Perspective | Published:

Policy sequencing toward decarbonization

Nature Energyvolume 2pages918922 (2017) | Download Citation


Many economists have long held that carbon pricing—either through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade—is the most cost-effective way to decarbonize energy systems, along with subsidies for basic research and development. Meanwhile, green innovation and industrial policies aimed at fostering low-carbon energy technologies have proliferated widely. Most of these predate direct carbon pricing. Low-carbon leaders such as California and the European Union (EU) have followed a distinct policy sequence that helps overcome some of the political challenges facing low-carbon policy by building economic interest groups in support of decarbonization and reducing the cost of technologies required for emissions reductions. However, while politically effective, this policy pathway faces significant challenges to environmental and cost effectiveness, including excess rent capture and lock-in. Here we discuss options for addressing these challenges under political constraints. As countries move toward deeper emissions cuts, combining and sequencing policies will prove critical to avoid environmental, economic, and political dead-ends in decarbonizing energy systems.

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Change history

  • Correction 19 February 2018

    In the PDF version of this Perspective originally published, the asterisk indicating that the author Gernot Wagner is one of the corresponding authors was omitted. This has now been corrected.


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We thank E. Barbier, D. Burtraw, O. Edenhofer, B. Keohane, C. Mitchell, L. Stokes and participants in the climate policy workshop at the University of Pittsburgh for discussions and feedback. We are grateful for research assistance from D. Willis. Thomas Sterner thanks Mistra Carbon Exit for funding.

Author information


  1. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California — Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • Jonas Meckling
  2. Department of Economics, University of Gothenburg, 640, Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Thomas Sterner
  3. John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Gernot Wagner
  4. Harvard Kennedy School, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138, USA

    • Gernot Wagner


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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jonas Meckling or Gernot Wagner.

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