Normative or exploratory – how should scenarios be developed?

In a time when there is much being written about limiting warming to 1.5°C, the so-called normative scenario has come of age. These emerge from a class of scenario analysis where a principal outcome is predetermined, rather than the traditional exploratory scenario which finds an outcome as a result of applied societal and geopolitical trends. In the case of 1.5°C scenario analysis, the story-line and findings are determined by the need to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and to limit cumulative CO2 emissions to some specified amount, which is the 1.5°C carbon budget. A further constraint is applied when a scenario with no or limited temperature overshoot is created. In that case the carbon budget would be rigidly enforced such that future atmospheric CO2 removal technologies and practices cannot be applied to correct an excess in shorter term CO2 emissions.

A no-overshoot 1.5°C normative scenario with a fixed carbon budget delivers a prescribed pathway that must be followed in order to achieve that same outcome in the real world; a recipe of sorts. However, picking and choosing certain parts of the pathway and calling for their implementation as policy approaches may be somewhat perilous; it could ignore inter-dependencies that the scenario requires for the outcome it achieves. Such is the case for the call to place a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects.

A new paper from researchers at University College London and the International Institute for Sustainable Development explores ways in which fossil fuel extraction can be curtailed, with their analysis opting for the development of a social-moral norm against completely new fossil fuel projects rather than an attempt to limit extraction from exiting projects or shut existing extraction sites down. The paper was recently discussed in a Financial Times article.

The researchers assess a range of 1.5°C scenarios compiled for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). For these particular scenarios the demand for oil, coal and gas can be met from fields and mines already in production or under development. The scenarios that they assess are the C1 scenarios (limiting warming to 1.5°C with low or no overshoot), including only those scenarios that do not exceed IPCC feasibility and sustainability thresholds on carbon sequestration. Such thresholds effectively exclude scenarios dependent on high levels of carbon sequestration technologies, such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which the authors argue are unproven at scale and which, if they failed to materialize, would pose a risk to the achievability of the 1.5° goal. While a tight limit on future CDR deployment can be a valid scenario assumption, it is a questionable assumption in the real world, given that society is now so close to the 1.5°C threshold.

In any case, the scenarios chosen by the researchers, like the IEA NZE Scenario, make some highly challenging assumptions about the energy system to meet the net-zero, no overshoot and carbon budget constraints imposed within them. These assumptions include reducing the demand for energy services such that fossil fuel demand falls even faster than would be the case based on substitution alone. The IEA had to make the same assumptions in its own NZE 2050 scenario and states the following on its website;

Clean energy technologies are deployed at unprecedented speed in the NZE Scenario, but many CO2-intensive energy assets will still be in use in 2030. Reducing their emissions or replacing them depends on scaling up novel or complex low-emissions solutions and deploying them around the world, and that will take time . . . . . . In the absence of energy demand reductions from behaviour change, achieving the same emissions reductions in end-uses would require ramping up low-emissions technologies at staggering speed. In aviation, the use of sustainable aviation fuel would need to increase more than twice as fast as in the NZE Scenario . . . . . . In road transport, the use of more EVs would require an additional 1.3 million tonnes of critical minerals by 2030 – roughly the amount of critical minerals used in the EV sector today . . . . .

Examples of the assumed IEA behavioural changes come from every sector. In the buildings sector, they include adjusting space heating and cooling temperatures. In the transport sector, they include more public transport and reduced car use in cities, eco-driving on highways and switching from planes to trains or videoconferencing.

As already noted, these behavioural changes mean that oil, gas and coal demand fall even faster than would be the case for a mitigation or substitution only story, which in turn allows the scenario to meet the carbon budget and no-overshoot constraints. This also means that the need for new fields and mines for fossil fuel production is reduced, to the extent that the scenario designers can then make the claim that no new fossil fuel production facilities are required.

We then come to the UCL/IISD report. Within the paper there is no mention of the need to see a long list of behavioural changes emerge across global society; rather, it launches into an analysis and discussion about the policy framework that should be implemented to limit development of further fossil fuel resources. The authors reach the conclusion that state and non-state proponents of ambitious climate action should engage in policy and advocacy aimed at diffusing and institutionalizing a social-moral norm against new fossil fuel projects. The researchers note that a social-moral norm is a standard of appropriate behaviour that is expected of an agent with a particular identity.

The problem with this argument is that it tackles the result of energy demand, rather than the cause. Simply shutting off supply will of course limit fossil fuel use, but the outcome could be very disruptive and have unintended consequences, such as limiting energy access to those most in need. If the solution to the carbon budget problem involves curtailing energy service demand, then surely the social-moral norm that the authors should have argued for is around limits on energy service use. This is basis for the so-called Flygskam in Sweden, a word that literally means “flight shame”. The movement discourages people from flying to lower carbon emissions. Japan used such a mechanism quite effectively after the Fukushima nuclear accident to encourage higher temperatures in buildings in the summer, therefore lowering the need for energy for air conditioning.

But shaming and aggressive persuasion aren’t always welcome and may have a limited duration before reversion kicks in. The Sierra Club argued in a 2023 article that climate-obsessed travelers should ditch the guilt and support efforts to cut aviation’s carbon footprint. They saw three problems with the shaming approach – it puts the burden on individuals, rather than accelerating the systems changes that will cut carbon from flight; it simply won’t scale as flying is a large and growing sector, and we live in a diverse, interconnected, and increasingly mobile world; finally, other solutions do exist and need to be scaled rapidly. The article concludes that society needs to support the kinds of policies and investments that will allow fossil-fuel-free travel. But then the aforementioned IEA issue of speed of deployment crops up and the carbon budget is under threat once again.

While the arguments put forward in the UCL/IISD paper are cogent and thought through, they do over-simplify a complex problem. In fact, there isn’t a simple solution to the 1.5°C issue, even though many argue that there is. Perhaps the root of the problem is a gospel like belief in extreme normative scenarios that only deal with the period from now to 2050, rather than attempting to understand the alternative solutions and outcomes that full century exploratory scenarios can highlight.

The Shell Energy Security Scenarios offer such insight. Sky 2050 is a blend of normative and exploratory, in that it does meet the goal of net-zero emissions in 2050 and does adhere to a 1.5°C carbon budget, but it explores the possible outcomes more holistically, embracing near term stubbornness (for change) in the energy system, land use reform, future industrial removals and carbon credit trading, all part of a world also transitioning rapidly towards a new energy system. Archipelagos is an exploratory only scenario. It recognizes the accelerating rate of the energy transition as multiple pressures are placed on it, including climate action, supply disruption and price volatility. Both scenarios extend their analysis beyond 2050 and chart a course through the second half of the century, a necessity to fully understand where the energy system is ultimately headed. The often used end-point of 2050 for energy system scenario analysis is now too near for such scenarios to offer an appropriate solution set for the Paris Agreement goals.

You can find The Energy Security Scenarios here.

Note: Shell Scenarios are not predictions or expectations of what will happen, or what will probably happen. They are not expressions of Shell’s strategy, and they are not Shell’s business plan; they are one of the many inputs used by Shell to stretch thinking whilst making decisions. Read more in the Definitions and Cautionary note. Scenarios are informed by data, constructed using models and contain insights from leading experts in the relevant fields. Ultimately, for all readers, scenarios are intended as an aid to making better decisions. They stretch minds, broaden horizons and explore assumptions.

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