GSI Policy Network and EEIST Project Lecture – Simon Sharpe: Deciding how to decide, to accelerate low carbon transitions

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

March 4th GSI hosted a special joint seminar between the GSI Policy Network and the Economics and Energy Innovation and Systems Transition Group. Simon Sharpe gave an insightful and important talk on context and consequence of how governments make decision around policy, and how this shapes our effectiveness of addressing climate change. Given the speed required to act and the challenges that surround the need to globally decarbonise, a different approach of decision making is required. Simon Sharpe discusses the changes required.


Simon Sharpe is Deputy Director at the UK Government’s Cabinet Office COP26 Unit, where he leads on international campaigns to accelerate low carbon transition. He has had an extensive career collaborating internationally leading on climate change strategy and how governments can assess climate risk. Simon is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, a Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, member of the UCL Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science, and on the advisory board of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.


Simon introduced how decisions are shaped in government, laying out that a changing global economy that needs to change 5x faster to satisfy the Paris agreement, relies on the policy decisions. This amounts to 3 questions for decisions making:

  • Whether to act at all?
  • How much effort to make
  • Where to direct effort

These questions have been asked for most policy decisions, but responding to the requirements of climate change action is creating new assumptions and principles around these questions with new evidence contrasting to what was previously practiced.


Whether to act at all

Whether to act was previously asked in terms of whether the economy is changing and/or whether it can be optimised. Simon explained how the industrial strategy was to not act, with the assumption that unless there is market failure the economy is at an optimal state. Evidence opposes this, showing that constraints can actually accelerate innovation. For example; energy efficiency standards pushed prices down from the innovations that addressed new requirements. Simon highlighted that this not only shows the economy is therefore not in a optimum state, but also that tougher standards can achieve higher investment into innovation.

We can also see that economies change through their allocation (how quantities and prices defined) and formation (how economy emerges and grows). Through human history has witnessed an economy transition from stones to spaceships, as well as a secular increase in goods and services diversity. Simon then presented the idea that economy could be viewed as an evolving ecosystem. With a dynamic evolutionary view, constraints can shift resources from ecploitation to exploration – instead of creation distortion and inefficiency as argued in the static view. This creates the following:

New Assumptions

  • Economy has no optimal state
  • Always changing
  • Policy can influence the rate and direction of its evolution

New Principles

  • Act to prepare for change that is likely
  • Act to bring about change that is desirable
  • Act to avoid change that is undesirable

How much effort to make

Simon then explained how traditionally the decision of how much effort to make was devised, on the basis of a ‘machine’ economy that was predictable and made up of parts with one purpose. This was set on the principles to maximise the ratio of cost and benefit, and assess as single dimensions. With assumptions that future costs and benefits were predictable and quantifiable, and that value can be objectively converted. The realities of climate change contrast these ideas, especially as climate change impacts and solutions and technological advancements are uncertain. Further, value is contingent on the user, use and context. As a result, Simon puts forwards new assumptions and principles that adhere to this policy decision:

New Assumptions

  • Important future costs and benefits are uncertain
  • Value is contingent not intrinsic

New Principles

  • Assess risks and opportunities as well as costs and benefits
  • Assess outcomes in multiple dimensions

Where to direct the effort

Simon then discussed the final decision making question. Traditional principles and assumptions assessed options individually with minimal focus in effort application, as environments and relationships were unchanged by policy and economy was in equilibrium. In reality, the economy is a complex system of different component parts that are influenced by interactions and feedbacks. ‘Systems thinking’ helps understand this in a better way, to identify leverage and tipping points. Hence, a targeted carbon price approach is needed to reach tipping points in different industries. This creates new sets of principles and assumptions:

New Assumptions

  • Behaviour systems emerge from interactions between components
  • The economy is in disequilibrium

New Principles

  • Assess policies in combination
  • Assess effect of policy on process of change
  • Act on points of greatest leverage

A subset of where to direct effort is concerned with what technological advancement to choose – which traditionally was done in a way to apply effort to be ‘technology-neutral’, and that the market will discover best available technologies and so policies can be neutral. Once again Simon exposed a different reality, that the economy is path dependent and emerges from it’s technologies, which as a result means no action is neutral. All actions have capacity to influence future pathways and possibilit8ies of the economy, therefore it’s important to choose deliberately, and not unconsciously.


Simon has made clear that the way we approach and undertake decisions concerning the economy require new thought and consideration, especially in the context of climate change. Old assumptions do not stand up to the realities we are having to address. Decision makers must understand the nature of the problems, which may not fit their previous practices. Urgency to do this right is clear, becoming more clear with how impactful policy change can be. There seems to still be hope yet!

To watch the seminar given by Simon as well as the Q&A session followed, you can view it here.

More information about Deciding how to Decide can be found in the working paper.

Keep up to date with the EEIST Project on their website.

Stay on These Roads

A Note from Tim (Global Systems Institute Director)

I have been hunting high and low for examples of positive tipping points towards sustainability. Collaborating with Simon Sharpe in the UK Cabinet Office COP26 team we recently showed  a clear tipping point in the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway – where they cost the same to buy as a petrol or diesel car thanks to policy incentives. But it turns out there is more to this story than enlightened top-down governance. My train of thought was happily disrupted on discovering Robbie Andrew’s twitter thread  showing how pop band A-ha played a decisive role in introducing electric car incentives in Norway. It beautifully illustrates how apparently small actions can lead to transformative social and technological change. We all need to stay on these roads, or rather join A-ha and Norway on them.

Posted 18/03/2021

A reflection on zero carbon Exeter, Natalie Bennett and activism – Malwina Grzesikiewicz

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the ‘What Would a Zero Carbon City Look Like?’ talk with Natalie Bennet, organised by the Global Systems Institute and Transition Exeter. The event was well attended, with the lecture theatre packed full, and some concern from organisers that too many people would turn up for the number of seats available.

It was wonderful to see so many students and residents taking an interest in making our cities more environmentally friendly. Natalie said very early on that when discussing climate problems she aims to focus on hope, and the diverse audience certainly perpetuated that feeling. It often seems as though there is no dialogue between students and the local community in Exeter, so it was great to see this common interest in tackling climate change; and a sign, surely, that collaboration between students and Exeter’s permanent residents could bring Exeter closer to ending its dependence on carbon.

The event highlighted a range of initiatives that aim to achieve this target. We first heard from Transition Exeter about the range of community projects that they oversee, all aiming to reduce Exeter’s carbon consumption. Their projects, which offer creative ways of reducing carbon dependency, are definitely something to check out. This was followed by a notice from students involved in Youth Strike for Climate, who at the time were helping to organise the Fridays for Future school strike which took place on March 15, 2019. These school strikes, which have now happened twice in Exeter, are part of a much broader movement aiming to pressure local and central governments to take more decisive action to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and prevent the climate disaster that we are otherwise heading towards.

It was then Natalie’s turn to speak, and her message was both insightful and uplifting. Without diminishing the dangers of the impending climate catastrophe, she presented its prevention as achievable. She cited studies that demonstrated the feasibility of reducing our carbon consumption and the positive effects of such initiatives on society as well as the environment. Importantly, she made it obvious that instead of framing sustainability in terms of sacrifice, we should instead look forward to the benefits that it will bring to our society.

Progress towards a zero carbon city can be gradual and organic; relying more on buses, cycling, and walking while reducing the number of cars in use, pedestrianizing roads, and shopping at independent shops that source their produces locally. Of course engagement and active support from governments would be key to the success of this initiative. We would need to insulate all homes to reduce dependency on heating, increase the accessibility of public transport, and ensure that the interests of local businesses were protected over those of international corporations.

The benefits of reducing our dependence on carbon would be immense. Apart from helping us reduce the rate of human-caused climate change, there would be more noticeable and local benefits. Anyone who has walked or driven through Exeter at rush hour will know how congested the roads are. Relying on buses or walking would reduce traffic, making public transport more efficient and our streets safer. Walking and cycling would also be beneficial to our physical health, increasing the time we spend exercising while reducing the pollution and congestion on our streets. Depending on local businesses would ensure that more capital remained in the local economy, stimulating entrepreneurship and projects that supported and were responsive to the needs of the local community. A message which I found particularly inspiring was that zero carbon cities are dependent on everyone feeling empowered to work with their neighbours and colleagues to build a city that they wish to have. This collaboration and support within the community is truly something to aspire to.

The talk was followed by a long Q&A session which helped to highlight local concerns about the viability of a zero carbon Exeter. Questions were asked about how to best encourage shopping in local and independent shops, establish a circular economy, and introduce sustainability and conservation into school curriculums. Concerns were raised over the alternatives to carbon and the problems relating to the necessity of travel and the expense and inaccessibility of public transport. There was considerable interest in how to best promote making Exeter a zero carbon city, and how viable such a project was. A dominant theme in Natalie’s answers was that progress towards zero carbon was more dependent on institutional changes than on individuals’ behaviour such as giving up meat or single use plastic. She encouraged living sustainably, but her focus was definitely on the importance of campaigning for institutional change that would make the move towards zero carbon cities possible.

Campaigning, of course, sounds difficult and time consuming, but there is evidence that getting more people involved would not be hard. The Youth Strike for Climate event, which took place on March 15, was motivated by the actions of the inspiring teenager and now a Nobel peace prize nominee, Greta Thunberg. Her solitary protest in front of the Swedish parliament has developed into a school strike which took place in 125 countries and involved more than a million students. So small challenges to institutional inaction can lead to big changes, and there is clearly an appetite for environmental change. It can be seen internationally, but also locally, in the lecture theatre where a group of people gathered to listen about how to make their city a zero carbon city. So sharing the urgent message of climate change, organising, and petitioning governing bodies for more resolute action is definitely something that the inhabitants of Exeter can and should do.

Malwina Grzesikiewicz, University of Exeter Student

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Part 2

22/01/2019 Northern Rangelands Trust HQ, Lewa

It’s just not possible in a 3 day visit to get to grips with the scale of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which comprises 35 member conservancies covering 42,000 square kilometres, let alone in a short blog post. The team here at NRT HQ in Lewa Wildilife Conservancy have been incredibly generous hosts though, and have made sure that our short time has been filled with as much as we can possibly take in.

Having read a bit about NRT’s extraordinary successes and inspiring history, I confess to feeling a little intimidated on our arrival. Flying north around the spectacular stratovolcano of Mt Kenya, over farms built on convoluted ridges of volcanic soil, I wondered what we could bring that NRT didn’t have already. The usual ‘imposter syndrome’ coupled with a sense that these guys really, really know their stuff.

Such feelings were quickly dispelled though, as we sat down with NRT’s executive group to explain why we are here, and to hear their thoughts on what a potential relationship with GSI could do for the community conservancies they support. One thing was immediately clear. There is an enormous appetite here to tell the stories of the interconnected impacts that community conservancies are having; securing peace in a previously volatile region, diversifying and increasing livelihoods in an extremely poor population, restoring degraded landscapes and building resilience against drought and overgrazing.

Managed grazing area in Kalama Conservancy

If we can contribute to understanding and quantifying those impacts better, NRT will be able to use that information in several ways. It can help to build trust with communities and show them that being involved really pays off. It can show funders that their support has had deep and long-lasting impacts. It can show governments that supporting communities to take ownership of the health of their landscapes can provide a sustainable pathway to materially improving people’s lives while promoting biodiversity. And it can help other people in other places to take a similar approach.

What is that approach? In a nutshell, rather than leave conservation to the national government, NGOs and wealthy private landowners, poor communities of traditional livestock herders are setting up conservancies of their own. The conservancies are run by a team of managers and rangers, all community members themselves, who answer to an elected board of decision makers representing a cross section of the communities within the conservancy area. This provides a mechanism for collectively managing grazing, monitoring wildlife and vegetation, deterring poaching and livestock theft, and developing wildlife tourism that brings income directly to the communities. NRT is the umbrella body that provides training, monitoring tools and financial support, and coordinates a rapid response team of rangers who can deploy in case of poaching threats and other conflicts. The management of NRT itself is answerable to a Board of Elders comprising members of each member conservancy.

At the root of the astonishing impact that this network has had is the community-led governance structure, which above all else has provided a mechanism for diffusing conflict between people of the 16 different ethnicities who live in the region. Traditionally, inter-tribal cattle theft and grazing incursions are common and with easily available illegal firearms violent conflict in the area has been a real problem. If you provide the conditions for peace, all sorts of other opportunities open up.

We’ve had a packed 3 days meeting communities, seeing an NRT training session, getting to grips with the monitoring programs and seeing first hand the regenerative power of good grazing management. The one thing I was utterly unprepared for, having read lots about badly degraded grazing land, was the incredible beauty and richness of the Lewa Conservacy where NRT have their headquarters. In two short drives after work we have seen more wildlife than I ever expected to see in my life, including the black rhino that Lewa was originally established to protect. I feel immensely privileged to be here. Lewa is where the whole thing started, and just goes to show what an enormous difference can be made by being open to new ideas and pursuing a vision.

 

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Tom Powell

Everyone should see the world from a plane window from time to time. Seeing the world from a fresh angle is like stepping back from a painting, tilting your head to the side and shutting one eye; it opens the mind to seeing new patterns and making connections that might have been missed. Images of Earth from space taken by the Apollo crews half a century ago fundamentally altered our perceptions of ourselves and the dynamic, beautiful, ostensibly fragile but surprisingly robust living planet we inhabit. Seeing the surface of the Earth from 40,000 feet remains a spectacular reminder that our home planet is a pretty special place.

Watching the sun set over the Nile as we flew across the Nubian desert yesterday evening, the ribbon of water reflecting the light seemed to physically tie the landscape together. In the absence of national boundaries drawn on a map, the river is the defining feature of Northern East Africa and seeing it like this you can almost feel the fundamental role it plays in sustaining, connecting and provoking conflict throughout the region. A patch of huge circular irrigated fields surrounded by the barren desert was a vivid reminder of the vulnerability of the whole system.

It felt fitting to be flying over one of the earliest cradles of human civilisation, of which the foundation of the entire culture was the seasonal rise and fall of the river waters, on our way to talk to people who are finding new ways to build sustainable relationships with their landscapes and ecosystems in a world in which humans have become a global force.

With my colleague Becky Stedham of The Landscapes and Livelihoods Group, I’m in Kenya to learn about two organisations who have developed models for communities to take ownership of the conservation and restoration of the ecological health of their landscapes. In doing this they are increasing and diversifying their livelihoods and becoming more resilient to climate change and other dangers.

A peaceful Sunday morning in Nairobi before heading North

First, we are travelling North from Nairobi around the flanks of Mt Kenya to visit the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT); a group of community conservancies who together cover a vast area of Kenya. Following that we will be spending time with The International Small Group Tree Planting Program (TIST), visiting members who farm smallholdings in the volcanic soils surrounding Mt Kenya and Meru. Partnerships with organisations like these are really exciting opportunities for us to work with groups having truly significant impacts in their communities and landscapes. Our goal is to get to know them better and begin to understand how they work so that we can start to explore how as a research community we can support them in monitoring, understanding and extending their impacts.

Building relationships with people experiencing the day to day and year on year challenges of environmental and social change is at the core of what we want to do at the GSI. In doing so, our intention is that we can use our research capacity to support them in understanding the changes taking place and developing useful responses. The funding for this trip, from the UK Government’s  Global Challenges Research Fund, is intended to support the development of these relationships and it’s fantastic that such opportunities exist. We also want to learn as much as we can about groups that seem to be doing really well at connecting the wellbeing, opportunities and resilience of people with the ecological health of the landscapes they inhabit. If we can understand something about why these projects are so succesful, then we may be able to help others build these kind of win-win approaches elsewhere.

So for now, we’re really excited to be heading north early tomorrow morning, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about the NRT in a few days time!