June 2018

Climate policy stability is often considered to be instrumental in redirecting significant financial flows toward climate action by minimizing risk and uncertainty for investors. The logic is that uncertain climate policies create too many risks for private sector actors seeking to engage in low-carbon ventures. There are, however, many sources of instability that complicate the enactment of enduring responses along with tensions between policy stability and adaptability in the context of multidecadal processes of low-carbon innovation. And so, instead of emphasising policy stability, we adopt a somewhat more modest goal: stabilizing the overarching orientation of climate policy as a transition towards a low-carbon economy. That is, we are principally concerned with the role of policy in making the low-carbon course of development durable, signalling continuous movement in this direction. It is this goal that motivates our analysis and raises two central research questions. First, how can the overarching direction of low-carbon change be stabilized, avoiding the reversal or erosion of the low-carbon course of development? Second, through which specific mechanisms might this policy orientation be instilled with greater “stability, coherence, and integrity as time passes, achieving its basic promised goals [i.e., decarbonization] amid the inevitable vicissitudes of politics” (Patashnik, 2003, p. 207)? In order to address these interrelated questions, this paper surveys the diverse literature on policy stickiness, drawing on three concepts of particular relevance for this discussion: path dependency, policy feedback, and transition pathways. From this, we distill four prominent mechanisms that may help stabilize the overarching climate policy orientation and entrench the low-carbon transition: (1) increasing the political cost of reversal or erosion; (2) encouraging the emergence and development of supportive policy constituencies; (3) embedding the low-carbon transition within a supportive ecosystem of institutions; and (4) building societal legitimacy for the low-carbon transition.


The Clean Economy Working Paper Series disseminates findings of ongoing environmental and clean economy work conducted by researchers from a range of disciplines. These working papers are meant to make results of relevant scholarly work available in a preliminary form. Although these papers have not undergone a peer-reviewed process, they meet general standards of scholarly excellence. The views expressed in these working papers are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Smart Prosperity Institute.