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The sustainability sandbox: test your scenarios!

What, exactly, will it take to transition to a low-emission society? Where can we make improvements? Will they be sufficient? How do the options combine? EU-funded researchers have produced a website where users can mix and match possible solutions and explore how these choices play out across key areas.

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The EU-funded European Calculator (EUCALC) project has developed an innovative online tool – the transition pathways explorer – to inform discussions about a more sustainable future. This tool is, however, simply the tip of the iceberg: the complex semi-dynamic model underpinning it was also developed in the project, says project coordinator Jürgen Kropp of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany.

Unlike other models in this field, the European Calculator is designed to put lay users in the driver’s seat, Kropp points out. Anyone with an interest in sustainable development can use it to generate information on the likely impact of competing options. An online tool specifically designed for educational purposes is also being developed.

‘Energy is one of the key resources of our civilisations, and the EUCALC project was an attempt to develop a new kind of model representing the interplay between human activities, climate change, and sustainability targets and its implications for policymaking,’ Kropp explains.

Along with the development of the model and the associated tools, EUCALC collected the massive amount of data required for the projections. The partners also produced a wide variety of publications, which notably include detailed policy briefs and documentation explaining the assumptions on which the system’s calculations are based.

A matter of ambition

The pathways explorer enables users to pick and combine options that represent four levels of ambition regarding levers for change in some 60 areas relevant to sustainability. It then projects the impact of these choices for aspects such as emissions, land use, labour, and even lives lost to air pollution, either for individual European countries or for the EU as a whole.

The underlying model reflects the fact that the various facets of sustainability are inter-dependent, Kropp points out.

‘Take transport, for instance. If you look into car use and occupancy rates, you also need to consider that cars need streets, and that streets involve material such as concrete,’ he explains. ‘This means that the model needs a node that links to the other relevant sectors – cement production, for example, which also requires energy.’

The ambition levels selected for the various aspects imply a demand, which must be balanced against the supply, and some objectives may therefore be mutually exclusive, Kropp notes. It is, for example, unlikely that Europe would be able to produce all of its food along with sufficient amounts of biofuel to power all of its cars, Kropp says.

‘In a complex system, it’s really difficult to figure out how specific levels of ambition affect the various sectors,’ he continues. ‘Using the calculator, you immediately see if you are creating trade-offs with your choices or if you are creating co-benefits.’

Commenting on the project’s achievements, Kropp notes that the calculator is receiving great interest. Various refinements and adaptations have also been suggested, notably for the creation of a pathways explorer dedicated to cities. The project partners are also looking into options for a potential follow-on project to take some of these new developments forward. EUCALC ended in February 2020.

Power to the people

One of the model’s particular strengths is that is takes account not just of technologies that are already on the market but also of anticipated innovation that could make a significant difference, Kropp explains.

The pathways it sets out are shaped by collective vision, based on input gathered through dialogue with policy- and decision-makers and via a co-creation process that involved about a thousand experts across Europe.

The European Calculator is also one of the first attempts to model the energy system in the wider context of behavioural changes. Earlier models tended to focus primarily on technological aspects, but innovation and incentives will not be enough to build a net-zero carbon future, Kropp points out.

Lifestyle changes are also needed. ‘In the area of transport, for example, technological advances may be able to bring down emissions by about 60 %, but the remaining 40 % must come from changes in individual behaviour – increased use of public transport or electric cars, for example,’ he concludes.

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Project details

Project acronym
EUCALC
Project number
730459
Project coordinator
Germany
Project participants:
Austria
Belgium
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Denmark
Germany
Hungary
Italy
Netherlands
Switzerland
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 5 875 173
EU Contribution
€ 5 283 351
Project duration
-

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