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There is no time to delay: energy research must play an immediate role in tackling the climate crisis

Lucy Yu   •   16 August 2021

‘It’s code red for humanity… and the alarm bells are deafening’. These were the words of UN secretary-general António Guterres that made headlines following the release of the IPCC’s climate report this time last week.

There is no doubt that the report is a sobering read. For the first time, the organisation stated its ‘unequivocal’ conclusion that human activities have warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land and warned of increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding over the coming years. The key temperature limit of 1.5C set by the Paris Agreement will be broken in the next 20 years, regardless of what happens next.

The good news? The extent of the damage is in our hands. Catastrophe can be avoided if the world acts fast.

As the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance makes clear, ‘vague promises’ on climate change will no longer suffice. It’s time to close the gap between government rhetoric and reality and kickstart an era of bold climate policy-making. Whilst the onus is on government to take the reins — and the ongoing delay in the Heat & Buildings Strategy and rumours of ministers backtracking over a proposed gas boiler ban raise valid questions around its ability to do so — the scientific community must come to the fore and provide insights that will drive the transformational policy changes we need to avert catastrophe.

Yet last week, a new report from the UK Energy Research Centre found that less than a third of UK energy models are focused on the time period before 2050. This needs to change if governments are to feel equipped to take bold decisions now and be confident that the measures they’re implementing can drive material, near-term benefits.

Beyond reframing timescales, it’s important that the energy research community moves at the pace required to find new, better approaches to modelling that can improve understandings of the energy transition. The Climate Change Committee made clear in its Sixth Carbon Budget that the road to net zero is about more than just business and industry transformation; individuals will play a critical role. Yet much of the existing energy research focuses on ‘cost optimal’ pathways to achieving net zero and fails to recognise the diversity of people and households within the energy system.

Understanding and modelling the behaviours and decision-making of individuals and how these interact and impact the whole system is therefore key to successful, people-centred climate policy making. To give you a simple example, if I buy an electric vehicle instead of a petrol car, my neighbour might be more inclined to do the same thing. A charge point investor might then opt to fit our street with charge points and so on — resulting in a ‘domino effect’ that can ultimately kick the whole system from one state to another, often in a non-linear way. How can we leverage policy intervention to reach the tipping points required to drive the mass adoption of low-carbon technologies like electric vehicles?

Agent-based modelling is a bottom-up, heterogeneous approach to research. It gained mainstream attention during the Covid-19 pandemic when it was used by SAGE to inform the pace and sequencing of the government’s response to the virus. The government wanted to understand how people were behaving, the impact this was having on those around them and what the likely impact of lockdown impositions would be.

At Centre for Net Zero, we’re taking this approach to the energy transition and building the world’s largest ‘living lab’ for energy research, using insights from Octopus Energy’s global database. Our agent-based model will allow different scenarios and policy interventions to be combined and compared, evaluating their impact on adoption of low-carbon technologies, total CO2e impact and costs. It will also allow people to see the distribution of impacts, considering how different places or societal groups may be affected — insights that are critical to enabling a just energy transition.

Whilst the IPCC’s report is deserving of the headlines and attention it captures, we must be cautious of contributing to pre-existing, doomist narratives that pervade current debates on climate action. For more on this, I recommend Dr William F Lamb’s ‘Discourses on climate delay’, which maps out common climate narratives that justify inaction or inadequate efforts. As the IPCC report makes clear, it’s not too late to meet our net zero target, but to achieve it, the research that policy makers are leaning on needs to deliver near-term insights that focus on people as the true drivers of change.