Week 4: Scenarios: good, bad and ugly?

One can (and should!) debate the utility and popularity of scenarios, but I wanted to start the discussion this week by focusing on one particular set of scenarios, namely that of the International Energy Agency (IEA).  The new 2013 World Energy Outlook will only be released in a few weeks’ time, and they will contain some seven scenarios: http://www.iea.org/publications/scenariosandprojections/.

What do you think about the range and utility of these seven scenarios?  Consistent stories of alternative worlds are undoubtedly useful to provoke discussion and debate, but how important is it that they be plausible? One frustration I sometimes feel with regard to scenarios (not IEA in particular) is that they may be technically feasible, but are they feasible from what we know of human behaviour from economics and the social sciences?

By contrast with these story-line scenarios, the IEA’s  Energy Technologies Perspectives (ETP) report has three very different types of ‘scenarios’, 2DS, 4DS and 6DS where ‘DS’ refers to ‘°C Scenario.   IEA has a website that allows you to look in greater detail at the results: http://www.iea.org/etp/explore/

Unfortunately, this website does not allow you to question the assumptions the IEA makes but rather is simply a visualisation tool that enables you to drill down and compare, say, French, Dutch and Canadian emissions in the buildings sector under different scenarios.

An obvious question is why is there this difference in scenarios even within the IEA? What is the advantage of the more simplistic set of ‘scenarios’ in the ETP? What, if anything, can be learned from these scenarios?

Finally, Professor David MacKay of the Cambridge University Engineering Department is currently the Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change.  In that role, he has put together a rather different type of tool that allows you to input your own assumptions with regard to several dozen key drivers of future energy and climate through 2050.


Please do try it out! This has proven so popular, that it has been extended to several other countries (most notably China: http://2050pathway-en.chinaenergyoutlook.org/) and will be expanded to 10 other developing countries by next year.

You might guess where my sympathies lie across the three approaches, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of such an interactive tool relative to the more ‘pre-packaged scenarios’? More generally, what is the point of such interactive tools? What is the target audience? Do you think they help policy-makers? If so, how? Are we likely to get better decisions emerging?