John Urry

The biggest obstacle to achieving low carbon transition is the path dependency of systems. Such systems of infrastructures, social practices and government policies get laid down and reproduced over lengthy periods of time. These path dependent systemic patterns are often taken-for-granted and seem impossible to change, only to modify at the edges. Economic and social life revolve around such patterns. In the twentieth century a number of such high carbon paths were so established. For example, the increasingly mobile C20th came to be path dependent upon cheap and plentiful ‘mobile’ oil. The ‘social practices’ of modern life involved regular and predictable long distance movement of people (including commuters, holidaymakers, and making family and friendship visits) and objects (including water and food). Today’s global economy and society became deeply path dependent upon abundant cheap oil and of its fateful carbon emissions, becoming vital to virtually everything that moves. It seemed that this modern mobile civilization would continue into the foreseeable future with high carbon ‘mobile lives’ spreading to all continents and most peoples.

Shifting such path dependent patterns is not something that can be easily achieved. So while governments can make major differences almost certainly much of what has to happen is more localized, decentralised, happening at the margins. It may be that the idea of ‘nudge’ is relevant here, the small but fateful innovation at the extreme that can shift systems, although predicting when and where these could happen is hugely difficult. Change does of course happen and whole systems that seemed locked-in turn over and no one can understand how that could have happened. So the key issue is how the high carbon lock-in can get ‘unlocked’ when it is unknown exactly what it is that might bring about that unlocking.

So I would recommend two developments. First, that governments should only allow new infrastructures to be developed that are compatible with new low carbon developments. New infrastructures should not be such that they preclude low carbon developments even if exactly what these are likely to be is not fully clear. Second, governments should seek to nudge individuals, households and innovating groups by providing relatively simple and cheap possibilities of innovative actions. In relationship to movement I would advocate that hundreds of thousands of secure charging points for battery based cars should be established, at car parks, service areas, railway stations, shopping centres, airports, restaurants and so on. Recharging would either be free or cheap, a little like the provision of Wi-Fi. This would involve major public and private investment. Such provision would nudge people to develop and to use systems of battery-based vehicle movement although there would be great advantages if many such vehicles were not privately owned and were rented instead . And maybe there could be a competition for someone to come up with a new name for such new ‘cars’, rather like the term ‘phones’ has been replaced by that of ‘mobiles’!

John Urry, University of Lancaster


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