Thursday, August 14, 2014

Geoengineering: issues of path-dependence and socio-technical lock-in (Excerpts)

Rose Cairns (SPRU – Science and Technology Policy Research)

Note (Full translation into spanish available: Geoingeniería: cuestiones de dependencia de la trayectoria (path-dependence) y encierre  socio-técnico (lock-in) (Traducción) ) OE


In recent years there has been growing academic and policy interest in geoengineering – the large scale, intentional manipulation of climate system in order to attempt to counteract the effects of climate change (Belter & Seidel2013). Alongside a number of other important policy issues, concerns have been raised over the potential for geoengineering technologies to contribute to so-called ‘carbon lock-in’ (Unruh 2000), or to become ‘locked-in’ themselves (CBD, 2012; Shepherd et al., 2009; Rayner et al., 2013). In particular, the scale of infrastructures that geoengineering interventions would require, and the issue of the so-called ‘termination effect’ (Jones et al. 2013) (whereby the termination of a programme of stratospheric aerosol injection would result in rapid heating of the planet) have been discussed in these terms. Dynamics of ‘lock-in’ have been raised even in relation to the more purely discursive aspects of these challenges, where (despite the emergent and somewhat ill-defined nature of the field), it has been suggested that the extant framings of geoengineering in academic and policy literatures may already demonstrate features recognisable as forms of cognitive lock-in, likely to have profound implications for future developments in this area (Bellamy et al. 2012). This review paper, prepared in advance of an academic and policy workshop on the topic, is intended to give participants a brief overview of the theoretical literature on lock-in and path-dependence, to summarise the ways in which these concepts have been invoked in the existing literature on geoengineering, to highlight some on-going theoretical debates around these concepts, and to examine the generic, and more geoengineering-specific challenges of assessment of these processes.


Section 2. Concepts of lock-in and path-dependence in geoengineering discourse
The term ‘lock-in’ features relatively prominently in the academic and policy discourse around geoengineering thus far. However, reflecting its diverse usage in the academic literature, exactly what is meant by the term is not necessarily consistent, and it has been invoked to refer to a number of different processes or give voice to a number of different kinds of concerns. Within the academic and policy literature on geoengineering, two broad levels of analysis can be discerned: a focus on particular technologies or classes of technology and the potential mechanisms and consequences of lock-in that might result from their development and deployment; and a focus on the broader context of existing fossil fuel dependence or so-called ‘carbon lock-in’, and the ways in which particular technologies might disrupt or reinforce this. In the former category, the issue of socio-technical lock-in has been cited as a policy concern in a number of high-profile reports on geoengineering, including the Royal Society Report (Shepherd et al. 2009), the UK House of Commons report on the Regulation of Geoengineering (House of Commons 2010), and the 2012 report by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 2012). The need for assessment of the risk of lock-in was also a component of one of the so-called ‘Oxford Principles’ for the governance of geoengineering (Rayner et al. 2013). Some authors (Rayner et al. 2013) distinguish between technical and social lock-in with technical lock-in referring to kinds of commitments that would accompany particular technological approaches such as stratospheric aerosol injection due to the existence of the so-called ‘termination effect’ (a term used to refer to the fact that if an SRM technology such as stratospheric aerosol injection were to be implemented but then discontinued, there would be a rapid spike in temperature that would likely be more damaging than the more gradual temperature increases that would have taken place in the absence of such an intervention). Social lock-in, in this case is used to refer to the ways in which many of the proposed technologies (e.g. direct air capture), would be dependent on the existence of a highly capital-intensive physical infrastructure, the large sunk costs in which would create vested interests in keeping facilities operational, and hence would lead to various types of inertia and lock-in (Hamilton 2013a).
Other work has drawn attention to the importance of framing effects and what could be called ‘cognitive lock-in’. For example, Bellamy et al. carried out a review of appraisals of geoengineering methods. They highlight the ways in which instrumental framing effects impact on the outcome of appraisals in important ways, acting to promote apparently preferable decision options given those framing effects that are privileged. In particular they illustrate the impact…

Full article:
At the Geoengineering Governance Research web site.

In Academia:

Article first published online: 27 JUN 2014
DOI: 10.1002/wcc.296
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A #Geoengineering #Climate Issues blog - Geoingeniería by Oscar and Jocelyn Escobar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.Licencia Creative Commons
A #Geoengineering #Climate Issues blog por Oscar y Jocelyn Escobar se distribuye bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial 4.0 Internacional.