Major new study urges acceleration of decarbonisation

A new wide-ranging study from the Policy Forum in Science is calling for a sociotechnical, holistic approach to facilitate the rapid and deep decarbonisation required to avoid dangerous climate change.


Published in the journal Science, the report features research from academics at the universities of Oxford, Manchester, Sussex and Aarhus. According to the authors, in order to have a reasonable chance of limiting global temperature rises to below 2 degrees Celsius, fundamental changes need to occur simultaneously across electricity, transport, heat, industrial, forestry and agricultural systems.

“Accelerating transitions is critical if we are to achieve the goals of decarbonising and saving energy faster, further, and more flexibly,” said Professor Nick Eyre from the University of Oxford, End Use Energy Demand Champion for the UK Research Councils’ Energy Programme. “This international quality study shows the importance of whole systems thinking in energy demand research.”

The researchers claim, however, that progress so far has been slow, with climate scientists focusing on individual parts of the puzzle. What is a needed is a ‘sociotechnical’ framework that explains how different drivers can interlink and mutually reinforce one another and how the pace of the low carbon transition can be accelerated.

“Current rates of change are simply not enough,” said the University of Sussex’s Professor Benjamin K Sovacool, a co-author of the study. “We need to accelerate transitions, deepen their speed and broaden their reach. Otherwise there can be no hope of reaching a 2 degree target, let alone 1.5 degrees. This piece reveals that the acceleration of transitions across the sociotechnical systems of electricity, heat, buildings, manufacturing, and transport requires new conceptual approaches, analytical foci, and research methods.”

The report identifies four key pillars to accelerate sustainability transitions:

  • A focus on sociotechnical systems rather than individual elements
  • Aligning multiple innovations and systems
  • Provision of societal and business support
  • Phasing out of existing systems

Crucially, the researchers point out that the technical innovation to support decarbonisation will not be enough in isolation, and political and social engagement will be absolutely pivotal.

“To accelerate low-carbon transitions, policymakers should not only stimulate techno-economic developments, but also build political coalitions, enhance business involvement, and engage civil society,” said Professor Frank Geels from the University of Manchester, lead author of the study.

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