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Deliberate decline: An emerging frontier for the study and practice of decarbonization

Daniel Rosenbloom and Adrian Rinscheid (2020)

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The article analyses the concept of deliberate steering of systems away from a fossil fuel-intensive state towards decarbonisation. Specifically, it interrogates how “deliberate decline” is understood in the literature and what its key features are, focusing on “phase-out”, “divestment”, and “destabilization”. 

In relation to phase-out, the term refers to the termination of carbon-intensive technologies/infrastructures. It has been deployed by “communities of policy and practice”. However, the term risks overstating the role of policy as a catalyst of change and may focus too much on specific technologies/infrastructures. 

In relation to divestment, the term stems from civil society, specifically a diverse network of actors. It views the fossil fuel industry as the primary issue and refers to the withdrawal of financial resources from the fossil industry and the consequent erosion of the industry’s political legitimacy. However, disproportionate recourse to this term may overemphasise the importance of finance and activism in decarbonisation efforts. 

Destabilization, deployed by scholars, refers to disrupting the stability of carbon-intensive regimes to weaken multiple lock-ins, opening the regime up to transformative decarbonisation. Views on destabilization highlight the importance of transforming institutional systems. However, the notion may be of little use to decision-makers who rely on the stability of existing structures.  

The article touches on three different types of carbon ‘lock-in’: techno-economic lock-in (e.g. lengthy lead times and “large sunk costs” of fossil fuel technology and infrastructure); political-institutional lock-in (rulesets and political systems); and behavioural lock-in (e.g. individual decisions and practices in line with social forces). Analysing lock-ins, the paper concludes each deliberate decline concept offers a way to overcome each lock-in.  

The article notes the value and complementary nature of all three characterisations of deliberate decline towards decarbonisation, cautioning against the notion that only one approach or one specific type of actor must drive change. The article supports the notion that no one policy or actor will address climate change, rejecting an argument that a fossil fuel project should proceed on the basis that another policy to address emissions exists. It calls for wide governance approaches, recognising the value of “phase out” in the climate mitigation policy mix. 

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