Creating a carbon calculator for the Global South

How Dr Onesmus Mwabonje is helping countries reach net zero

Dr Onesmus Mwabonje is talking to two CEP Masters students in his office in the Weeks Building.

The science is clear.

Human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes, have led to an alarming increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2).

This increase in greenhouse gases is causing the Earth's climate to change rapidly, resulting in a range of adverse impacts that we are already experiencing today.

From an increase in severe weather events such as droughts and floods, to disappearance of coastlines due to the rise in average global sea levels, climate change is a pressing global crisis with significant implications for our planet and future generations.

Global average temperatures have been steadily increasing since the Industrial Revolution, and the pace of warming has accelerated in recent decades. According to NASA, the Earth's average surface temperature has risen by approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century.

As global temperatures rise, glaciers and ice sheets are melting, contributing to rising sea levels. In some place, sea levels have risen by approximately 20 centimetres since the start of the 20th century, and the rate of increase has accelerated in recent times.

Countries must rapidly reduce the greenhouse gases they emit to minimise the effects of man-made climate change. As called for in the Paris Agreement, emissions need to be reduced by 45 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 – but what changes need to happen and where?

Bird's-eye view of the city Dresden, Germany.

Imperial College London has been at the forefront of answering this question with the creation of national ‘2050 Calculators’, custom interactive energy modelling tools that help policymakers, companies and individuals understand the outcomes of different decarbonisation pathways.

It considers what kind of transport we use, what kind of food we eat, and what kinds of energy sources and fuel stocks power our day-to-day lives.

First created for the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2009, the 2050 Calculator allows individual users to control and experiment with the different decarbonisation pathways for their countries.

States can directly use these models to trial various policies to reach their legally binding 2050 goals, and so far, the calculator is used in over 30 countries.

However, the inner workings of each country’s calculator differ. Each one must be bespoke. The unique qualities of a country’s economy and society can make a huge impact as to whether the model produces accurate and useful results.

For example, agriculture can have wildly different carbon intensities per calorie of food produced depending on what kind of crop is grown, and what technologies are being used in farming.

The challenges in producing energy models are felt most acutely in countries where the lack of data can obstruct the attempts to support evidence-based policy. Known as the 'data divide', many countries in the Global South lack adequate data to inform policy-making and modelling for many reasons including a lack of administrative capacity in government bodies and companies, and a lack of laws that mandate data sharing.

What is the data divide?

The data divide between the Global North and Global South refers to the significant disparities in access to and usage of data and information and communication technologies between countries and regions. The scarcity of data availability and lack of data transparency are critical aspects of the data divide between the Global North and Global South.

In the Global South, limited resources and infrastructure, along with capacity constraints, can result in incomplete and outdated data. Unequal data distribution concentrates data in the hands of a few organisations, governments, or corporations, hindering access for others. Lack of data transparency and accountability can erode public trust and impede decision-making processes. Addressing these challenges requires improving data collection, sharing mechanisms, governance frameworks, and digital infrastructure, as well as promoting data literacy and advocating for inclusive policies that prioritise transparency and accountability.

Though the situation is not binary and there are variations within regions and countries, the Global North-South divide provides a useful framework for understanding the disparities.

The Exhibition Road entrance to Imperial's South Kensington campus, taken on a sunny summer's day.
Wind turbines pictured between Biggleswade and Langford in the UK.
A bird's-eye photo taken of a student walking along Dangoor Plaza.
A picture of a herd of deer in the forests of Nairobi, transitioning from black and white to full colour.
A picture of a herd of deer in the forests of Nairobi, transitioning from black and white to full colour.
A picture of a herd of deer in the forests of Nairobi, transitioning from black and white to full colour.

Building a Kenya calculator

Dr Onesmus Mwabonje joined Imperial in 2015 as a research assistant before then becoming a research fellow. The current Director for the Centre of Environmental Policy, Dr Jem Woods, had worked on the global calculator, which mirrored the original UK 2050 Calculator. He has since gone on to help construct and support the other national calculators currently in use.

Dr Woods had brought Dr Mwabonje onto the internationaal 2050 Calculator project in 2019. Together they worked on the European Calculator (EUCalc) a model for the assessment of climate protection solutions for Europe and for European Member states plus Switzerland. Coming from a background in environmental consultancy and lifecycle assessment work, Dr Mwabonje was keen to help develop calculators for countries in the Global South.

He became the technical lead for the 2050 Calculator for Kenya, known as the Kenya Carbon Emission Reduction Tool (KCERT 2050). Being Kenyan himself, Dr Mwabonje says that the project was of personal significance to him: “Since a very early age, when I was growing up in Africa, I’ve felt strongly about protecting our environment.”

Studying environmental science and environmental strategy, particularly his wealth of experience in the application of Life Cycle Assessment, Dr Mwabonje’s background was vital to constructing a tool that the Ministry of Energy in Kenya could use in policymaking.

Imperial partnered with Strathmore University in Nairobi to create the calculator, with Imperial providing scientific and technical support, as well as training.

“In the Global South, the main challenge we have is data. It is a challenge in the sense that there is no one particular repository where you can go and fetch the data, or some website where you can download all the details you need,” says Dr Mwabonje, “People tend to work in silos, so the data may exist but it isn’t shared.”

The data shapes the final design and output of the calculator. Assumptions made from the data available from the Global North often cannot be applied to countries in the Global South, so Dr Mwabonje’s team had to go hunting for it through expert stakeholder engagement approach.

In order to aggregate as much data as possible, Dr Mwabonje’s team had to engage stakeholders from all major sectors of the Kenyan economy: transport, agriculture, energy, industry, and buildings.

A gathering of researchers and policymakers, including Dr Onesmus Mwabonje, at the 2050 Calculator Conference 2023, hosted by the CEP.
Dr Onesmus Mwabonje attends a UN Climate Change Conference, standing in front of a conference banner.

The Kenya Calculator

KCERT 2050 is an Excel spreadsheet model that looks at six different sectors of the Kenyan economy that affect the country's total carbon emissions.

Transport: This is the energy demanded by both passenger and freight transport.

Energy generation: This is the supply of energy generated by different energy sources, such as renewables and nuclear power. It also considers the efficiency of energy transport.

Land use & biofuels: This considers how much energy is produced using biomass. It also includes emissions from waste and recycling.

Industry: This sector encompasses Kenya's industrial activity, such its carbon intensity (affected by its energy efficiency and electrification). It also includes the use of carbon capture and storage.

CO2 removal and gases: This sector looks at the contribution to net emission by greenhouse gas capture and conversion technologies as well the production of hydrogen gas.

Residential and commercial buildings: This sector considers how much energy is used to heat or cool buildings, as well as cooking, lighting and heating water.

His team navigated multiple partnerships with NGOs, governmental bodies and companies, many of whom had never been part of a similar project. But the value of this level of granular collaboration was immense, Dr Mwabonje says.

He gives the example of modelling Kenya’s transport sector. Assumptions that work in the Global North do not necessarily apply to other contexts. In the UK, for instance, the use of cars is dominant, but in Kenya, people mostly use public transport, mostly ‘matatus’ (mini buses), two-wheelers or three-wheelers such as cheap, modern motorbikes imported from China or tuk-tuks.

The means of gathering data for these other forms of transport are not nearly as standardised. This is due to the fact that there is often a lack of records or information from which to base estimations.

A tuk-tuk pictured in Kenya. It is a brightly coloured three-wheeled taxi.

Three-wheeled taxis, otherwise known as tuk-tuks, are a popular mode of transportation in Kenya.

Three-wheeled taxis, otherwise known as tuk-tuks, are a popular mode of transportation in Kenya.

“Data around those two-wheelers and three-wheelers was quite challenging to obtain,” Dr Mwabonje says, but he knew of another project supported by the UK government that collected vehicular use for energy planning.

Together with the Kenyan team working on modelling the transport sector, he says, “we were able to use part of their data to rewire and recon our own assumptions towards what should be reflected in the Kenyan data.”

Gathering data or making informed proxies for data, where none exists, can only happen with the cooperation of key industrial, non-governmental and state players. 

PhD student from the Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), Victoria Hoare, helped design a framework to engage these stakeholders and facilitate close collaboration.

“There are a lot of limiting factors to engaging with every single stakeholder that you could possibly engage with ever,” Victoria says, “But the important thing is that, once you recognise who your stakeholders could be, you have put the effort in to show that there’s a valid reason as to why they're not being included in the process.”

Co-design takes a lot of care and attention, but it’s a good sanity check because you’re including other expert opinions on the robustness of the calculator.
PhD student Victoria Hoare, Centre for Environmental Policy

She says: “I think it's just really about leaning into clarity, transparency, and thoroughness. Co-design takes a lot of care and attention, but it’s a good sanity check because you’re including other expert opinions on the robustness of the calculator.”

A smiling portrait of Dr Onesmus Mwabonje, standing against a railing outside the Faculty Building in Imperial's South Kensington campus.
Dr Onesmus Mwabonje is hosting a discussion with three CEP Masters students in his office in the Weeks Building.

Dr Mwabonje thinks that his background has also made the project easier to navigate. “I speak Kiswahili and having grown in Kenya, I understand the intricacy and the dynamics of how to engage people the Kenyan way,” he says.

“The other thing is, once the team we’re working with recognise that, within Imperial, we have a Kenyan within the consortium, then it makes it a lot easier for people to relate. You can see yourself in the other person, so to speak.”

KCERT is also unique not only in the data that it’s built from, but also the simple software it runs from: Microsoft Excel. Dr Mwabonje says that it’s important to have usable models, built with languages that people in the Global South already have a technical background in.

The tools are built on the pillar of transparency. All the assumptions and algorithms that are employed in the calculator are also made freely available in the public domain.

“It’s not just the government and industry strategists – anyone can access them. The whole public can access the calculators and can assume the role of a policy maker for a day looking at how a country is doing in terms of its own carbon reduction planning,” he says, “It's an absolutely vital and very important piece of work.”

Calculators in every country, in every classroom

A group of Masters students are gathered around Dr Onesmus Mwabonje as he presents his work on the 2050 Calculator project, shown on a computer monitor offscreen.

The Ministry of Energy in Kenya has fully embraced KCERT, Dr Mwabonje says. There are plans to create training programmes for the government departments, and to adapt the calculator into a My2050 gaming version for high school students and for higher education in the country, targeting undergraduates at Strathmore University, the initial local research partner for the project . 

“The tool can help ensure that the children coming into schools gain this level of understanding early, so that as they grow, they understand the importance of planning their lifestyles to protect the environment,” Dr Mwabonje says. 

Ensuring that the calculator found impactful uses was important to the team, he says: “Too often, a tool is produced and it ends up on a shelf somewhere and never used, even within the department that created it. Co-creating the calculator alongside local researchers and governments also helped ensure that usability was baked into the design, and also created a level of buy-in from stakeholders.

Off the back of its success, and having learned and grown from working on KCERT 2050, Dr Mwabonje's team is now constructing a similar tool for Nigeria. One of the team’s PhD students, Paisan Sukpanit, has been inspired to help construct a 2050 Calculator for his own home country, Thailand.

“Thailand doesn't have a similar model yet for the country,” Sukpanit says, “In Thailand, they have a model for each sector, so the uniqueness of the calculator is that it’s a single model that captures it all. It would directly support the Thailand's energy policy.”

Dr Mwabonje hopes that the 2050 Calculator programme continues to impact policymakers worldwide, providing key tools that empower national governments to fight climate change. “The key lesson we’ve learnt is to go in as a co-partner, rather than dictating knowledge to people. Build capacity and pass knowledge, and have a downstream partner who is passionate enough to take on the challenge to keep the tool alive and up-to-date going forward.”

A group of Masters students are gathered around Dr Onesmus Mwabonje as he presents his work on the 2050 Calculator project, shown on a computer monitor offscreen.

Creating a carbon calculator for the Global South
Written by Jacklin Kwan, 2023

This story was published as part of a collection for World Environment Day, profiling the work of researchers at the Centre for Environmental Policy. It highlights the real-world policy work of Imperial's environmental researchers to influence policy and legislation.

Image credits:

  • Bird's eye view of Dresden, Germany: Dr Bernd Gross via Wikimedia Commons
  • Biggleswade wind farm: BKnight97 via Wikimedia Commons
  • Deer in Kenya: Summer Kamal el Deen via Wikimedia Commons
  • Tuk-tuk in Kenya: Matt Rudge via Wikimedia Commons