Policy-makers increasingly aspire to a low-carbon future, with a “green economy” fuelled by renewable energy sources, not fossil fuels; highly efficient technologies; an end to congested roads and smog, and a safe climate. Yet many past development choices hinder a low-carbon transition. In just the past decade, we have invested trillions of dollars in coal-fired power plants, oil and gas supply infrastructure, extensive road networks and car-dependent travel, and inefficient buildings that are costly to retrofit.

That is the essence of carbon lock-in: once certain investments are made, institutions are created, and development pathways are chosen, the behaviours – and carbon emissions – associated with them are more or less “locked in”, and shifting to a new pathway becomes ever more difficult and expensive.

The lock-in of carbon-intensive technologies, institutions and economic interests poses a formidable barrier to achieving climate protection goals. Yet carbon lock-in continues, with billions of tonnes of future carbon dioxide emissions “committed” by investments in high-carbon infrastructure each year. To ensure that a low-carbon future is possible, it is crucial to identify and avoid the greatest lock-in risks.

This policy brief presents an approach for analysing lock-in risks, then applies it to fossil fuel infrastructure at the global scale, suggesting the project types of greatest lock-in concern. Finally, it explains how policy-makers and analysts might apply a similar approach at the national and regional scales.

Download the brief (PDF, 868kb)