Of mobile phones and climate change – false hopes of transformative leaps…

jammedkeysChances are you are reading this on a device that has a “QWERTY” keyboard.  Is that the most ‘sensible’ format for fast and accurate typing? Probably not – the most common letters in English (AERTSNI)  should surely be clustered around the (right) index and forefingers.  Why do we have QWERTY?  Because back in the day of manual typewriters, typing too fast meant you’d get your keys all tangled up.  Not a problem now, but everyone got very very used to QWERTY, and the (mental) switching costs would be too high.  It goes, in the academic trade, by the names “path dependency” and “lock-in.”

Fascinating, but what has this got to do with global bloody warming, you may well ask.  This; we have gotten very used to burning carbon.  And switching is going to be harder than we hope.  That, in a nutshell, is the message in this short 10 year old article –

Unruh, G. and Carrillo-Hermosilla, J. (2006) Globalizing carbon lock-in Energy Policy 34, 1185-1197.

(Unruh wrote some rather good articles, and indeed came  up with the term “carbon lock-in”. You should defo read the first two (see below for details).  In the threquel,  he and his co-author put paid to the fantasy that developing countries might (easily) “leapfrog” the West’s polluting path and industrialise with solar panels and wind-turbines as their energy source.)

“After all, the ‘developing world’ did it with their telephone network.”  Which is true, but as disingenuous and hopelessly optimistic as the “we made an ozone treaty, how hard can it be to make a carbon treaty?” line that you used to hear for a few years after the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

Unruh and Hermosilla make two very good points about this

However, while the parallels seem to indicate energy technology leapfrogging is possible, the example of cellular telephony leapfrogging needs to be critically reviewed for its applicability to current energy situation. One of the keys to the rapid adoption of cellular networks by developing countries appears to be the fact that the technology had been substantially developed, refined and commercialized by industrial countries decades before the developing country investments.
(Unruh and Hermosilla, 2006:1187)

And that there is already an schema for existing ‘energy provision’ infrastructure (and some very-keen-to-sell-more-of-their-kit outfits)

In the case of the power supply equipment sector, the industry’s increasing returns driven, winner takes-most dynamic has lead to a consolidated, oligopolistic market dominated by a handful of transnational giants (Sagar and Holdren, 2002). The nature of supplying large technological systems tends to favor enterprises large enough to deliver complete packages of capital, expertise, manpower and financing. The core competencies of these companies reside in supplying relatively standardized hydrocarbon-based technology packages and projects that can be adapted to local conditions. Logically, such firms have a preference for marketing their existing profitable technologies rather than pushing for the adoption of alternatives. In fact, organizational studies have shown that large established companies are often incapable of commercializing alternative technologies that can make their current products obsolete (Ven de Ven, 1986; Leonard-Barton, 1992; Christensen, 1997).
(Unruh and Hermosilla, 2006:1188)

They also point out that

Many countries are promoting rapid industrialization through the adoption of policies, regulatory frameworks, and development strategies that have proven successful in industrial countries. An important element of this development approach is the accelerated construction of key industrial infrastructures, like energy and transportation networks. In this context, fossil fuel-based energy technologies appear to be proven, low relative cost solutions that can respond to the demands of rapid industrialization and quickly provide needed power. However, adoption can become a path-creating choice that can set a positive feedback cycle in motion leading to ongoing reinvestment in fossil fuel based energy technologies.
(Unruh and Hermosilla, 2006:1188)

They then go on to look at strategic niche management (which they like), carbon capture and storage (“meh”), capture-ready designs (“double meh”) and “air capture of carbon dioxide”  (artificial trees, basically).  It’s a good article. Should be read by anyone who wants to extinguish any irrational lingering optimism about the fate of the species.

Things from their reference list I should probably read
Degreene, K.B., 1981. Limits to societal systems adaptability. Behavioral Science 26 (2), 103–113.

Degreene, K.B., 1991. Large technology-based systems and the need for paradigm shift. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 39 (4), 349–362.

Degreene, K.B., 1994. The challenge to policy-making of large-scale systems—evolution, instability and structural-change. Journal of Theoretical Politics 6 (2), 161–188.

Lackner, K., 2000. A guide to CO2 sequestration. Science 300, 13 June.

Other articles you should at least be aware of.

Escaping carbon lock-in Energy Policy, Volume 30, Issue 4, March 2002, Pages 317–325 Gregory C. Unruh

Understanding carbon lock-in Energy Policy, Volume 28, Issue 12, 1 October 2000, Pages 817–830 Gregory C Unruh

A hard slog, not a leap frog: Globalization and sustainability transitions in developing Asia Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 76, Issue 2, February 2009, Pages 241–254 Michael Rock, James T. Murphy, Rajah Rasiah, Paul van Seters, Shunsuke Managi

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