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CLI Basic Page aug 10

Carbon lock-in refers to the technologies, investments, institutions, policies, businesses, behavior and social norms that bind us to our fossil fuel-powered way of life, limiting our ability to stem the climate crisis even when low-carbon solutions exist.

As the world turns its attention to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must avoid locking into a warmer, more dangerous future and plan for a strategic, climate-smart recovery.


This starts with understanding how we choose to power our homes and businesses, design our transportation systems, grow our food, and build our cities has a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions—now and far into the future.

Consider the emissions intensity of an electricity plant – measured by the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced per unit of electricity. A coal-fired plant has almost double the climate-warming impact of a natural gas plant and many more times that of solar, hydro, nuclear and wind power.

That difference in carbon footprint becomes more obvious when accounting for the average lifetime of the plant – 30 years in the case of natural gas and 45 years in the case of coal. While solar, hydro, nuclear and wind have long lifespans as well, the cumulative impact of their emissions is much less.

Even after that aging plant shuts down, its emissions linger on in the atmosphere for decades for centuries more.

Scientists have calculated the lifetime emissions of all existing and soon-to-be-built fossil-fuel energy infrastructure.


It adds up to about 846 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent—enough to reach 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of global warming by mid-century and associated impacts like storms, sea-level rise, and species loss.

To stay under the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, no new fossil-fuel powered infrastructure can be built. And carbon-intensive coal and natural gas plants may need to be retired sooner, rendering them stranded assets to investors.

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Getting off this destructive, dead end pathway requires an ambitious, long-term vision and transformative – not incremental – policy change.


Net-zero targets – alongside transition strategies for key sectors and jobs – can provide that vision, helping to ensure the right technological and institutional choices drive near-term recovery spending toward the low-carbon pathway.

With solar and wind now the cheapest source of new electricity for at least two-thirds of the world's population, the economic case for a strong response to climate change is compelling. But the systems that lock in high-carbon technologies and practices are not overcome by economics alone. Experts highlight the roles of innovation, green industrial policy, behavioral theory, agents of change, and even disruptive shocks to the system to break the grip of the vested interests and general inertia that keep us on an energy-intensive path.

With governments and financial institutions mobilizing to spend $10 trillion on COVID-19 recovery measures, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to direct resources to the zero-carbon economy and unlock a more sustainable future that works for everyone.

More Resources (highlights of Expert Perspectives): 1/ How to become a carbon-conscious decision maker (Ichiro) 2/ Breaking the Habit of Fossil-Fueled Development 3/ Unlocking the “Hard to Abate” Sectors 4/ Breaking Carbon Lock-in Through Innovation and Decline 5/ Path Dependence and Carbon Lock-In in the Agriculture Sector 6/ What Goes Around Comes Around: Behavioral “Lock In,” and How to Crack It to Save the Planet 7/ Raising Climate Ambition in the Time of COVID-19

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