Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

Reducing the anthropogenic influence on the carbon cycle implies transformative changes in sociotechnical systems. Therefore, an important issue is to understand why technological change comes about and whether or not change can be steered and accelerated.

The dynamics of sociotechnical changes and possibilities for managing them are studied in the field of sociotechnical transitions. Technologies (including those that use carbon) are deeply embedded in social practices, regulatory and market rules, landscapes, and values; the technical cannot be divorced from the social. This is a dramatic departure from traditional studies of technological change or innovation. One important assumption of sociotechnical transitions research is that greater improvements in eco-efficiency can be achieved through system innovation rather than by system improvement (see Figure 6.2; Vollenbroek 2002). Systems innovation refers to alternative systems of energy, mobility, agro-food, and the closing of material loops (Geels 2002; Grin et al., 2010; Rotmans et al., 2001; Vollenbroek 2002).


Figure 6.2: Insufficient Improvement of Existing Technologies to Meet Environmental Goals

Figure 6.2: Greater improvements in eco-efficiency can be achieved through system innovation rather than by system improvement. [Figure source: Redrawn from Vollenbroek 2002, copyright Elsevier, used with permission.]


Patterns of sustainability transitions are identified by Geels and Schot (2007) and de Haan and Rotmans (2011) and reviewed by Markard et al. (2012). Two foundational models for managing sociotechnical system changes are strategic niche management (Kemp et al., 1998) and transition management (Kemp 2007, 2010; Loorbach 2007; Rotmans et al., 2001). The model of transition management was developed in a project for the government of The Netherlands, based on a science-policy dialogue, details of which are described in Kemp and Rotmans (2009) and further developed by Loorbach (2007).

Transition management seeks to create system innovations through a model of guided evolution. Acting as a process manager, government mobilizes the interests of industry and society in system change with sustainability benefits (Kemp et al., 2007). Transition management methodology comprises the following elements (Meadowcroft 2009):

  • Making the future more clearly manifest in current decisions by adopting longer time frames, exploring alternative trajectories, and opening avenues for system innovation, as well as system improvement;

  • Transforming established practices in critical societal subsystems within which unsustainable practices are deeply embedded;

  • Developing interactive processes where networks of actors implicated in a particular production-and-consumption nexus can come together, develop shared problem definitions, appreciate differing perspectives, and above all develop practical activities;

  • Linking technological and social innovation because both sorts of change are necessary if society is to move to a more sustainable pathway;

  • “Learning-by-doing,” developing experiments with novel practices and technologies because only by initiating change can societies learn the potential, and the limits, of different approaches;

  • Tailoring support for technologies to different phases of the innovation cycle;

  • Encouraging a diversity of innovations (i.e., variation) and competition among different approaches (i.e., selection) to fulfill societal needs; and

  • Assigning an active role to government in mobilizing society to orient change in desired directions.

The visions for the future and details of policy are determined by political leaders, legislative bodies, and voter preferences, not by special agencies. The commitment to long-term change helps to orient state politics more toward system innovation. Government thus responds to calls for change from people and organizations by nurturing new technologies and, once these are better developed, supporting them more actively through diffusion policies. The availability of well-developed alternatives will give policymakers an easier path to introduce policy instruments such as carbon taxes and to phase out carbon-based technologies.

Analytically, the sociotechnical transition perspective examines interaction effects (i.e., coupled dynamics) among actors, technologies, rules, and institutions in evolving landscapes, as the broader context of sociotechnical regimes and niches of radical change. Such interactions give rise to four distinct transition patterns: substitution, transformation, reconfiguration, and de-alignment and ­re-alignment (Geels and Schot 2007). Specific pathways depend on structural landscape factors that shape action possibilities. Such factors include the presence of a strong and well-organized civil society with active cooperatives, citizen groups, activities, and socially engaged scientists; the salience of environmental issues in politics; and the industrial base for producing eco-innovations—all factors that were stronger in Germany than in the United Kingdom (Geels et al., 2016). In transition processes, no one is in control, and the interaction among different developments gives rise to outcomes that enhance the position of certain actors and technologies. New circumstances and counter strategies from incumbents, however, may change the trajectory.

The sociotechnical perspective emphasizes 1) the centrality of actors, while also being mindful of material aspects (e.g., in the forms of material interests, technologies, and infrastructures), 2) hybrid systems (e.g., decentralized technologies integrated into centralized systems), 3) spillovers from sectoral developments and various policy agendas, and 4) the duality of agency and structure. Attention to niche actors and landscape factors helps researchers to understand the demise of sociotechnical regimes such as in a substitution pathway and their gradual transformation in the three other pathways.

Under transition management approaches, societal interests in alternative technologies and system change are exploited in ways that fit with local circumstances. Transition thinking helps policymakers and actors in society to undertake useful actions in the forms of transition experiments, creation of transition platforms, and use of monitoring systems for managing the energy transition and the transition to the circular economy. These activities complement policies such as carbon taxes, regulations and soft obligations that constitute the Paris Agreement approach (Rajamani 2016), and national sustainable energy policies.

Laws and the embedding of transition endeavors in institutional frameworks help in pursuing transitions but are no guarantee of success. Research indicates that sustainability transitions require both control policies, pursued with rigor and perseverance, and innovation-support policies (Ashford and Hall 2011). Transition endeavors are likely to encounter opposition from incumbent actors, which can be observed in every transition process.

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