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Equity, technological innovation and sustainable behaviour in a low-carbon future

Abstract

The world must ambitiously curtail greenhouse gas emissions to achieve climate stability. The literature often supposes that a low-carbon future will depend on a mix of technological innovation—improving the performance of new technologies and systems—as well as more sustainable behaviours such as travelling less or reducing waste. To what extent are low-carbon technologies, and their associated behaviours, currently equitable, and what are potential policy and research implications moving forward? In this Review, we examine how four innovations in technology and behaviour—improved cookstoves and heating, battery electric vehicles, household solar panels and food-sharing—create complications and force trade-offs on different equity dimensions. We draw from these cases to discuss a typology of inequity cutting across demographic (for example, gender, race and class), spatial (for example, urban and rural divides), interspecies (for example, human and non-human) and temporal (for example, future generations) vulnerabilities. Ultimately, the risk of inequity abounds in decarbonization pathways. Moreover, low-carbon innovations are not automatically just, equitable or even green. We show how such technologies and behaviours can both introduce new inequalities and reaffirm existing ones. We then discuss potential policy insights and leverage points to make future interventions more equitable and propose an integrated research agenda to supplement these policy efforts.

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Fig. 1: A technological and behavioural typology of sustainable behaviours and technologies.
Fig. 2: Demographic disparities by race and income in the adoption of solar energy in the USA.
Fig. 3: Differentiating current from future equity challenges over sustainable technology and behaviour.
Fig. 4: Visualizing the relationship between resilience and vulnerability.

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Sovacool, B.K., Newell, P., Carley, S. et al. Equity, technological innovation and sustainable behaviour in a low-carbon future. Nat Hum Behav 6, 326–337 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01257-8

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