Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | May 3, 2013

Creating Pathways to Decarbonization

Today, the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs here at the Univ of Toronto (which I co-direct with Steven Bernstein) launched a report (Pathways-To-Decarbonization) detailing the discussions from our inaugural workshop “Pathways to Decarbonization.” This report comes at a fortuitous time. Anxiety about climate change continues to accelerate (for two examples see here and here). At the same time, the governance of climate change seems mired in dysfunction. While some have lauded as good news ‘messy’ climate action taking place in the US (see here and here), the bulk of developments in climate politics are much less positive, especially the fate of the EU Emissions Trading System (see here and here) or the need to refocus climate politics because of the ongoing impasse in the UN-based negotiations.  Climate governance does indeed remain at a crossroads.

The need for a reboot of climate governance is obvious–we need to think differently about the challenge we face and to turn our attention to the transformative policies and politics we need to construct pathways to decarbonization. This is the target for an innovative five year research project at the Environmental Governance Lab (funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada) that will bring together academics from Canada, the US, the UK, and Sweden along with those working on climate policy/solutions from the civil society, business, and government spheres. Our January workshop initiated a conversation on what we need to construct pathways to decarbonization and what we have to work with to get started and sets the stage for the work to come. The main insights from the workshop are found in the Executive Summary, pasted here, and we encourage you to read the report and following the ongoing activities of the project on the Munk School website.


Steven Bernstein, Matthew Hoffmann

Beth Jean Evans, David Gordon, Hamish van der Ven

Executive Summary

On January 10-11, 2013, a distinguished group of practitioners and scholars gathered at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in an attempt to start a new conversation about the politics and governance of climate change. The Post-Kyoto era has now begun, with little fanfare, some anxiety, and considerable, unaddressed challenges. While the failure to negotiate a strong Kyoto successor deserves our attention, it doesn’t change the science, global concern, or public demands for action.  The scope of the mismatch between what we need to do—get on the path to decarbonization—and what the world has agreed to do—not much—is painfully clear.  We simply are not on the path to transformation needed to meet decarbonization goals.  This is the challenge we face and the conversation to which this workshop aimed to contribute.

We began with the assumption that it is unnecessary to start from scratch—pieces of the knowledge necessary to build, maintain, and expand pathways to decarbonization abound, but circulate in disparate communities that all too frequently fail to communicate and collaborate. This workshop thus brought together representatives of national and global NGOs (ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, The Urban Institute, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)), experts from intergovernmental organizations (World Bank, UNEP), and academics from a variety of disciplines (Political Science, Engineering, Geography, Law, Computer Science) to discuss what we need to create pathways to decarbonization, how we can overcome obstacles to doing so, and the potential for practitioner/academic collaboration to move us forward.

The discussions were wide-ranging, covering both general dynamics of climate governance and the fine-grained challenges of particular climate projects. Scholars and practitioners found the discussion fruitful and the group coalesced around a number of key themes.  These serve as lessons for the study and practice of decarbonization and the foundation for further conversations and actions that engage both the academic and practitioner communities.

The starting point for such conversations is found in the collective knowledge generated during the course of the workshop.  The key take away points highlight both the opportunities and challenges involved in developing pathways to decarbonization:

  • Awareness is not enough.
    • Communicating the costs of climate change and the benefits of decarbonization may have a place in planning pathways, but focusing on individual awareness is not likely to be an effective strategy unless it is matched with strategies that can alter larger socio-political-economic structures and processes.


  • Political coalitions are the linchpin.
    • They can be found at many levels and we need to uncover strategies for how coalitions can form around decarbonization.
    • The goal should be to decouple decarbonization from current political polarization, but to not depoliticize decarbonization itself.  There may be opportunities for “Baptist and Bootlegger coalitions” of actors traditionally seen as in opposition to one another.
    • Building coalitions is about identifying winners and losers and developing diverse strategies to engage both.
    • Building coalitions is not a static process. There is a need to identify dynamics in policy making that will lock-in coalitions and expand membership by creating incentives/benefits for new groups to join and to apply knowledge about creating path dependencies toward decarbonization policies.


  • Seek for the sweet spot between design and serendipity.
    • Decarbonization cannot be planned, but supportive conditions and specific policies that facilitate decarbonization can be imagined and fostered.
    • Develop policies that foster innovation at multiple levels and scales. This innovation needs to be both technological and institutional.
    • Become comfortable with nonlinearity and uncertainty.


  • There is no single path to decarbonization.
    • There was no single path to carbon lock-in, it developed organically as specific initiatives, experiments, policies, and technologies co-evolved with and became embedded within larger political and economic structures.
    • Decarbonization will likely develop in a similar organic manner, but it needs to happen more quickly and more consciously to be both effective and ethical


  • Work to change what can be imagined.
    • Set big goals even if the means for reaching them are uncertain.

Workshop Participants

Graeme Auld, Carleton University

Steven Bernstein, University of Toronto

Michele Betsill, Colorado State University

Harriet Bulkeley, Durham University

Benjamin Cashore, Yale University

Steve Easterbrook, University of Toronto

Mark Halle, International Institute for Sustainable Development

Danny Harvey, University of Toronto

Matthew Hoffmann, University of Toronto

Dan Hoornweg, World Bank and University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Phil Jessup, LightSavers

Douglas MacDonald, University of Toronto

Megan Meaney, ICLEI Canada

Matto Mildenberger, Yale University

Lars Nilsson, Lund University

Matthew Paterson, University of Ottawa

Fulai Sheng, United National Environment Program



  1. Dear pro. Matthew Hoffmann, sorry for bothering you in you blog, but I am extremely interest in your research and would love to pursue a phd under your supervision. I have e-mailed you about it and my research is about the interaction between transnational NGOs and Chinese government in formulating China’s environmental policy. Looking forward to your reply.
    Best Wishes

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