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Low carbon energy economy with socioeconomic benefits

These days the news is filled with reports and questions around energy. How is the kind of energy we use affecting the climate? How do we use energy sources sustainably? The questions now also include: how do we ensure that changes have a minimal impact on the economy, in particular jobs and the lives of the poor?

The latter question is central to South Africa’s 2011 National Development Plan (NDP) chapter on transitioning to a low carbon economy. Professor Harald Winkler led the research that had a significant impact on changing South African thinking around climate change action — so it can deliver socio-economic benefits, such as reducing poverty and inequality.

An internationally-acclaimed researcher, Winkler is a professor at the multi-disciplinary Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town. Winkler focus over the past 10 years has been to “research sustainable energy for all in the context of a just transition to low carbon economies”.

The professor’s work has contributed to the information and evidence needed for this transition and has informed energy and climate policy at national and international level. He has published extensively on this topic, advised several international journals, co-organised conferences, supervised postgraduate students and won awards, amongst other things. He was also a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth and fifth assessment reports.

Beyond the focus in the NDP, affordable and clean energy is number seven of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nations sees sustainable energy for all as so critical that the years 2014 to 2024 have been declared the “decade of sustainable energy for all”. Sustainable energy for all is also the theme of this year’s awards by the National Science and Technology Forum.

Long term mitigation scenario process

Around 2005, South Africa was preparing for the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. At this point, the country had no climate policy or international commitment on how much to reduce emissions. One of the initiatives mandated by the South African Cabinet was the long-term mitigation scenario (LTMS) process, falling under the then department of environmental affairs and tourism.

Running from 2006 to 2008, Winkler led the research informing this process, together with many others. There were various innovations, driven by Winkler, including the core idea of how to include the best available scientific information in stakeholder processes and for informed government decisions.

So what was the LTMS process? It was a facilitated process where stakeholders were shown different greenhouse gas emission trajectories for South Africa between 2010 and 2050. These trajectories were created using data and computer modelling tools. The national energy models had been developed at the Energy Research Centre.

Socio-economic costs, or indeed benefits, were analysed using a computable general equilibrium model and the implication of various scenarios for gross domestic product, job creation and poverty reduction were outlined. This was innovative in itself — moving from energy models that just showed direct impact on the energy sector to showing what happens across the economy.

This information helped shift climate change from a purely environmental issue. “It’s fundamentally a socio-economic issue,” says Winkler. “If mitigation loses even one job, that is one job too many. Fortunately, we now see opportunities to both reduce emissions and poverty-inequality.”

The process involved a series of meetings of the core stakeholder team, called the Scenario Building Team. This included a range of stakeholders from government and big business to local municipalities and civil society. “The social process of discussing the scenarios and mitigating actions is critical,” explains Winkler. There is a need for people with different concerns to be part of the discussion to understand the issue holistically.

In 2007, the findings from the Scenario Building Team process went into high-level policy consultations based on considerations from the long-term mitigation process. Then in 2008, Cabinet released a vision, strategic direction and framework for climate change.

The LTMS process had generated a set of scenarios. These mapped out where emissions were going without constraints to where science said they should be.

The “growth without constraints” scenario showed a fourfold increase in emissions. There were a number of scenarios between this and the “required by science” scenario. The latter showed an emissions path where South Africa would make an equal global mitigation effort — as defined by the panel on climate change’s report.

“Based on the LTMS technical work, the South African Cabinet considered results and agreed in 2008 that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions should ‘peak, plateau and decline’ from 2015 to 2050. This was unprecedented among major developing countries at the time, with only a smaller country, Costa Rica, having indicated a goal of carbon neutrality,” explains Winkler.

The “peak, plateau and decline” trajectory became part of national policy in 2011, when Cabinet approved the National Climate Change Response White Paper. However, the trajectory was never modelled. It was a political decision, based on the scientific evidence, to go this route. The idea was to go close to what is required by science but to give South Africa more space — both as a developing country and as a country that had not previously contributed to the same large emissions as other countries.

In 2015, South Africa submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the twenty-third Conference of the Parties, which negotiated the Paris Agreement. “The mitigation component of our INDC takes the form of a peak, plateau and decline trajectory,” notes Winkler.

Mitigation action plans and scenarios

Mitigation action plans and scenarios (MAPS) was a programme which shared the experience of the South African long-term mitigation process with other developing countries. The programme, which ran from 2010 to 2015, built national scenarios to inform action towards a lower emissions future in four Latin American countries: Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru.

“The aim was to help combat climate change while fostering development, through contributing to an emerging body of knowledge, with a long-term impact on policy making, planning and the institutionalisation of climate mitigation strategies;” says Winkler.

He was the MAPS international research director and led the publication of methodological advances in linking models.

The work undertaken by MAPS teams in Chile, Colombia and Peru formed the primary evidence base for those countries’ INDCs. The Brazilian version of MAPS was called IES Brasil, focusing on the socio-economic implications.

“The future of this research is to understand development pathways that reduce both GHG emissions as well as poverty and inequality,” comments Winkler. “We learned as much from the Brazilians as they learned from our experience.”

Interdisciplinary and co-production of knowledge

“In both the LTMS process and MAPS, the key is co-production of knowledge,” explains Winkler.

Beyond the range of stakeholders, the research and analysis teams were interdisciplinary, including social scientists, policy analysts and economists.

The LTMS experience demonstrated that the various types of academic input had much greater influence on energy and climate policy when co-produced with stakeholders. This had impact well beyond traditional research projects. Both the LTMS and MAPS led to multiple academic publications.

Considering the future

Winkler says the vision is to build on the approach pioneered in LTMS and MAPS, moving from largely “climate first” to “development and climate”. His future research agenda will focus on inequality and mitigation in that context. He is also seeking to establish a chair in climate policy. 

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