Do energy scenarios pay sufficient attention to the environment?

15 Feb 2018

It has long been a strand of UKERC research to consider ways of bridging the gap and how to better integrate the assessment of environmental implications into the formation of energy strategies. In a paper recently published in Energy Policy, we have turned our attention to the development of energy pathways and the lessons that could be learned from environmental scenarios. We undertook a detailed content analysis of UK energy and environment scenarios to examine their key features and assess the commonalities, differences and consistency between them.

The growth of energy scenarios

The past decade has seen a proliferation of energy scenarios in the UK, including those with a direct influence on the formation of energy policy. The UK Committee on Climate Change produces scenarios to explore ways of achieving legally binding Carbon Budgets; the National Grid develops pathways to assess future demands on electricity and gas transmission networks; and academia and industry also use scenarios as tools for considering how the whole energy system or components of it might look in the future. 

Environmental impacts go beyond decarbonisation

Energy scenarios are developed for a wide variety of reasons, but they tend to have in common a very narrow consideration of the environmental consequences of energy systems, which rarely go beyond implications for greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to consider the environment more broadly brings the risk that the credibility or assumptions of the scenarios may be undermined, or that environmentally damaging or unrealistic pathways may be generated. A prime example of such unintended consequences is, of course, the policy to encourage the purchase of diesel cars, which focussed only on reducing carbon emissions and failed to take account of the wider air quality implications.

Our analysis shows that the rare energy scenarios that aim to minimise impacts on species and habitats produce an energy landscape that diverges considerably from those scenarios that seek cost-optimal solutions. This reinforces the need to explore environmental consequences as an integral part of the scenario process so they can be considered at an earlier stage in policy development. Post hoc analysis of energy scenarios does take place, but this cannot fully take account of how environmental factors enable or constrain the future development of energy systems, and is likely to have a weaker policy impact than an integrated approach.

Exploring how society shapes energy futures

We also found that energy scenarios tend to have a similarly limited perspective when considering how societal drivers might affect energy futures. With other UKERC research having identified public attitudes as one of the most important systemic uncertainties that will affect the successful achievement of UK energy policy, this is another area which should be better addressed within energy scenarios. 

Environmental scenarios often provide a much richer perspective on the characteristics of future societies. The difference in approach between energy and environment scenarios was particularly apparent in the way household energy demand and transport were considered. Energy scenarios focused on technological solutions and fuel types, while environmental scenarios more often emphasised social and behavioual change such as uptake rates for public transport and cycling.

Population growth and GDP are typically included in energy scenarios, as these are straightforward to incorporate within the quantitative modelling approaches commonly used.  Other socio-economic factors, particularly around behaviour change, are more difficult to capture as quantitative variables and so are not explicitly evaluated.  The more narrative approach adopted by environmental scenarios is potentially a factor in their ability to better evaluate the interaction of society and energy. 

However, we do not believe that is it necessary for energy scenarios to adopt the full story and simulation approach of environmental scenarios in order to better capture socio-economic parameters. These can be expressed in terms of alternative states or options, in the way that energy scenarios currently compare attributes such as the presence/absence of nuclear power or the success/failure in meeting emissions reduction targets. Clear identification of the attributes, their alternative states and the combinations selected for each scenario (ideally through a formal morphological analysis) would have the advantage of making underlying assumptions of energy scenarios more explicit than is perhaps the case at present.

To conclude, without considering these questions of environmental and socio-economic impacts and sensitivities, there is a risk of proposing energy pathways that are increasingly ill-matched with the full range of sustainable development policy drivers.

Tara Hooper is an environmental economist in the Sea and Society group at Plymouth Marine Laboratory

The paper was co-authored by Melanie Austen, Nicola Beaumont, Philip Heptonstall, Rob. Holland, Ioanna Ketsopoulou, Gail Taylor, Jim Watson, and Mark Winskel.