This perspective originally appeared on Expert Perspectives on Long Term Strategies, a project developed by World Resources Institute and United Nations Development Programme, in cooperation with UN Climate Change.
Despite growing awareness of the risks of climate change, and ever-decreasing costs for renewable energy, global emissions from fossil fuels remain stubbornly high (Peters et al. 2020). Governments and industry are continuing to expand the use and production of fossil fuels, in stark contrast to the commitments made in Paris to limit global warming. Indeed, recent estimates suggest the world is planning to produce about 50 percent more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120 percent more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C (SEI et al. 2019). Understanding how we can break this addiction to fossil fuels is a key challenge for meeting climate goals—and should form the bedrock of countries’ long-term strategies.
The Problem: Carbon Lock-In
Established fossil-fueled energy systems have an inertia that helps them persist, even as viable low-carbon alternatives become available. This problem is known as “carbon lock-in,” whereby investments and policies made in the past or present to build out high-carbon energy systems commit us to emissions in the future, compromising our ability to meet climate goals (Seto et al. 2016; Unruh 2000).
A simple example of how carbon emissions become locked-in is investment in coal-fired power plants. Once built, these plants typically operate for several decades, which means a decision to invest now could commit us to emissions well past midcentury, when emissions need to go to zero to meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. Alternatively, retiring fossil fuel assets “early,” before their usual lifetimes, ends up wasting capital and creating “stranded assets.” Analysis suggests existing investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, including coal plants, has already locked-in enough emissions to exceed the 1.5°C target (Tong et al. 2019). It is therefore critical to avoid further carbon lock-in from infrastructure development.
But carbon lock-in is not simply a problem of infrastructure development. When we build our energy system, we also create a set of behaviors and institutions to support it. It can be challenging to think about moving away from fossil fuels, for instance, when you have entire government departments designed to expand coal, oil, and gas production, or if many of a community’s resources, including schools, museums, and sports teams, rely on industry support. This is what makes it especially hard to overcome carbon lock-in, and for new-entrant lower carbon alternatives to compete, even when they cost less (Carbon Tracker Initiative 2018). Continuing the coal example, this helps explain why some government regulators may continue to favor coal for political reasons, even if the economic, environmental, and social costs clearly point to closing coal plants.
To further grasp these broader behavioral and institutional dimensions of lock-in, consider the development of passenger vehicles with internal combustion engines. Society didn’t just invest in the car, we also built a transportation system, a set of car-dependent behaviors, and a culture centered around private automobile transport. Moreover, the rise of the private car helped the oil and automobile industries become dominant forces in the global economy, giving them the social and political power needed to retain that prominence. This combination of forces has helped keep the petroleum-fueled car dominant, and made it so difficult for us to consider or switch to alternative transport options at the scale required by agreed low-carbon limits.
When thinking about developing long-term strategies, it is therefore important for countries to consider not just how they will build their low-carbon economy but also how they will avoid new carbon lock-in, and how they will undo the lock-in already established by earlier decisions to build out high-carbon industries.
Avoiding Carbon Lock-In: First, Do No Further Harm
The simplest way to limit carbon lock-in is to avoid new high-carbon development in the first place. While it might seem impossible to halt all emissions-intensive development right away, countries can use their long-term strategies to plan a shift away from new investment in carbon-intensive industries, on a time frame that aligns with their long-term emissions reduction goals.
The example below provides some insight into where a country may want to focus when prioritizing action to avoid lock-in. Long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g., coal-fired power stations) for which cheaper replacements exist should be avoided, if possible, since they can lock in future emissions. In addition, technologies for which further investment would only reinforce high-carbon institutions at the expense of necessary low-carbon alternatives (“techno-institutional effects” in Figure 1) should receive special scrutiny from policymakers.
To plan the wind-down of high-carbon industries in their long-term strategies, governments can think about long-term targets, and intermediary steps needed, to bring industrial development into line with climate goals. This may require careful consultation with affected communities and stakeholders to ensure that policies and plans are feasible, and targets and timelines can be met.
One example of how this might be achieved is Germany’s coal phaseout plan. The government established a multistakeholder “coal exit commission” to identify a 2038 target, timeline, and phaseout plan for coal-fired power in the country. This included a ban on new plants, a shutdown schedule for existing plants, and measures to support those affected by the phaseout. This planning enabled the government to successfully enact a “coal exit law.”
Breaking Carbon Lock-In
Preventing the build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure is only part of the challenge. Many countries already have large amounts of existing infrastructure, and economies and political systems that are intertwined with fossil fuel development. In cases where carbon lock-in is more deeply entrenched, it may seem difficult to envision how we build a pathway away from fossil fuels. There are, however, pathways to break carbon lock-in, even in systems that seem resistant to change (Seto et al. 2016; Unruh 2002).
First, carbon lock-in can be disrupted by exogenous shocks to the system. These may come in the form of natural disasters, geopolitical crises (e.g., the 1973 OPEC oil embargo), or large-scale social movements. Governments can’t necessarily plan on such events, nor is it ideal to seek them out due to the social disruption they may cause, but policymakers and civil society can take advantage of these windows of opportunity when they arise to foster new conversations and policy proposals for reworking the energy system.
Second, carbon lock-in can be halted through policy action. We are seeing a new wave of policies worldwide focused on limited lock-in through economic measures like subsidy reallocation, and bans on high-emitting infrastructure and technologies. A number of cities are, for instance, banning gas connections in buildings, which helps avoid a long-term commitment to fossil-fueled appliances in the future (Ivanova 2019). Policy action can also include interventions to foster low-carbon behavior, research and development investment in alternative technologies, and transition supports for those who will be most affected by shifts away from high-carbon industries (e.g., fossil fuel workers).
Finally, carbon lock-in can be broken through deinstitutionalization, whereby the supportive cultural norms and governance systems that help an industry remain dominant are broken down. When we look back at historical examples where society has limited its use of harmful products (e.g., tobacco or the pesticide DDT), we find that policies often followed a long period of deinstitutionalization of the harmful industry: the cultural shift preceded the policy shift. DDT, for instance, was only banned in the United States after its use was already in decline, following more than a decade of awareness-raising about its risks (Maguire and Hardy 2009).
Much of this deinstitutionalization comes from outside the government, through phenomena such as social movements and prominent individuals shifting norms about what is acceptable. One can think of Greta Thunberg’s “flight shaming” as an example of this type of norm-shifting that alters our collective perspective. The introduction of bold new policy proposals by civil society, such as the idea of an international “fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty” can also help shift society’s thinking about our future energy systems (Newell and Simms 2019).
Governments can, however, also play a role in fostering a shift in our cultural norms, through measures such as providing public education about the energy transition, or regulating misleading advertising about the impacts of different energy alternatives. The government’s own behavior can also send strong signals about energy futures, for example, through the types of goods and services the government procures, or how the government discusses energy options in its own policies and plans. The creation of a Ministry of Ecological Transition in Spain, for instance, sent an important message about the government’s intention for Spain’s future development.
The increased uptake of renewables hasn’t been enough—and won’t likely be enough—to slow fossil fuel development, or prevent emissions from rising. It has thus far simply added to the energy mix—rather than displaced—polluting fossil fuels (York and Bell 2019). While low-carbon energy development remains essential, a more direct approach to moving away from fossil fuels and breaking carbon lock-in is also needed.
Despite growing emissions, and wavering on climate ambition in the international regime and many countries around the world, there are signals that society is beginning to tackle the carbon lock-in problem. A new set of norms and approaches to governing climate change is emerging, focused more directly on breaking carbon lock-in by phasing out fossil fuels (Green 2018). Governments can enshrine this shift in their long-term strategies by making more explicit plans to phase out high-carbon industries.
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