the government documents of five countries where access to documents was particularly good (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Norway, Sweden). The aim was to determine the contexts in which IRENA is mentioned in national policy documents and how governments use it as a resource.
Of course, the mere occurrence of “IRENA” in a government document does not prove that IRENA plays a significant role in policy-making. Of the five countries whose government documents we examined qualitatively, only in the Australian documents was IRENA cited as a source of information. In the documents from the other countries, the governments simply noted that IRENA had been established, that their country had joined it, ratified accession, or the like. For example, Ireland’s EirGrid (2010: 24) reported: “The 2009 decision to establish the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is evidence of this new trend. IRENA is the first international organization commissioned to conduct research, provide advice and promote technological developments in the renewable energy sector.” Similarly, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2009: 131) wrote in a white paper: “At the founding conference in Bonn on 26 January 2009, Norway joined the new international organization for renewable energy […]. The purpose of IRENA is to promote the use of renewable energy internationally, especially in developing countries.”
Some policy documents simply listed IRENA as one among many forms of international energy cooperation. For example, as one Swedish document stated, “At the global level there are cooperative arrangements such as IRENA, which was established in 2009 and which will promote renewable energy” (Government of Sweden 2009: 42). The Canadian documents had no references to IRENA at all—hardly surprising, as Canada is neither a member of IRENA nor in the process of joining the organization.
In fact, the lack of relevant qualitative information for analyzing the substance of references to IRENA is a finding in itself: If IRENA had had a major policy impact, this material would have provided for a more interesting qualitative analysis. In contrast, a reference to the IEA is more likely to indicate genuine policy impact, because that organization has existed much longer, and there is rarely any point in mentioning it unless it has produced something relevant. As IRENA’s membership base becomes more complete and fewer new countries join the organization, the number of superficial IRENA occurrences will decline—and the organization will have to strive to replace them with mentions of real policy impact.
All the same, this comparison of references between the IEA and IRENA is biased in favor of the IEA and the other older organizations, which have had a head start and are sometimes referred to in the context of data and documents that they produced before IRENA even came into existence. However, our comparison is not meant as a contest, but as an exploration of the international context for the early evolution of IRENA. Put differently: there is much room for IRENA to grow rapidly in the coming years, as it accumulates documents and data, and national governments have more time to digest and use them.
Budget and staffing
As IRENA works to establish itself in relation to other international energy organizations and nation-states, it depends on access to resources—both financial and human. Resources can play three types of roles. First, they are a means of achieving an impact. The more resources an organization has, the more it can do and the greater its potential impact. Employees can also potentially create new linkages to their home country, as well as to other organizations and organizational units where they have worked or with which they are connected. Rising staff numbers may thus also enhance IRENA’s policy impact. Second, and conversely, resources are possible indicators of success, i.e., an effect as well as a cause of impact. When states contribute resources to an organization, that indicates a vote of confidence. Thus, the more resources an organization such as IRENA has, the more successful it may already be. Third, and by extension, resources are potential objects of competition between the international organizations.
First, we compare the budgets of the four international energy organizations over 5 years, expanding on Urpelainen and Van de Graaf’s (2015: 170) 1-year, two-organization comparison. We employ this metric as another window on IRENA’s place in the family of international energy organizations, as well as an indicator of member state engagement in IRENA compared with the other organizations.
Figure 4 shows that IRENA’s budget is similar to that of the IEA. This finding is mirrored in Fig. 5, which shows numbers of employees.
IEA member states contribute many seconded staff, who are paid directly by these member states and not through the IEA budget. Staff numbers, compared with budget figures, may thus be a better measure of the strength and resource bases of the organizations. Figure 5 shows that IRENA is by far the smallest of the four international energy organizations in terms of staff, but recruitment is still ongoing. The relatively low number of staff at IRENA—under a third of that of the IEA—probably means that IRENA has less impact at the national policy level than it might otherwise have.
However, the differences between the mandates of the organizations make it difficult to compare them directly in terms of funding and staffing. IRENA covers renewable energy only and OPEC deals with oil only, while the IEA covers all types of energy. As for the IAEA, much of its staffing and funding are related to nuclear security and non-proliferation, which may or may not be considered inherent aspects of nuclear power.
Finally, it is worth noting that there is no one-to-one relationship between the impact of an organization such as IRENA and the quantities of funding and staff available to that organization. Much depends on how effectively the funds are spent and the staff employed. This can be illustrated by an example from another part of the energy sector, oil companies, where privately owned companies produce far more barrels per employee than do most nationally owned oil companies, often despite the national oil companies having privileged access to oilfields. That being said, the possibility of such inefficiencies does not mean that funding and staff are without relevance to understanding an organization’s clout.