23. November 2022Drawing lessons from carbon-intensive transitions: Three challenges and theoretical tools

Phasing out the use of carbon-intensive fossil fuels is one of the main climate mitigation challenges. It was also on the political agenda at the recent COP27 climate summit, where states negotiated on how to implement coal phase-out around the world [1], and looked for lessons to inform fossil fuel phase-out strategies [2]. Such lessons can be informed by experiences from countries in which carbon-intensive transitions already unfold.

The CINTRAN project studies patterns and dynamics of structural change within four carbon-intensive regions in Europe: Western Macedonia in Greece, Silesia in Poland, Ida-Virumaa in Estonia and the Rhenish mining area in Germany. The first task within the project developed three frameworks that provide tools to address three practical and theoretical challenges to carbon-intensive transitions: First, to balance the need to overcome lock-in of carbon-intensive technologies while also achieving just transitions. Second, to better understand the role of carbon-intensive regions in either resisting or adapting to transitions. And third, to understand the injustices that arise from decline of carbon-intensive technologies and acceleration of low-carbon technologies.

Here, we summarise the contributions of each theoretical framework, and show one way in which they can be integrated to gain a comprehensive understanding of carbon-intensive transitions. If you want to know more about the three theoretical frameworks and their integration, please see our Integrated Research Framework [3].

Challenge 1: Balancing carbon lock-in and just transitions through policy sequencing for decline

Nacke et al [4] examine the challenge of breaking lock-in of carbon-intensive technologies and sustaining fossil fuel decline, while simultaneously supporting actors negatively affected by this decline – for example, supporting the socio-economic recovery and development of carbon-intensive regions. They find that identifying the phase of decline for three separate subsystems (the technology, industry and region) are essential to identify the main challenge to decline at that phase, and implementing policy-sequencing for decline. In the first phase, the technology is locked-in, the industry mature and the region is stable; here breaking lock-in is the main challenge and destabilization policies are most important (Figure). Once technological decline has started, it is important to address resistance from negatively affected actors to sustain this decline through compensation and constraining policies. And in the last phase, once the technology is phased out, policies to support the economic recovery of carbon-intensive regions are most important.


Figure 1: Regional capacities and injustices mapped to phases of decline. Figure modified from [4] in source: [3].

Challenge 2: Understanding the role of carbon-intensive regions to resist or adapt to transitions

Hermwille [5] focuses on the interdependencies between carbon-intensive industries and their host regions, and identifies two critical capacities within these systems: capacities to resist the transition and capacities to adapt to transitions. These capacities are affected by the complex interconnections between regions and industries through various mechanisms. Hermwille outlines many of these mechanisms, and their effect on capacities to resist or adapt. Capacities to resist may be most relevant during the transition from the first to the second phases of decline, when actors negatively affected by early technological decline may mobilize to resist the transition (see Figure 1). Capacities to adapt may be most relevant during the transition from phase two to phase 3 of decline, when technological decline and phase-out is ensured, and the most important challenge is socio-economic recovery of carbon-intensive regions. Hermwille [5] outlines additional mechanisms that affect capacities to resist and adapt.

Challenge 3: Understanding the justice implications of carbon intensive transitions

Finally, Kanger and Sovacool [6] identify justice implications at different stages of carbon-intensive transitions. They identify that continued operation of carbon-intensive technologies may cause optimization injustices such as harmful environmental impacts. This may be especially relevant during the first phase, when carbon-intensive technologies are mature and related industries are stable (Figure 1). The decline of carbon-intensive technologies may lead to destabilization injustices such as insufficient consideration of the interests of residents affected by the decline. This may be especially relevant during the second phase of decline when industries decline, leading to job losses in affected regions (see Figure 1). As low-carbon technologies are scaled up, there may also be acceleration injustices, such as harmful impacts on wildlife. Injustices may also extend into the future, as some negative impacts may only unfold slowly over large periods of time. Scaling up of nuclear may for example lead to waste management issues in the future. Acceleration injustices may be especially relevant during the third phase of decline, when new industries enter the region (see Figure 1).

Synthesizing insights to draw lessons from cases of carbon-intensive regions in transition

While these frameworks focus on different aspects of carbon-intensive transitions, they share common approaches to studying carbon-intensive transition pathways. All three frameworks study complex systems in transition, highlighting the importance of connections and interactions between different actors within these systems. These actors’ perceptions inform narratives and strategies, which in turn shape transition pathways. Finally, all three frameworks highlight how the main challenges to sustaining fossil fuel decline, the justice implications of transitions, and regional and industrial interconnections, change over time. To gain a comprehensive understanding of transition pathways and inform feasible policies for carbon-intensive transitions, it is helpful to draw on the insights of the three frameworks. Figure 1 also maps capacities to resist and adapt as well as different justice implications to the different phases of carbon-intensive transitions.

These theoretical tools help to understand how carbon-intensive energy transitions unfold, and can help to transfer lessons to other carbon-intensive sectors, such as steel or cement, and to other contexts such as countries in the Global South. The frameworks help us understand: the regional capacities to resist or adapt to transitions, the justice implications in a certain region, and the phase of transition a certain region is in. This can ultimately help to inform policy sequencing for decline [4] to sustain fossil fuel decline, and simultaneously support regional recovery and development.



[1] Jessop, S. (2022). India seeks COP27 deal to ‘phase down’ all fossil fuels. Reuters. URL: https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/india-seeks-cop27-deal-phase-down-all-fossil-fuels-sources-2022-11-12/ [Last accessed: 14 November 2022].

[2] World Bank Live. (2022). Just Transition away from coal: A conversation on lessons from South Africa, Europe, and South Asia. URL: https://live.worldbank.org/events/cop27-just-transition-away-coal-conversation-lessons-south-africa-europe-and-south-asia [Last accessed: 14 November 2022]

[3] Nacke, L., Jewell. J., Hermwille, L., Sovacool, B. (2022). Integrated research framework: Transitions in carbon intensive regions. CINTRAN project deliverable. URL: https://coaltransitions.org/publications/5424/. [Last accessed: 14 November 2022].

[4] Nacke, L., Cherp, A., Jewell., J. (2022). Phases of fossil fuel decline: Diagnostic framework for policy sequencing and feasible transition pathways in resource dependent regions. Oxford Open Energy 1. oaic002. https://doi.org/10.1093/ooenergy/oiac002.

[5] Hermwille, L. (2022). Regional capacities: Systemic interdependencies between carbon-intensive industires and their host regions. In: Integrated research framework: Transitions in carbon intensive regions. pp. 27-52. URL: https://coaltransitions.org/publications/5424/. [Last accessed: 14 November 2022].

[6] Kanger, L., Sovacool, B. K. 2022. Towards a multi-scalar and multi-horizon framework of energy injustice: A whole systems analysis of Estonian energy transition. Political Geography 93. 102544. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102544.



© The blog text is licenced under CC BY. Figures are excluded from this license.


Lola Nacke
PhD Candidate | Chalmers University of Technology
Space, Earth and Environment/Physical Resource Theory

Jessica Jewell
Associate Professor | Chalmers University of Technology
Space, Earth and Environment/Physical Resource Theory
Professor | University of Bergen
Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation




Christof Arens
Senior Researcher | Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
Energy, Transport, and Climate Policy Division