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How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

U of T political science professors explain how fossil-fuel reliance perpetuates itself
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SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY

What is the fractal carbon trap, and how can the concept guide policy in reducing reliance on fossil fuels? Dr. Steven Bernstein and Matthew Hoffmann, professors at U of T’s Department of Political Science, published a paper in Nature Climate Change on how their concept can guide decarbonization.

The fractal carbon trap is a two-part metaphor which explains the difficulties of introducing sustainable technologies into society. The term ‘fractal’ refers to the complex nature of the carbon system. The ‘trap’ is created by the fractal nature of the system. When it comes to changing the system, there is a threshold point in the reduction of fossil-fuel use that must be crossed. Below that threshold point, any beneficial changes will be swallowed by the re-assertive forces of the system — this is the trap. However, above that threshold point, beneficial changes will be amplified by the systemic forces.

A local example of the fractal carbon trap at work is the Ontario government’s cancellation of the electric vehicle rebate program. Incentivizing the use of electric vehicles was a way of interrupting the system, but the political ideologies and economic concerns of those in power pushed back against earlier progress.

This paper is an introduction to their much larger project on analyzing climate politics and decarbonization, which is the reduction of fossil-fuel dependence. Bernstein and Hoffmann explained to The Varsity what the trap is and what needs to be done in order to change the future of climate politics.

Why there is no singular, effective decarbonization policy

The concept of the trap helps to address limitations on the road to decarbonization — that is, the process of minimizing the role of fossil energy in the fractal. When it comes to big-picture climate politics — those on an international scale — Bernstein argued that the problem lies not with the trap itself, but rather with the framework in which the climate crisis is often thought of.

Much like a mathematical fractal, the carbon fractal has many levels and layers which can be exploited to further decarbonization. However, as long as policymakers and governments are hung up on collective problem-solving, climate action will continue to be bogged down. Leveraging the multilevel nature of the fractal metaphor allows for many possible positive interventions to push climate action over the threshold.

With all this in mind, it’s only natural to wonder what a good policy would look like. There is no singular, agreed-upon policy plan for the climate crisis and, upon reading this paper, it becomes evident that the expectation of such is unrealistic.

Hoffmann argued that “the key to success is thinking about the interdependencies across the domestic and global, between local and national, and thinking about how you can generate or catalyze broad transformation.”

“The reciprocity ideas, the worrying about enforcement and monitoring is a holdover from the older way of thinking about the way climate politics works as a global collective problem.” Understanding how to successfully protect and implement individual policies is equally as important as setting goals for overarching policy plans.

One of the main things that Hoffman and Bernstein’s project will attempt to answer is the question of whether or not the threshold point for the fractal carbon system is too high —  that is, if it’s even possible to reach the point of positive reinforcement. In terms of this concern, both Bernstein and Hoffmann are generally optimistic about the progress being made to surpass that threshold point as more climate policies, such as  the carbon tax, become more common.

As more people like Bernstein and Hoffmann work at the problem, the tides may be able to shift, and the way the climate crisis is thought of may transform to help break free of the trap.