Friday, 15 November 2019

What next for the 2050 Pathways calculator?

The 2050 Pathways Calculator was a tool to help us understand how to reduce our CO2 emissions by policy changes and behaviour shifts across all sectors of the economy. It was originally developed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change for the UK and launched in 2010 – and then adapted for other countries and a global one. The UK one is out of date now but new versions are in active use by policy makers in governments, by children in schools, by NGOs and individuals. Last Thursday I spent a day at a conference about them, with delegates from all over the world – Mexico and the USA, Malaysia, and Thailand, India, Nigeria and many from Europe too. There is a new UK calculator in the pipeline and one for the EU - both are bigger, better and easier to use.

I was involved in developing the MacKay Calculator, sourcing some of the parameters.
I have a personal interest in this because the first version was the brainchild of Sir David MacKay when he was chief scientific advisor to DECC. David MacKay wrote Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air which is published by my next door neighbours and I was privileged to meet him a few times. Some of my colleagues were involved in quality assurance for the global calculator and I have been directly involved in a new version funded by BEIS, to be called the MacKay Calculator. This has a longer timeline to 2100. My involvement has been in sourcing some of the parameters to plug into it and also checking the baseline calibration. This is why I was invited to the conference. Unfortunately I was too busy to commit to more than one day.

EUCalc is a new one for the EU.
The MacKay calculator was announced in April this year but it is still being tested so frustratingly I can’t show it to you yet. Also there is another new one in the makings called EUCalc which is due for release early in 2020.

Calculators have a baseline pathway and levers for changing behaviours and policy.
All the pathway calculators share some similar features. There is a baseline pathway and then a set of levers you can use to adjust this. The levers can be shifted from 1 through 4, where 1 is current trends and 4 is the most extreme change that is feasible. MacKay used to say this the maximum level was like an Apollo mission – that much effort would be involved. There are supply side levers for energy like wind power, nuclear power and biomass, and demand side levers such as levels of home insulation or the temperature to which we heat our homes, the distances we travel and the degree of switching to electric vehicles.

Deciding on the maximum lever positions is hard and can be controversial.
I think the hardest bit about developing a calculator is deciding on the levels of those lever positions. For instance in the first calculator, the lever for international aviation went from level 1: 130% increase in passengers to level 4: 85% increase. Apparently it was inconceivable that we would actually reduce our flying. At the time I thought this was outrageous. However, between 2010 and 2017 the number of passengers flying in and out of the UK has increased 35%; at this rate we will be well above 85% increase by 2050. It will be very tough to reduce just to the 2010 level, but not impossible I hope.

We had strong opinions about the lever settings for EUCalc.
At this conference there was one session where we discussed the levers for EUCalc. The team has run many of these workshops already and over 2000 people have contributed to the discussion. The group I was in discussed levers for travel and transport and had some strong opinions.. For example, on my table looking at transport, we felt that the level 4 ambition for electrification of vehicles (all new cars would be electric by 2050) was far too easy – in fact it could be the baseline. After all, the current UK government target is for all new cars to be electric by 2040. However, I am not sure if we have policies to support this target and even if we did they could change very soon, so maybe this is not a realistic baseline, especially considering the whole of the EU. Another interesting lever was occupancy for passenger cars. At the moment average occupancy is about 1.6 (if I remember correctly) but if ride sharing apps and other car sharing schemes take off this could increase and lead to substantial savings in vehicle miles. How feasible is this? Our table thought an average occupancy of 3.0 was ridiculously high. You may disagree!

The new calculators have more features and are easier to use.
The new calculators are more complex but easier to use than the old ones.

  • More levers: the original had 42 levers and choices, the MacKay Calculator has 145.
  • More control; as well as the lever levels you have control over when things happen, so you can model developments that are not ready to start yet.
  • More outputs: not just energy, carbon emissions and cost but also air quality and, for EUCalc, water use and other resources, biodiversity and jobs.
  • International ones allow you to drill down into countries.
  • Easier to use and more educational, with explanatory pop-ups and text, videos and other materials. Also there will be example pathways provided with commentary about how they work.

Calculators are used in schools, at science festivals, in competitions.
However the most exciting news was about the way the calculators are being used by young people to understand what has to be done to fix the climate change problem. Today’s young adults are our future leaders and innovators. They do not take impossible for an answer. We heard about schemes in South Africa and Belgium, each reaching 1000s of children in schools, at science festivals and special events, with competitions. Most teachers are not confident at first so there is training and supporting materials for them too, and support staff - in Belgium they were called climate coaches. The EUCalc is going to have a MOOC (massive, open online course) to help people use it and learn from it. It comes in modules that can be integrated into other courses or run standalone. And all for free.

Calculators help us to understand the choices we need to make.
More and more people are aware now that climate change is a huge problem, and there is technology available to help us ‘fix’ our planet. However most people are unclear about the choices to be made in how we do this. These choices will directly affect us, and our children. The issues are complex and inter-linked; the calculator models are imperfect but they make these issues more accessible. Will we move to electric cars or public transport? Can we take land out of agriculture (e.g. by eating less meat). If we do, should we use it to grow biomass for power stations, or for heating our homes, or for growing forest to store carbon and improve biodiversity? How much waste heat to do we have for low carbon district heating? If we avoid nuclear power, what are the implications? Tools like the calculators, and contrasting solution pathways provided by governments, industry and NGOs, help us to understand and debate these choices.

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