Unlock Carbon Dependency: Integrate Low-Carbon Development and Territorial Justice

Unlock Carbon Dependency: Integrate Low-Carbon Development and Territorial Justice

By Stefan Siedentop (ILS - Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development & TU Dortmund University, DE)

Considerable institutional, technological and social lock-in inhibits the needed transition to a climate-friendly society. To overcome this, the socio-spatial effects of climate action must be on an equal basis with mitigation efficacy. Overcoming carbon lock-in in the built environment is much more than a technical issue; it will require the synergy of social, environmental and territorial justice.

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which was published in August 2021, sends a clear, unequivocal message: only a radical reduction of CO2 and other GHG emissions can prevent global warming of more than 1.5 or 2.0 oC (IPCC 2021). Because of past climate policy failures, the reduction pathway is now particularly steep. Achieving the 1.5 oC target requires climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, which implies annual emissions reductions of approximately 7 to 8% (UNEP 2019). This need confronts policy-makers with unprecedented challenges.

In the fields of architecture, construction, and urban planning, research has described the pathways toward a low-carbon future for many years. Examples include urban intensification, decentralized energy systems, transit-oriented development or energy-efficient improvements of building stocks. However, there is disillusionment with regard to the implementation of such concepts. The decarbonization of urban systems is still more of a distant utopia than a tangible future. Against this background, it is no longer enough to ask what needs to be done to achieve climate neutrality. Even more important is the question of why we are not doing what we should be doing. In the coming years, politics and society will have to deal more systematically with the institutional, technological and social barriers to the effective implementation of climate protection policies.

In recent years, science has attempted to provide comprehensive answers to this question. One approach that has received much attention is ‘carbon lock-in’, which addresses a strongly path-dependent ‘captivity’ in fossil technologies and the corresponding infrastructures, institutions, behaviour patterns, and discourses (Unruh 2000; Seto et al. 2016; Buschmann & Oels 2019). Carbon lock-in explains the failure of or delay in the adoption of low-carbon technologies and behaviours by the entrenchment of tightly interwoven social norms, institutions (such as regulations and subsidies), and robust routines in the application of a carbon-based technology.

The much-debated phenomenon of urban sprawl can serve as a perfect example; suburban built environments are the result of countless location decisions that are undertaken by households and firms with the promise of permanently low energy costs made possible by enormous public infrastructure investments. Over time, ‘pro-sprawl’ political, market, and social factors have been reinforced, thereby making it difficult to move away from this structure and the lifestyles intertwined with it. Suburbia, as we know it today, implies a high dependence on motorized transport and high energy and infrastructure expenditures, all of which substantially reduces the political options for ‘breaking out’ of this “techno-institutional complex” (Unruh 2000).

Previous policies that have aimed to promote more climate-friendly urban development have also been relatively unsuccessful because they can be easily de-legitimized with respect to their assumed uneven social outcomes. In recent years, urban transformation agendas have repeatedly been confronted with accusations of leading to a disproportionate burden on low-income households. References have been made to processes of gentrification and displacement in upgraded urban neighbourhoods (Checker 2011), the disproportionate burden of renewable energy production on rural regions, and the disadvantage of the suburban and rural population due to higher energy costs. Frames such as ‘jobs versus environment’, ‘urban against rural’ or ‘sustainable for whom?’ have been quite successful in undermining broader political support for a climate-friendly transformation policy.

It was not until recently that CO2 avoidance costs were recognized as being unequally distributed both socially and spatially. A sort of double disadvantage has thus become discernible; i.e., lower-income segments of the population were and are disproportionately affected by the burdens of the fossil energy and transport industries as well as climate change effects (reference is here made to the discourse on "environmental justice" and “climate justice”, see Farrell 2016 and Klinsky & Mavrogianni 2020). At the same time, they are again disproportionately affected in the phase of replacing fossils with regenerative technologies through mechanisms of the labour market, energy and transport markets (Evans & Phelan 2016).

Against this background, the evaluation of climate policies must equally consider both efficacy and the distributional effects found across the social stratification structure and along the urban-rural gradient. The societal costs of environmental change must be safeguarded and shared fairly. Here, the discourse on ‘just transition’ can be taken up (Mc Cauley & Heffron 2018; Evans & Phelan 2016; Farrell 2016).

This also has a spatial dimension, which is the central point of this essay. We need to consider more the socio-spatial effects of climate action in the design of policies and programs of action. What is needed are compensation mechanisms that avoid social hardship. Such mechanisms must be implemented at the micro level, for example, in tax, levy, labour market and social policies. However, place-based approaches are also needed to facilitate climate- and socially-compatible adaptation pathways in suburban and rural regions, as well as access to meaningful public participation. In short, breaking out of the carbon lock-in requires the synergy of social, environmental and territorial justice.


Buschmann, P., Oels, A. (2019). The overlooked role of discourse in breaking carbon lock-in: The case of the German energy transition. WIREs Climate Change, 10, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.574

Checker, M. (2011). Wiped out by the “Greenwave”: environmental gentrification and the paradoxical politics of urban sustainability. City & Society, 23, 210-229. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-744X.2011.01063.x

Evans, G., Phelan, L. (2016). Transition to a post-carbon society: linking environmental justice and just transition discourses. Energy Policy, 99, 329-339. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2016.05.003

Farrell, C. (2016). A just transition: Lessons learned from the environmental justice movement. Duke Forum for Law & Social Change, 4, 45-63. https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dflsc/vol4/iss1/3

IPCC (2021). Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

Klinsky, S., & Mavrogianni, A. (2020). Climate justice and the built environment. Buildings and Cities, 1(1), 412–428. https://doi.org/10.5334/bc.65

McCauley, D., Heffron, R. (2018). Just transition: Integrating climate, energy and environmental justice. Energy Policy, 119, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2018.04.014

Seto, K.C., Davis, S.J., Mitchell, R.B., Stokes, E.C., Unruh, G.C., Ürge-Vorsatz, D. (2016). Carbon lock-In: Types, causes, and policy implications. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 41, 425-452. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-110615-085934

UNEP. (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019. Executive summary. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

Unruh, G.C. (2000). Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy, 28, 817-830. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0301-4215(00)00070-7

Latest Peer-Reviewed Journal Content

Journal Content

Energy housekeeping: intersections of gender, domestic labour and technologies
R Martin

Speculation beyond technology: building scenarios through storytelling
R M Dowsett, M S Green & C F Harty

Professional judgement: an institutional logic approach to contractor tender pricing
D Jefferies & L Schweber

Emerging technologies’ impacts on ‘man caves’ and their energy demand
Y Strengers, K Dahlgren & L Nicholls

The gender of smart charging
S Pink

Fire performance and regulatory considerations with modern methods of construction
B J Meacham

Who cares? How care practices uphold the decentralised energy order
K Lucas-Healey, H Ransan- Cooper, H Temby & A W Russell

Alternatives to air-conditioning: policies, design, technologies, behaviours [editorial]
B Ford, D Mumovic & R Rawal

Benchmarking energy performance: indicators and models for Dutch housing associations
H S van der Bent, H J Visscher, A Meijer & N Mouter

Emissions from a net-zero building in India: life cycle assessment
M Jain & R Rawal

Lack of adaptability in Brazilian social housing: impacts on residents
S B Villa, P B Vasconcellos, K C R de Bortoli & L B de Araujo

Participation in domestic energy retrofit programmes: key spatio- temporal drivers
E Mohareb, A Gillich & D Bristow

Embodied carbon of concrete in buildings, Part 2: are the messages accurate?
A Moncaster, T Malmqvist, T Forman, F Pomponi & J Anderson

An alternative approach to delivering safe, sustainable surgical theatre environments
C A Short, A W Woods, L Drumright, R Zia & N Mingotti

Adapting owner-occupied dwellings in the UK: lessons for the future
T Hipwood

Integrating low energy cooling & ventilation strategies in Indian residences
M J Cook, Y Shukla, R Rawal, C Angelopoulos, L Caruggi-De-Faria, D Loveday, E Spentzou, & J Patel

Balconies as adaptable spaces in apartment housing
T Peters & S Masoudinejad

Inclusive Living: ageing, adaptations and future-proofing homes
V McCall

Residential geothermal air-conditioning: inhabitants’ comfort, behaviour and energy use
L Thomas, A Woods, R Powles, P Kalali, & S Wilkinson

Energy retrofit and passive cooling: overheating and air quality in primary schools
D Grassie, Y Schwartz, P Symonds, I Korolija, A Mavrogianni & D Mumovic

Outdoor PM2.5 air filtration: optimising indoor air quality and energy
E Belias & D Licina

Architects’ ‘enforced togetherness’: new design affordances of the home
E Marco, M Tahsiri, D Sinnett & S Oliveira

Overheating assessment in Passivhaus dwellings: the influence of prediction tools
V L Goncalves, V Costanzo, K Fabbri & T Rakha

The use of apartment balconies: context, design & social norms
M Smektała & M Baborska-Narożny

Sharing a home under lockdown in London
F Blanc & K Scanlon

Projected climate data for building design: barriers to use
P Rastogi, A Laxo, L Cecil &D Overbey

Residents’ views on adaptable housing: a virtual reality-based study
J Tarpio & S Huuhka

See all

Join Our Community

Latest Commentaries

Can Personal Carbon Allowances Help Cities Reach Their Climate Targets?

Many cities throughout the world have set carbon and / or energy targets including renewable energy production and emissions reduction goals. Despite the commitment to take action, cities do not directly control the majority of the uses of energy or consumption-related sources of carbon emissions within their boundaries. Could a focus on household energy use, personal travel and consumption of material goods help to achieve this transition at city level? Tina Fawcett (University of Oxford), Kerry Constabile (University of Oxford) and Yael Parag (Reichman University) consider whether and how cities could harness personal carbon allowances in a practical manner.

Lessons from the Swiss Impulse Programme

The former Swiss 'Impulse programme' was a successful response to the 1970s energy crisis. It provides important lessons for today’s climate emergency about what governments, industry and academia can do to create a successful transition within the construction industry. Niklaus Kohler and Kurt Meier (both former members of the Construction and Energy Impulse programmes) reflect on key lessons for today about its implementation and how to sustain change over the short and long term.