Technology or behaviour? Balanced disruption in the race to net zero emissions

Nelson S, Allwood JM

Delivering net zero emissions requires changing patterns of energy generation, consumption and land use. Mitigation efforts so far have mostly focused on reducing the emissions intensity of energy. Future decarbonisation must look outside the energy sector to disrupt markets, infrastructure, systems and behaviour. This study quantifies the disruption to technological markets and individual behaviours embodied in possible decarbonisation pathways for the United Kingdom. We review 12 strategies for decarbonisation proposed by a range of sources, including public and industry bodies, academic organisations and advocacy groups. The broad scope of perspectives yields a large set of possible mitigation options. A novel metric captures the embedded disruption across dual axes of technological and behavioural change. We find a distinct bias towards technological disruption through the pursuit of fast deployment and speculative technologies. Behavioural mitigation remains undervalued. The predominance of supply-side decarbonisation in global climate discourse means that a technological bias, illustrated here for the UK, is seen in mitigation strategies across the world. Historical evidence shows that technological diffusion takes decades, especially in energy markets, while behaviour change can be swifter. A technological bias reduces the likelihood of achieving net zero global emissions in time to limit global warming to 2 °C. To win the race against climate change, governments should rebalance policy efforts and spending across technological and behavioural options for mitigation.