Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 435–449 | Cite as

Carbon lock-in: an obstacle in higher education’s decarbonization pathways

  • Matthew Worsham
  • Robert J. Brecha


Carbon lock-in describes a force that perpetuates the fossil fuel energy system despite known risks and cost-effective alternatives, a consequence of which is the slow rate of diffusion of low-carbon technologies. Hundreds of higher education institutions publicly commit to carbon neutrality goals, pledging to reduce energy consumption, to invest in renewable energy, and to offset unavoidable carbon emissions, but these conversations sometimes insufficiently address carbon lock-in effects and their associated future costs. To our knowledge, researchers have not applied the concept of carbon lock-in to higher education institutions and their climate commitments. We hypothesize that carbon lock-in effects will present a major obstacle to achieving carbon neutrality and expose these institutions to significant carbon liability, even with aggressive emissions mitigation efforts. Examples of fossil fuel-consuming infrastructure on our own campus and scenario analysis of emissions from eight higher education institutions in Ohio support this hypothesis. We find that carbon offset purchases to eliminate lock-in emissions could cost these institutions tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Future regulatory penalties could impose similar costs, even on campuses without climate commitments. As a result, campus operations management should carefully consider further investment in carbon-emitting infrastructure, especially at institutions committing to carbon neutrality.


Carbon lock-in Carbon neutrality Higher education Climate commitment Social cost of carbon Carbon offsets 



This work was funded by the University of Dayton’s Hanley Sustainability Institute. The university’s Facilities Management and Department of Housing and Residence Life assisted with acquiring data for our residential housing energy analysis.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hanley Sustainability InstituteUniversity of DaytonDaytonUSA

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