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

SEI policy brief

Author(s): Erickson, P. ; Kartha, S. ; Lazarus, M. ; Tempest, K.
Year: 2015

Policy-makers increasingly aspire to a low-carbon future, with a "green economy" fueled 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 behaviors – 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 analyzing 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.

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