For over 3 years now, the INNOPATHS (Innovation pathways, strategies and policies for the Low-Carbon Transition in Europe) team has been modelling pathways to decarbonising the energy system, as well as predicting the economic impact of these paths. This is invaluable information for decision-makers. Although they know exactly what needs to be done to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, they could indeed easily find themselves overwhelmed with the scale of the challenge or unwilling to face a potential political backlash over measures that would exceed the limit of what’s considered acceptable to voters. “Of course, no one can be sure of the impacts of moving towards a zero-carbon energy system. We are dealing with complex connections between changes in the energy system and the economy, and we know that complex systems often respond to interventions in unexpected and sometimes counter-intuitive ways,” says Paul Ekins, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and coordinator of INNOPATHS. “However, models can give valuable insights into these possible responses. This is precisely the approach of our project to increasing knowledge.” Ekins and his team focused on several aspects of decarbonisation. On the energy system front, they conducted a comprehensive analysis and assessment of available technologies, how they will change over time and the extent of adaptations they entail for our current energy system. From there, they investigated ways in which different sectors – energy, industry, transport, buildings and agriculture – would be impacted, as well as the role of the financial sector in bringing about decarbonisation. Finally, they assessed the impact of decarbonisation on labour markets. “We are now seeking to bring all this information together in a global economic model. The latter will identify each European country separately so that we can give detailed insights for Europe at a country level, but within a consistently modelled global context,” Ekins explains.
On the road to decarbonisation
Besides lifting the veil on decarbonisation measures and their consequences, the project also clarifies the different pathways or scenarios through which the zero-emission objectives can be reached by 2050. The team came up with a total of four scenarios. The first scenario is called ‘New players and systems’. It is a high-electrification scenario with a high proportion of new generators and prosumers. The second, ‘Incumbents’ renewal’, focuses on carbon capture and storage and/or nuclear energy driven by renewed political push. “End-use energy carriers do not substantially change, but the supply side does: solids, liquids and gases are supplied from bioenergy and power-to-x; BECCS (bio-energy with CCS) is widely used and hydrogen is added to gas networks where switching is easy,” Ekins notes. Then the third scenario is that of ‘Efficiency and sufficiency’, with very high levels of efficiency in buildings (high-spec retrofit and heat pumps) and transport (electrification), as well as shifts in industrial demand. Finally, the fourth scenario considers the ‘Europe of multiple speeds’, with different levels of ambitions and types of measures in different parts of the EU, and the different countries focusing on different mitigation approaches. As Ekins points out, each pathway also has a matching, consistent description of its social dimension. “The more I work in this area, the more convinced I become that the full decarbonisation of Europe is not only possible, but that it can lead to a prosperous society that is healthier and has a higher overall quality of life than today. But achieving it will require a level of policy intervention and public understanding which is unprecedented, and I do not think it is there yet,” he says. As the project plans to provide its fully detailed modelling at the end of November 2020, decision-makers and other stakeholders will gain access to much more information than they ever had before. New tools are currently being developed to help them. These include i) a technology matrix tool with current and future estimated costs and uncertainties of technologies, ii) a policy assessment framework tool for better understanding of policy design for low-carbon strategies, and iii) an interactive decarbonisation simulator enabling users to shape their own vision of decarbonisation scenarios for all Member States, up until 2050 or even 2070. Hopefully, this knowledge will strengthen their confidence in the creation of a zero-carbon society by 2050 that fully exploits its benefits.
INNOPATHS, decarbonisation, Paris Agreement, pathways, energy system, mitigation