Carbon Lock-In: Types, Causes, and Policy Implications
Posted: 27 Oct 2016
Date Written: October 2016
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.
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