Disrupting carbon lock-in: How a target-based sustainability program for businesses can support the politics of decarbonization in Ottawa, Canada
Abstract: Human-induced climate change has emerged as one of the greatest sustainability challenges of our time, with significant risks for human health, livelihoods and security. However, technological solutions to phase out the use of fossil fuels in industrialized countries are politically contested. Their adoption depends on disrupting the institutions and behaviours that perpetuate the dependence on fossil fuels, also known as "carbon lock-in”. In this study, I use an emerging theoretical framework on the politics of decarbonization to assess the potential of a grassroots climate governance experiment to contribute to a low-carbon pathway for the City of Ottawa, Canada. The Carbon 613 program is part of a broader network of social enterprises in Ontario that provide technical support, peer learning opportunities and recognition to businesses that commit to setting voluntary greenhouse gas (GHG) targets and reducing their operational GHG emissions. I use empirical data gathered from primary and secondary literature and 11 participant interviews to trace the impacts of Carbon 613’s activities on the political mechanisms underlying carbon lock-in. The analysis demonstrates Carbon 613 is starting to build a supportive coalition for low-carbon business in Ottawa by recruiting a diversity of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and some public sector institutions and larger firms to participate in the fee-based program. Several of these SMEs are beginning to build their internal capacity and adopt new norms related to carbon accounting and GHG reduction actions within their organizations; however broader scaling and entrenchment of low-carbon attitudes and practices have been limited by both internal and external factors. Opportunities to enhance the transformative impact of the program include strategic recruitment of new members, a stronger programmatic link with the City of Ottawa’s climate change efforts, and coalition building with a more diverse set of stakeholders within the city. The results suggest Carbon 613 has the potential to catalyze a system improving trajectory within the City of Ottawa.
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