Calculating routes to net-zero carbon


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Tools to help reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

What’s entailed in cutting carbon emissions to net-zero, am I affected, and how can I play a part? A three-year programme is engaging stakeholders in the climate agenda, from secretaries of state to school kids, and helping them answer these questions, as Adina Popa explains.

Amid growing recognition of the need to cut carbon emissions to net-zero, there is a lot of uncertainty as to how it is best achieved. Countries around the world are using interactive models to set targets for carbon reduction and to communicate challenges and possible solutions to stakeholders in government, business and society. These models are known as ‘Calculators’.

There are two particular questions: What intermediate carbon reduction targets should be set on route to net-zero? And how should they be attained? The 2050 Calculator provides some answers. It is an interactive energy model that can be used by anyone to create emissions reduction pathways and see the impact of different choices as well as trade-offs, helping them understand how to decarbonise a region or country. By choosing the ‘levels of ambition’ for decarbonising different parts of the energy system, the Calculator shows how your choices affect the country emissions.

The first Calculator was born in 2011, developed by the UK Government’s Department for Energy & Climate Change and inspired by its then chief scientific advisor, the late David MacKay. It enabled users to calculate the carbon emissions from every sphere of economic activity. Over the last decade, various countries have adapted the model for use in their own countries. Importantly, every version of the Calculator has been open source: transparency has established strong trust among users. Its purpose is to help everyone engage in the debate about the relationship between economic activity and climate change, while allowing governments to explore how their plans support paths to net zero. As we recover from COVID-19, planning decisions will need to focus on creating greener, cleaner and more resilient growth, which the 2050 Calculator and other UK International Climate Finance (ICF) programmes, can support.

The UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) appointed Mott MacDonald to deliver a £3M, three-year programme to extend use of the Calculator. We are currently leading a consortium which includes Imperial College London, Climact and Ricardo. The 2050 Calculator extension programme supports developing country governments to build their own version of the UK’s 2050 Calculator model, with the aim of identifying options for reducing emissions at a rate that is compatible with the Paris Agreement.

This is especially important leading up to the COP26 international climate talks, which the UK government is hosting in Glasgow, in November 2021. The UK’s call to other nations will be to raise ambition and take urgent action. The 2050 Calculator and other UK ICF projects play a role in helping developing countries do that.

The extension programme, launched in 2019, includes an annual international conference for the growing community of Calculator users. The second international conference, held virtually on 25-26 November 2020, discussed the importance of stakeholder engagement to the successful development and use of 2050 Calculators.

The goal is to make every 2050 Calculator a valuable tool for shaping and explaining energy policy, well beyond the end of the programme in December 2022.

Engage early and often

Calculator teams are bringing in members of government agencies, academia and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) earlier in the development process as part of steering committees or governance structures. There are many benefits from doing so.

During the development of the first Nigerian Calculator, what little stakeholder engagement took place was mainly after it had been launched. As a result, government agencies and other organisations had limited awareness and understanding of what they could do with the Calculator.

In 2020, the Nigerian team began afresh by developing a national 2050 Calculator. To drive greater use second time round, the team created a steering committee made up of government stakeholders. Having this committee participate in the development process will increase both their awareness of the Calculator and sense of investment of it, making it truly useful for guiding energy policy. The team is also planning to introduce an extended period of outreach once the project is finished.

Early stakeholder engagement also benefits the project team. To create a Calculator, the team needs access to data on the region or country. This can be challenging for varied reasons, from poor record-keeping to bureaucratic roadblocks, which early government buy-in can help overcome. Early engagement widens and strengthens the network of stakeholders, and gives the team better understanding of their viewpoints and needs. And it encourages sharing of insights the Calculator yields.

Of course, 2020 threw us another challenge in terms of engagement. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that we had to move from face-to-face engagement to almost entirely online. We were able to do this by drawing on digital and cloud-based capabilities across Mott MacDonald.

Maintaining momentum

The goal is to make every 2050 Calculator a valuable tool for shaping and explaining energy policy, well beyond the end of the programme in December 2022. The best way of achieving that is to give ownership of the Calculator to an institution – ideally a government department – that is using it to inform decision-making. Engaging academic institutions, private sector companies and campaign groups is another way to lock in support.

And opportunities for the public to explore energy options are important too. In 2013 the UK’s Energy Research Council found that members of the public who had used a Calculator became less supportive of fossil fuels and more supportive of renewable energy and action to reduce energy demand. In South Africa, the national Calculator has been integrated into a national teacher training programme to increase the effectiveness of teaching climate change in the classroom. All over the world, informed citizens are helping change attitudes to climate change and accelerate action.

Adina Popa is Mott MacDonald’s programme director for the 2050 Calculator

Use the 2050 Calculator for yourself


Victoria Hoare

Victoria Hoare
Centre for Environmental Policy

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Public-engagement, Climate-change, Societal-engagement
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