Prevalent patterns of production and consumption depend on the use of fossil fuels. The results are far-reaching consequences such as the climate crisis and social-ecological inequalities (IPCC 2018). This calls for profound changes aiming at decarbonizing our societies. However, decarbonization strategies should not result in the limitation of human well-being nor result in the production of new inequalities within and between societies. In this context, I understand transitions towards a low carbon future in my Ph.D. project, in alignment with programs such as the European Green Deal (European Commission 2019) and the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations 2015). Deep decarbonization is also linked to broader social goals such as the improvement of societal well-being in a just and inclusive manner.

Urban areas play a key role. They are geographically concentrated places of production and consumption and contribute to about 80% of the global GDP (Seto et al. 2017). They consume about two-thirds of the world's energy. They can have high levels of pollution and account for more than 70% of the global CO2 emission (Seto et al. 2017). But they are also places of social innovation and production of knowledge. In short, cities can become places for societal transformation (Harvey 2001; Lefebvre 2016). 

Quantity, material composition, spatial patterns, (Haberl et al. 2017)and an assemblage of formal and informal rules and norms (that are the result of past power struggles) (Sorensen 2018) manifest in built infrastructures and shape energy and material consumption that can lock societies into either a higher or lower carbon path (Gouldson, et al. 2015; Seto et al. 2016). Changing future infrastructure patterns can help to improve societal well-being as they transform natural resources into social benefits such as shelter, comfortable room temperature, and mobility (Kalt et al. 2019).

This PhD-project aims to identify barriers and leverage points for a low-carbon urban future by elucidating socio-metabolic and political/institutional implications of urban planning interventions proposing to or reshaping urban infrastructure towards a low carbon future. While elements of co-evolving biophysical and institutional carbon-lock will be used to explain why there are no changes from high carbon to low carbon path infrastructures, the notion of "spatial fix" (Harvey 2001) allows investigating possible interests of specific actors at different scales that might oppose any social change. 

Each of the three planned papers will focus on a particular urban planning intervention aimed at reshaping urban infrastructure towards a low-carbon future. Powerful institutions and actors, their perception of urban problems addressed by (not) reshaping infrastructure, necessary changes into investment strategies and forms of regulation but also the biophysical infrastructure including related flows and services that are (eventually) put into place will be analyzed. Such changes can either limit resource use while sustaining societal participation, can limit resource use while limiting the ability to participate, or can sustain a dominant resource use pattern preventing a transition towards a low carbon future. This calls for an interdisciplinary approach. Each paper will be designed and written in cooperation to increase the range of explanatory power via the quantitative analysis of socio-metabolic implications.



European Commission. 2019. "The European Green Deal." Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the regions. Brussels.

Gouldson, A., S. Colenbrander, A. Sudmant, N. Godfrey, J. Millward-Hopkins, W. Fang, and X. Zhao. 2015. “Accelerating Low-Carbon Development in the World’s Cities. Contributing Paper for Seizing the Global Opportunity: Partnerships for Better Growth and a Better Climate.” New Climate Economy, London and Washington, DC.

Haberl, Helmut, Dominik Wiedenhofer, Karl Heinz Erb, Christoph Görg, and Fridolin Krausmann. 2017. “The Material Stock-Flow-Service Nexus: A New Approach for Tackling the Decoupling Conundrum.” Sustainability 9 (7): 1049.

Harvey, David. 2001. “Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix.’” 2001.

IPCC. 2018. “Global Warming of 1.5 oC.” Special Report. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Kalt, Gerald, Dominik Wiedenhofer, Christoph Görg, and Helmut Haberl. 2019. “Conceptualizing Energy Services: A Review of Energy and Well-Being along the Energy Service Cascade.” Energy Research & Social Science 53 (July): 47–58.

Lefebvre, Henri. 2016. Das Recht auf Stadt. Translated by Birgit Althaler. Deutsche Erstausgabe. Nautilus Flugschrift. Hamburg: Edition Nautilus.

Seto, Karen C., Steven J. Davis, Ronald B. Mitchell, Eleanor C. Stokes, Gregory Unruh, and Diana Ürge-Vorsatz. 2016. “Carbon Lock-In: Types, Causes, and Policy Implications.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 41 (1): 425–52.

Seto, Karen C., Jay S. Golden, Marina Alberti, and B. L. Turner. 2017. “Sustainability in an Urbanizing Planet.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (34): 8935–38.

Sorensen, André. 2018. “Institutions and Urban Space: Land, Infrastructure, and Governance in the Production of Urban Property.” Planning Theory & Practice 19: 38.

United Nations. 2015. “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.