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SEI brief

Leaving room for ‘green growth’: identifying near-term actions to avoid long-term carbon lock-in

This policy brief presents an innovative process to analyse the lock-in risk associated with new infrastructure investments, drawing on recent SEI research.

Sivan Kartha, Michael Lazarus, Peter Erickson, Kevin Tempest / Published on 22 June 2015

Erickson, P., S. Kartha, M. Lazarus and K. Tempest (2015). Leaving room for ‘green growth’: identifying near-term actions to avoid long-term carbon lock-in. SEI policy brief.

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)

SEI authors

Profile picture of Sivan Kartha
Sivan Kartha

Equitable Transitions Program Director


Michael Lazarus
Michael Lazarus

Senior Scientist


Peter Erickson

SEI Affiliated Researcher


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