Pathways and scenarios for post-carbon societies

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Given the EU’s ambitions to reduce its GHGs, and calls by European leaders for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 [1], the use of pathways and scenarios is an important tool for envisioning transitions to post-carbon societies.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

European-funded research has used qualitative and quantitative methods, including participatory research, case studies, quantitative modelling and socio-technological analyses, among others, to support EU policy-making and reach climate goals. Furthermore, these approaches have a strong focus on cities due to their importance in addressing climate change. One approach, Participatory Scenario Development, is directly focused on post-carbon (European) cities, while the other two have a broader focus. While the approaches use participatory methods to engage a variety of stakeholders, the outputs are targeted at municipal and EU officials, and research and academic circles.

Pathways and scenarios for post-carbon societies are important as they present the opportunity to imagine positive futures. To speak of pathways also means that change is understood as a precondition and not in an utopian way where the imagined future may seem unreachable just by the wording itself. The creation of pathways and scenarios for post-carbon societies therefore helps with important fights and the creation of just and sustainable cities. Another important aspect concerns transferability: Certain indicators or methodologies for the creation of the pathways can be translated to other domains/objectives.

Shapes, sizes and applications

The three approaches in this cluster have similar topics, geographic coverage, methodologies and aims.

Elaborate Transition Scenarios of Post-Carbon Societies, from PACT project (2008-2011)[2] is an approach in which three scenarios were developed to capture routes towards a post-carbon EU. The scenarios are very detail-rich and include world tensions on resources and climate, policies, behaviours and life-styles, technologies, as the main discriminating factors. This approach covers a broad spectrum of topics, but its elaborate vision of post-carbon households and lifestyles in urban spaces is especially interesting.

Participatory scenario development (for Post-Carbon societies), from POCACITO project (2014-2016) [3] engages local stakeholders in a participatory manner to create custom post-carbon transition strategies in selected cities, focusing on a sustainable economic and social model. The EU 2050 Roadmap for Post-Carbon Cities [4] is an example of an output from this approach.

Exploring transition pathways to sustainable, low-carbon societies, from PATHWAYS project (2013-2016)[5] centres on two alternative pathways, A and B, which both achieve long-term climate and biodiversity goals. Path A represents continued strength of the current global regime in the context of eco-modernization, and B represents a total regime shift and radical response strategies. Within these pathways, domains like electricity, heat & building, mobility, agro-food-systems, and multifunctional land use & biodiversity can be explored.

Post-carbon pathways and scenarios is not a new topic, yet it surely cannot be considered a mature one, due to constantly changing modelling technologies and public-perceptions of a post-carbon world. A limitation of these approaches is their predictive nature, which means that they cannot offer a silver bullet for the route to post-carbon societies. Instead they are able to open up potential futures, and encourage policymakers to work towards them in a way that minimises social and economic costs. Regarding transferability, the methodologies in their general form are transferable to non-European contexts, and could be used to study non-European cities.

Participants of arena#1 event in Rotterdam mentioned another application: The Rotterdam energy transition plan is an example of a city trying to become carbon - neutral in the run-up to the 2050 Paris Agreement deadline. Two specific pathways are mentioned:

  • A market-oriented pathway that focuses on all-electric solutions where e.g in the area of mobility half of the transport in the city would happen in an electric vehicle.
  • A collective pathway that mainly focuses on collective solutions which e.g. in the are of mobility would mean a drastical reduction of individual car use and being mobile through bike, by foot or through an increased usage of public transport.

Both pathways rely on heavily renovating buildings with over 200.000 buildings renovated in both scenarios. In general the areas of transportation, housing and consumption are the main focus of both pathways. [6]

The city of Rotterdam is part of the C40 network which tries to help cities to create and implement pathways and strategies for reaching goals of the Paris agreement. The network especially focuses on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also adapting to the impacts of climate change and delivering wider social, environmental and economic benefits. [7]

A further mentioned initiative was the Transition Town network which is a bottom-up civilian movement that aims for low-carbon societies [8]. It is discussed in detail here: Transition towns.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Urban. This approach considers the urban space as a place of importance in the transition to post-carbon societies. Therefore, many case studies are completed in European cities to create the pathways/scenarios, and devote a lot of time to urban areas in their analyses. Participatory Scenarios has cities as its main focus, and therefore, its outputs may be the most useful to city-makers.

Sustainability. A wide range of sustainability issues associated with post-carbon societies are addressed to a high extent, and on scales ranging from local to global. Environmental sustainability is the raison d’etre for these pathways and scenarios.

Justice. Examples of the approach do not explicitly address injustice. Rather they promote social aspects of post-carbon societies. By using participatory methods, the approaches pay attention to procedural justice. On a large scale, post-carbonism is a form of international justice for areas impacted by climate change, but this is also not a focus of the approaches.

Linking sustainability and justice Regarding the content of the pathways and scenarios, there is currently no explicit link between sustainability and justice, except for the approaches’ aspiration towards low-carbon and environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable cities. To clarify, their “social” considerations do not explicitly address injustice. In future applications of the approaches, justice considerations such as measures of social inequality could be incorporated as a focus of these tools. From a methodological perspective, a link between sustainability and justice exists when participatory scenario development is used.

Narrative of change

As global reserves of fossil fuels are diminished and GHGs are increasingly released, contributing to climate change, there is a pressing need for a large-scale shift away from carbon-based societies. Pathways & scenarios for post-carbon societies envision this future shift, and offer strategic guidance to policymakers such that cities can be more prepared for the future.

Transformative potential

Pathways and scenarios for post-carbon societies have the potential to be highly transformative since their purpose is to evaluate a major global shift away from current carbon-based systems. The degree of transformative potential depends on whether current power relations are problematised and challenged in the pathways/scenarios. The methodologies in this cluster do not clearly acknowledge issues of power with the exception of the Exploring Transition Pathways approach. In it, Path A represents a largely-maintained status quo, where incumbent actors hold onto their power, and technological substitution occurs rather then radical system change. Therefore, the transformative potential of pathways and scenarios, in future applications of its approaches, depends on its attention towards power relations and the willingness of researchers to consider a more radical transition to post-carbonism. Pathways and scenarios risk reproducing existing power relations if they are developed by powerful actors who wish to see their positions maintained (e.g. top-level bureaucrats or industry leaders). However, approaches like Participatory Scenario Development mitigate this risk by welcoming diverse voices expressing concern over current power relations.

Challenges of the approach were discussed at the arena#1 event in Rotterdam. They primarly include power issues in initiating and creating pathways and scenarios for post-carbon societies: Questions like "Who initiates", "Who is included" and "Who shows up" are central to the success of especially just scenario building processes.

This becomes especially important if the goal is to use quantitative indicators to measure successes as it is very difiicult to assess individual affects on people through those kind of indicators. The models assumptions have to be thoroughly explained when using quantitative indicators if the scenario building process aims at being transparent.

When creating Pathways and scenarios for post-carbon societies, it is therefore especially important to be explicit on:

  • methodologies (whether to use qualitative or quantitative indicators)
  • actors involved
  • how to get beyond usual suspects
  • reaching out to actors that are usually excluded (e.g housing activists, degrowth movement)

Illustration of approach

An illustrative example of Participatory Scenario Development, from POCACITO project is the vision workshop in Malmo, Sweden. Malmo, Sweden was one of the POCACITO case study cities. Part of the Participatory Scenario Development process involved a visioning workshop in which a variety of stakeholders (city officials, public transport company, a construction company, local university, and IT company) were brought together to produce a vision for a 2050 post-carbon Malmo. The visions included topics from good mobility to social equality and inclusion, and opportunities and limitations for reaching them. The workshop also mapped out short, medium, and long-term goals for the city and named relevant actors to champion them. Visioning exercises can serve as an inspirational foundation for more precise post-carbon pathways and scenarios. Unfortunately, certain social groups such as the young and elderly, and immigrants, were missing from the workshop. More workshop results are available in its report. [9]