Developing energy scenarios for net zero futures
Claire Copeland, SPRU, University of Sussex
Futures studies have a variety of purposes: they help inform policy, they can assist the development of an investment or business strategy – and can even change perceptions of what the future may hold. Futures studies are sometimes described as having “transformative potential”.
Futures studies of the energy system mostly take a techno-economic perspective and use computer modelling. These models are usually of an optimising nature, driven by a cost minimisation objective. This can be helpful, especially when the underlying energy system is undergoing little change. However, the profound scale of change that the energy system now requires to achieve net zero emissions, necessitates a much broader perspective than the narrowly economic. Recent publications about net zero emissions highlight the real importance of addressing societal issues such as inequality and wellbeing, ideas closely related to the fairness and justice objectives emphasised for this BIEE conference. This paper uses a qualitative scenario approach to explore the development of energy futures in a case study of the North of Tyne, a newly devolved administrative region.
Recent scenario studies, notably the annual National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios (FES), have started to move away from purely economic drivers (in addition to decarbonisation) towards a focus on wider issues such as “decentralisation”, that FES appears to associate with greater social equity (FES, 2019).
We developed scenarios for energy futures for North of Tyne drawing on discussions in a facilitated stakeholder workshop. Workshop participants reached a consensus that the two top drivers for future energy system change for the region are decarbonisation and equity, the latter driver mirroring trends in recent net zero emissions publications. These two drivers were then used as axes to frame four scenarios, each involving a combination of high/low decarbonisation and high/low equity. Pathways to 2050 for each of the four scenarios were then discussed. Barriers in futures thinking had to be overcome during the workshop, notably the presumption that meeting a net zero target was a certainty. This presented difficulties in imagining futures that didn’t achieve this target, or did so but more slowly. The importance of being able to imagine living in all kinds of future worlds will be critical in a system undergoing such profound change, so that strategic foresight is developed to minimise risks of missing the net zero target.
The importance of societal factors in meeting the net zero target presents its own challenges, and on many levels – not just in the policy sector. Measuring progress in “equity” is far from straightforward. There has been a tendency for there to be a focus here too on “economic” equity with measurements taken from income and wealth data. What has been highlighted by The Spirit Level (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010), and UNDP’s Human Development Index (UNDP, 2019) and elsewhere, is that equity is multi-faceted both in how it is driven and in the range of impacts on society as a whole, including cumulative effects over time. This paper makes some suggestions as to indicators that could be used to track equity in the North of Tyne region, and by extension to other futures studies.
FES (2019). Future Energy Scenarios 2019. National Grid. http://fes.nationalgrid.com/fes-document/
UNDP (2019). Human Development Report 2019. Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century.
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone. Penguin UK.