Writing Prompt: Path Dependence and Carbon Lock-in


Past and present decisions, events, investments, knowledge and various other factors can influence the course of development in the future. Sometimes, such factors are compounded to form a mechanism to sustain a certain pathway, a phenomenon often called “path dependence.” Path dependence is defined in different ways, and one of the definitions by IPCC1 is “the tendency for past decisions and events to self-reinforce, thereby diminishing and possibly excluding the prospects for alternatives to emerge.”

Path dependence can be found in any aspects or part of economy and society, and it is not necessarily troublesome if it doesn’t lead to bad outcomes. However, it is an important issue in the context of the fight against climate change when the path dependence takes effect to perpetuate high-GHG-emission development pathways, which is called “carbon lock-in.”  

To shed light on the issue of path dependence in the context of climate change, and gain insights on how to avoid/overcome it or use it to entrench low-carbon development pathways, WRI seeks expert perspectives on path dependence in several key sectors.


For this expert perspective, we ask authors to consider the following questions when writing their expert perspective (but it is not necessary to respond to all the questions):

What path dependence do you think is the most significant in terms of resulting GHG emissions or emission reduction? It can be framed at different scales, i.e. global/regional level (e.g. global/regional commodity supply chains), national level, and sub-national level. We may suggest, for discussion, the scope (such as sector, issue, type of interventions) of the path dependence to be focused in your expert perspective, based on the previous interactions with you. What example(s) could you give to best illustrate the path dependence identified? What would be the expected effects on the GHG emissions (ideal if estimated GHG effect is included) resulting from the path dependence phenomenon you discuss?

What are the mechanisms and driving forces that sustain the observed path dependence? What factors and actors are involved in the mechanism? How was it created? Are there any groups of people or organizations that intend to create or sustain it?

What recommendations or advice could you provide to avoid/overcome path dependence towards high-carbon pathways, or pursue that towards low-carbon pathways? What examples could you give to best illustrate the effectiveness of your recommendations and advice? Are the recommendations and advice more applicable to particular regions or type of countries, or are they equally applicable to all countries in the world? Are there different sets of recommendations or advice for different type of countries?

1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2014. Climate Change 2014 Mitigation of Climate Change: Working Group III Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.