Carbon Lock-In: Types, Causes, and Policy Implications

Posted: 27 Oct 2016

See all articles by Karen C. Seto

Karen C. Seto

Yale University

Steven J. Davis

University of Chicago; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Ronald Mitchell

University of Oregon - Department of Political Science

Eleanor C. Stokes

Yale University - Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Science

Gregory Unruh

Independent

Diana Ürge-Vorsatz

Central European University (CEU)

Date Written: October 2016

Abstract

Existing technologies, institutions, and behavioral norms together act to constrain the rate and magnitude of carbon emissions reductions in the coming decades. The inertia of carbon emissions due to such mutually reinforcing physical, economic, and social constraints is referred to as carbon lock-in. Carbon lock-in is a special case of path dependency, which is common in the evolution of complex systems. However, carbon lock-in is particularly prone to entrenchment given the large capital costs, long infrastructure lifetimes, and interrelationships between the socioeconomic and technical systems involved. Further, the urgency of efforts to avoid dangerous climate change exacerbates the liability of even small lock-in risks. Although carbon lock-in has been recognized for years, efforts to characterize the types and causes of carbon lock-in, or to quantitatively assess and evaluate its policy implications, have been limited and scattered across a number of different disciplines. This systematic review of the literature synthesizes what is known about the types and causes of carbon lock-in, including the scale, magnitude, and longevity of the effects, and policy implications. We identify three main types of carbon lock-in and describe how they coevolve: (a) infrastructural and technological, (b) institutional, and (c) behavioral. Although each type of lock-in has its own set of processes, all three are tightly intertwined and contribute to the inertia of carbon emissions. We outline the conditions, opportunities, and strategies for fostering transitions toward less-carbon-intensive emissions trajectories. We conclude by proposing a carbon lock-in research agenda that can help bridge the gaps between science, knowledge, and policy-making.

Suggested Citation

Seto, Karen C. and Davis, Steven J. and Mitchell, Ronald and Stokes, Eleanor C. and Unruh, Gregory and Ürge-Vorsatz, Diana, Carbon Lock-In: Types, Causes, and Policy Implications (October 2016). Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 41, pp. 425-452, 2016. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2859476 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-110615-085934

Karen C. Seto (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Steven J. Davis

University of Chicago ( email )

5807 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
United States
773-702-7312 (Phone)
773-702-0458 (Fax)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Ronald Mitchell

University of Oregon - Department of Political Science ( email )

Eugene, OR 97403
United States

Eleanor C. Stokes

Yale University - Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Science

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Gregory Unruh

Independent ( email )

Diana Ürge-Vorsatz

Central European University (CEU) ( email )

Nador utca 9
Budapest, H-1051
Hungary

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