Breaking down structural barriers and unsustainable lock-ins

Key messages

  • Mitigation strategies still remain insufficient to limit temperature increase to below 2°C.
  • Social progress measured by gross domestic product (GDP) growth and affluence is among the major drivers of GHG emissions, ingraining a resource-intensive economy that is a significant barrier to climate change mitigation.
  • Vested interests within this political and economic system entrench unsustainable lock-ins – such as behavioural norms geared towards status consumption, business models focused on ever-increasing production, weak or vague climate policies, and even the use of outright violence that benefits fossil fuel industries – across social norms, industry and economy.
  • Costs of climate change driven by a fossil fuel-based energy system are readily externalised onto communities deprived of the collective agency to resist.
  • Interventions across all structural barriers simultaneously to remove unsustainable lock-ins are crucial if we are to achieve true transformational change.

Insight explained

Despite headline-grabbing climate pledges, only 18 countries have so far shown sustained reductions in production- and consumption-based GHG emissions for longer than 10 years. The gap is widening between national pledges on GHG emissions and the reductions required by the Paris Agreement. As this “emission gap” grows, the urgency to scale and accelerate mitigation is increasing. A big problem, however, is that multidimensional structural barriers arising from the current resource-intensive economy and its vested interests in maintaining the status quo are inhibiting change. As a result, global actions and policies trail far behind targets, setting us on a current trajectory of 2.7°C or higher.

At the heart of the issue is the prevailing narrative of how social progress is defined. Despite rhetoric around sustainable transformations or green transitions, GHG emissions are driven upwards by ever-increasing production and consumption. Success is still measured predominantly by GDP and affluence, rather than through improvements in resource use efficiency and advancing human wellbeing within the biosphere’s constraints. This resulting resource-intensive economy operates through complex structures of power and production and constitutes a significant barrier to climate change mitigation. These power structures serve vested interests and they entrench unsustainable lock-ins in policy, industry, infrastructure, business models and sociocultural norms that act as multidimensional barriers to climate change. This happens, for example, through commitments to open-ended GDP growth, brand-building strategies, lobbying and even outright violence that benefits extractive sectors, including the fossil fuel industry.

These commitments and actions prevent a range of climate actions such as financial incentives to reduce emissions and evolve market- and price-based instruments (for example, carbon emission pricing with distributive justice). They prevent collective political will and encourage the maintenance of the status quo in policies and behaviours (see the In focus box, below) resulting in inaction or vague net-zero policies. Delaying effective mitigation through these ambiguous policies or weak strategies is creating a significant over-reliance on practices such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Although they play an integral role in achieving 2°C, high-potential CDR measures still face implementation constraints. Delaying mitigation now will further escalate CDR’s uncertainties and will also exceed their hypothetical capacity, making the targets impossible or increasingly difficult to achieve. Not surprisingly, the latest report by the REN21 network shows that fossil fuels still dominate total global final energy consumption, with only negligible changes over the past 10 years: 80.7% in 2009 to 79.6% in 2019 and 78.5% in 2020. The costs of the fossil fuel value chain and climate change are also readily externalised onto communities that do not have the collective agency to resist. This further enables unsustainability in production and consumption decisions and vice versa.

One way to remove the structural barriers and deep-rooted inequalities discussed is to develop a multidimensional indicator of progress of human wellbeing for all. This can help to establish a more progressive economy that delivers new sustainable lock-ins across policy, industry, infrastructure, business models and sociocultural norms. For this to become a reality, there will need to be bottom-up social movements, an increase in low-carbon investments and a continuous de-risking of these investments. It also requires governance that accounts for rebound effects of new technologies (see the In focus box, below), and the improvement of technical and institutional capacity to build policy support for low-carbon development. Taken as a whole, these recommendations can give rise to alternative institutions and new science-driven paradigms. Consequently, development pathways will shift so that production–consumption systems and investment choices are radically transformed – boosting mitigation in both the supply and demand sides. According to the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report (IPCC AR6 WGII, 2022), end-use sector-focused changes can reduce GHG emissions by 40–70% by 2050, compared with baseline scenarios.


Don’t overlook the unsustainable lock-ins and rebounds

It is essential to address these carbon emissions already “locked-in” to resource-intensive infrastructures – from big industrial projects down to individual consumer behaviours. If not, there is a danger that new products and services to reduce consumer footprint can lead to unsustainable rebound effects. For example, digital tools are being leveraged by many to increase efficiencies in industry and services and accelerate the development of more sustainable products. However, emission reductions from these efficiency improvements and greener products and services may be offset by increased consumption, leading to a “rebound” and yet more energy use and resource extraction. Resource-intensive lock-ins are interconnected and reinforced through doubt-inducing media strategies that deflect responsibility of climate change mitigation to individuals and disapprove new low-carbon behaviours.

Implications & Recommendations

Climate negotiators and decision makers at all levels – international, national and local – need to:

  • Contextualise and implement multidimensional indicators of human wellbeing to track progress, instead of using traditional and short-sighted metrics of progress such as GDP.
  • Create and effectively implement administrative and legal mechanisms to acknowledge and redress the inequality and injustice that exacerbate unsustainability in production and consumption decisions. For example, trade agreements that reflect an understanding of and contribute to redressing environmental injustices across global supply chains.
  • Advocate for more progressive production–consumption arrangements and policies that deliver new sustainable lock-ins across industry, infrastructure, business models and sociocultural norms.
  • Remove barriers to and de-risk decarbonisation investments.
  • Promote governance that accounts for rebound effects due to more-efficient technologies, and the improvement of technical and institutional capacity to build policy support for low-carbon development.
Figure 10. Interconnected and reinforcing resource intensive political economy maintaining GHG emissions and obstructing climate change mitigation (in blue). Transformative interventions (in green) to remove the main drivers of this resource intensive political economy are vital in order to replace its unsustainable lock-ins and enable a shift towards low carbon development.

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?



What to do?

Solutions and Barriers




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