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SEI brief

Carbon lock-in from fossil fuel supply infrastructure

Michael Lazarus, Peter Erickson, Kevin Tempest / Published on 23 September 2015

Erickson, P., M. Lazarus and K. Tempest (2015). Carbon lock-in from fossil fuel supply infrastructure. SEI discussion brief.

This briefing note focuses on a key concern with ongoing investments in fossil fuel supply and the technologies that use these fuels: ‘carbon lock-in’.

A transition to a low-carbon economy is essential to ensuring a safer climate, but it will not be easy. Despite the well-documented benefits of decarbonizing energy systems, the declining costs of renewable energy and high-efficiency technologies, and the promise of further innovations, the world continues to rely heavily on an abundant and growing supply of fossil fuels.

A key concern with ongoing investments in fossil fuel supply and the technologies that use these fuels is “carbon lock-in” – that, once certain carbon-intensive investments are made, and development pathways are chosen, fossil fuel dependence and associated carbon emissions will be “locked in”, making it more difficult to move to lower-carbon pathways.

The authors propose a two-step approach to gauging the relative lock-in risks of investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction:

• First, identify investments in fossil fuel resources and infrastructure that are likely to be inconsistent with climate protection objectives, as reflected in a metric of “over-produced” fossil fuels that captures the scale of lock-in effects.

• Second, evaluate the strength of this lock-in – i.e. the extent that, once such investments are made, they may be difficult to move away from, or “unlock” in the future. The strength of lock-in is assessed by two metrics: the relative amount of capital invested in these over-produced resources, and the relative amount of economic “rents”, or profits, likely to accrue from them.

Download the discussion brief (PDF, 2MB)

Learn more about the SEI Initiative on Fossil Fuels and Climate Change »

SEI authors

Michael Lazarus
Michael Lazarus

Senior Scientist


Peter Erickson

SEI Affiliated Researcher


Topics and subtopics
Climate : Mitigation, Fossil fuels / Energy : Fossil fuels
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