A Transition Approach

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Getting to net zero will require major changes in the large-scale systems we use to meet societal needs, including the way we produce and distribute energy, move people and goods and build our cities. Although change in such systems is typically incremental, there have been many dramatic transformations in the past, such as the emergence of a transport system based around personal vehicles and the build-out of electricity systems to provide power for homes and businesses. These system transitions, which may take several decades, involve interconnected changes to technologies, social practices, business models, regulations and societal norms and inevitably involve struggles over the direction and pace of change. Transitions typically pass through distinct stages, moving from emergence through diffusion to system reconfiguration.

Approaching the climate challenge from the perspective of system transitions can help design transformational pathways and create supportive policy. Key insights from this perspective are that:

  • the low carbon transition will involve multiple transitions, in multiple sectors, moving at different speeds (transport, building, agri-food, etc.).
  • change can be accelerated by linking climate issues to other problems and disruptions in these systems. It is not just about reducing emissions but building better systems that deliver improved services and are also low carbon.
  • the fundamental issue for policy design is accelerating positive system change towards net zero, not achieving lowest cost incremental GHG reductions.
  • policy should be tailored to specific sectors/systems, as each has different circumstances, obstacles and enabling factors.
  • multiple policy instruments are required, tailored to the transition phase of each sector
  • innovation policy should go beyond providing a generally favorable environment for business to targeting specific problems that meet urgent societal needs.