A coevolutionary framework for analysing a transition to a sustainable low carbon economy

Produced as part of the Governments, markets and climate change mitigation CCCEP research programme theme

Abstract of Working Paper 31

In order to address the challenge of promoting a transition to a sustainable and equitable low-carbon economy, useful frameworks are needed for analysing the dynamic interactions of social and technological elements.

We propose a coevolutionary framework for analysing a transition to a low-carbon economy, based on the coevolution of technologies, institutions, business strategies and user practices, within a multi-level micro-meso-macro framework.

This builds on and develops previous approaches to analysing long-term industrial change, that combine evolutionary understanding of how the dynamics of a system arises through processes of variation, selection and retention, with a causal account of interactions between systems, as well as on recent renewed interest within ecological economics on coevolutionary approaches.

Coevolutionary arguments have provided explanations of how significant features of current socio-economic systems have arisen:

  1. How the coevolution of technologies and institutions has led to the lock-in of current high-carbon technological systems;
  2. How the coevolution of physical and social technologies and business strategies has brought significant material and welfare benefits to the minority of the world’s population living in industrialised countries.

We seek to show how a coevolutionary perspective is useful for examining how more sustainable low-carbon development could overcome this lock-in, and ensure that everyone attains an acceptable level of welfare, while remaining within the earth’s biophysical limits.

We argue that this approach provides a useful framework within which different types of analysis may be conducted:

  1. Detailed empirical analyses at a micro-meso level of the challenges relating to the innovation and adoption of particularly low-carbon technologies;
  2. As a framework for analysing the multi-level interaction of social and technological elements within potential transition pathways to a low-carbon energy system;
  3. To assess the implications for economic growth of a transition to a low-carbon economy;
  4. To assist in the development of more formal, multi-level evolutionary economic models.