A new U of T study is proposing a different way to think about tackling climate change, one that shifts focus away from emissions reductions toward the goal of cutting out fossil fuel energy altogether.
“Focusing only on emissions reductions can potentially miss, and mischaracterize, the more important challenge of decarbonization,” says Professor Matthew Hoffmann, a political scientist at U of T Scarborough who co-authored the study.
“We need a new way to think about the decarbonization challenge, and a new means to explore policies and practices that can begin deep, meaningful decarbonization efforts.”
Hoffmann says the challenge with decarbonization is carbon lock-in. There are technological, economic, political and social forces that make the use of fossil energy natural and taken for granted by households, cities, provinces and countries.
“Any efforts at decarbonization really need to take into account how carbon lock-in is a very similar problem at multiple levels, and they all tend to reinforce one another,” he says.
Case in point are efforts to replace coal fired energy with natural gas. While burning natural gas (the issue of methane leakage aside) has much lower emissions than burning coal, there’s no change in dependence on fossil energy, just swapping one fossil fuel for another.
“Politicians and governments spend so much political capital on these steps that they think are in the right direction, but then they’re resistant to further change,” he says.
“Unless you think about the politics of how to ratchet these policies up over time, it’s not going to result in decarbonization.”
Hoffmann, who co-authored the study with U of T Mississauga political science professor Steven Bernstein, says a major political challenge is that multilateral treaties signed by national governments are poorly equipped for dealing with the multi-level challenge of decarbonization. The political ‘solution’ to climate change so far has been to negotiate how much each country gets of a carbon budget, figure out how much each country has to reduce their emissions, who has to pay for emissions reductions, and then enforcement.
“The Paris Agreement goes further than most because the solutions offered are so decentralized, but it still doesn’t do enough towards decarbonization,” says Hoffmann, who is co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at U of T’s Munk School.
There have been some financial and structural steps taken by national governments around the world to disrupt carbon lock-in, notably Germany’s policy incentivizing renewable energy and Norway’s policy of incentivizing electric vehicles. Other initiatives done at various levels include diverse renewable energy policies, improved city planning, and carbon pricing, among others.
The research, which received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
On a positive note, Hoffmann says because the current energy system is so interdependent, disrupting carbon lock-in through policy initiatives has the potential to spread.
“Political action will need to be experimental, multilevel and multiscale to overcome the carbon trap we’re in, but at the same time there are many opportunities,” he says.
“We’re not hurting for ideas on how to get started. The challenge is sustaining and scaling these up because they don’t go far enough.”
Hoffmann adds that an important way to disrupt carbon lock-in is to build the kind of political and economic coalitions that are going to push for broad and sustained change.
“Without political capital or political momentum to make bigger changes, you won’t be able to build on improvements and change these entrenched energy systems.”