Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Global Calculator: Crunching the numbers for a low-emission future

By Paul Young, Generation Zero

Paul Young is a co-founder of the youth climate change organisation Generation Zero and remains involved as a member of the national executive. He is also a trustee of the National Energy Research Institute, the modelling team leader for the NZ 2050 Pathways project, and a participant in the Motu Low-Emission Future Dialogue.

“Hate wind farms? Eat chicken, not beef” - The Telegraph, 28 January 2015

Despite the baiting headline from a newspaper known for its doubtful position on man-made climate change and antagonism towards wind power, the team behind the newly-launched Global Calculator marked this coverage as a success.

The Telegraph had picked up on one (rather surprising) conclusion from the Global Calculator: cutting global beef consumption by 100 grams per week per person and eating chicken instead would “do more to tackle climate change than building two million onshore wind turbines and 2,000 nuclear reactors.” This results not just from the direct reductions in farming emissions, but also the implications for land use which are captured in the Calculator model. It’s one great example of the kind of choices and trade-offs this remarkable tool allows us to explore and gain insight into.


The Global Calculator was developed by a team from organisations around the world, overseen by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). It aims to inform the global climate debate, motivated by the question: “Is it physically possible to meet our climate targets and ensure everyone has good living standards by 2050?” The tool was built to model what lifestyle is physically possible for the world’s population – from travel to housing to diet – and the energy, materials and land requirements to satisfy all this.

The Global Calculator finds that there are many different pathways to keep the global mean temperature increase below 2°C while improving lifestyles. This isn’t the first analysis to show this by any means (see the Global Energy Assessment, for example), and the tool comes set up with a number of example pathways exploring different levels of ambition and different choices.

The team developed four of its own new pathways to 2°C that enable lifestyle improvements similar to what is expected under ‘business as usual’ scenarios. The four pathways informatively named ‘Distributed effort’, ‘Consumer reluctance’, ‘Low action on forests’, and ‘Consumer activism’ explore key uncertainties about technology, fuels and land use. Analysis of these leads to the key findings that:
  • Yes, it is physically possible that all 10 billion people in the world could eat well, travel more and live in more comfortable homes, whilst at the same time reducing emissions to a level consistent with a 50% chance of 2°C warming.
  • But to do so, we need to transform the technologies and fuels we use. For example, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of electricity globally needs to fall by at least 90% by 2050. Also, the percentage of households that heat their homes using electric or zero-carbon sources should rise from 5% today to 25-50% globally by 2050.
  • We also need to make smarter use of our limited land resources. In particular, we must protect and expand our forests globally by around 5-15% by 2050 because forests act as a valuable carbon sink.
The many more detailed findings are covered in the summary report ‘Prosperous living for the world in 2050: insights from the Global Calculator’. I highly recommend reading the report  and having a good play around with the Calculator!

History: The UK’s 2050 Calculator

The Global Calculator draws inspiration from DECC’s original 2050 Calculator: a similar online tool launched in 2010, focused on the UK from a national perspective. This was developed to help inform the debate on how the UK can meet its legislated target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. You can read about the development of the 2050 Calculator here.

Since the 2050 Calculator’s release, DECC has been actively supporting groups in other countries to adapt the framework for their own nation. Eleven other countries have now published their own 2050 Calculators and there are more under development.

In February 2015, I had the privilege to attend an international conference for 2050 Calculator developers on behalf of the team working to build one for New Zealand. A highlight of the conference was hearing from Professor David Mackay former Chief Scientific Adviser to DECC and author of the highly influential book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (available for free download at www.withouthotair.com).

Professor Mackay spoke about the motivations behind tools like this. As he put it, “Wishful thinking and mistrust lead to poorly designed policies and disagreement over solutions.” If decision makers don’t actually have the necessary numbers in a form that’s easy to use, bad policy decisions can result. (He highlighted the example of a policy requiring new buildings in London to generate a percentage of their energy consumption onsite, which he believed was expensive and misguided.) If
the public doesn’t have access to the information justifying why various solutions are being pursued, this can lead to mistrust and the belief that there is a hidden agenda. (He highlighted the rigid opposition to both wind farms and nuclear power from different camps.)

The 2050 Calculator – while not solving all these problems – has been an effective tool to address them and has played an instrumental role in climate and energy policy development in the UK. For example, a short video demonstrates public outreach by the DECC Youth Panel associated with the "my2050" campaign.

Next: New Zealand?

As mentioned earlier, we are part way through a project to make a 2050 Calculator for New Zealand based on the UK template. The 2050 Pathways project is a partnership between the National Energy Research Institute and Victoria University of Wellington, with support from Generation Zero, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

There is much happening in the climate and energy space in New Zealand at present and it is great to see a high degree of collaboration and cooperation. The 2050 Calculator will be a useful tool in its own right as well as integrating with and complementing other initiatives.

The Calculator offers some unique points of difference, including:
  • It is a bottom-up engineering model, different to the top-down economic models often used.
  • It doesn’t ‘tell you the answer’ (for example through a least-cost optimisation), but lets you figure out an answer for yourself and shows you the consequences –  estimated cost, land use, temperature, etc.
  • It lets you explore a huge range of practical levers on the demand side, including lifestyle change (and even product design in the Global Calculator’s case) and the supply side, varying from ‘do nothing’ to ‘do as much as possible’.
  • The model, its methodology and assumptions are all published and transparent, rather than being ‘black box’.
  • Its design principle is to be 'as simple as possible, but no simpler'.
It won’t replace more sophisticated models, or other ways of looking at the emissions picture, such as Motu’s work on consumption-based accounting; rather we hope it will be a welcome new tool in the arsenal.

In particular, it will provide one open, user-friendly platform that can inform the debate in New Zealand, communicate the impact of individual mitigation levers and showcase pathways developed by different organisations. For example, the BEC2050 Energy Scenarios being developed by the BusinessNZ Energy Council could be featured as examples. Similarly, the numbers on bottom-up mitigation potentials will provide useful input into Motu’s Low-Emission Future Dialogue, which is exploring mitigation pathways in key sectors.

Together, these initiatives can help stimulate well-informed and productive debate on how New Zealand can move towards an attractive low-emission future.

If you would like to know more about the 2050 Pathways project or express interest in being involved, please contact Paul Atkins, CEO of NERI, at paul@neri.org.nz.

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