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.

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Femke Nijsse and Dr Kirsten Lees: ECR Special

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

For the final seminar of the term we hosted an Early Career Researcher special event. We were excited to host a pair of impressive researchers within the GSI; Dr Femke Nijsse and Dr Kirsten Lees.

Dr Femke Nijsse: Emergent constraints on climate sensitivity from historical warming and models

Dr Nijsse gave a talk on her the work of her PhD exploring the climate model uncertainties on both transient timescales and long-term projections. Dr Nijsse introduced the difficulty around predicting climate change: bottom-up methods which use climate models and are limited by feedback and aerosol uncertainty. While top-down methods which use accurate historical temperature rise and radiative forcing and ocean heat uptake. Emergent contraints modelling permits the use of both of these methods which can provide climate sensitivity.

Dr Nijsse explored ways to address uncertainty – specifically with aerosols, whereby for periods of lesser aerosol influence can be used. How well models are able to constrain estimates, can be explained by grouping their sensitivity. To then apply an Emergent Constraints Model, Dr Nijsse laid out the following methods:

  1. Use historical warming since 1975 (for relative aerosol stability)
  2. Compute model ECS and TCR
  3. Model historical warming
  4. Determine function form of emergent constraint

Dr Nijsse also exposed how the ratio relationship between ECS and TCR can increase with climate sensitivity, as some models with a moderate TCR values can exhibit a higher range of ECS values. From her research, Dr Nijsse concluded it would be unlikely for an ECS > 4.5 K and TCR > 2.5 K. ECS may also be restricted using ocean heat uptake.

To end her seminar, Dr Nijsse also introduced her current work on her postdoc with the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition Project. The project is an international effort to enhance energy-environment-economy models, and integrate non-equilibrium ideas into equilibrium models. Dr Nijsse is modelling the challenges of renewable energy – from variability in wind and sun production to diffusion and learning of cost and storage.

Dr Kirsten Lees: Peatland Resilience

Dr Lees talk was on her Peatland Resilience research. Introduced with what Peatlands are and the suite of ecosystem services they offer – ranging from Carbon storage, flood management and biodiversity. Dr Lees then explained how to assess the resilience of these systems, using indicators from remotely sensed data. To measure resilience, the following steps can be applied to a site:

  1. Choose a resilience metric
  2. Detect a disturbance event
  3. Measure recovery time

Dr Lees has applied these steps to water levels and vegetation burn recovery to understand peatland resilience. From her analysis, Dr Lees suggests a complex interaction of factors influencing peatland resilience. Restoration and wildfire are factors with the most potential to alter peatland resilience, and so will be important to observe in the future.

This seminar was a great opportunity to hear about the impressive work being done by researchers at the start of their career, as well as a fresh insight into the diverse research of the GSI.

To watch these two talks and the questions from the audience, click this link.

If you would like to give a talk at a future seminar, please contact event organisers Daneen Cowling ( and Guy Lomax (

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

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Kimberley Simpson: Whodunnit? The Case of the Vanishing Savannas

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

The delicate balance between C3 trees and C4 grasses that has characterised the global Savannahs for millennia is now being compromised, threatening the existence of this biome. In this seminar, Dr Simpson assesses the potential ‘culprits’ behind the case of the vanishing Savannas,

Dr Simpson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, in the department of Animal and Plant Science within the Osbourne Lab. Dr Simpson is broadly occupied in how processes create and maintain phenotypic diversity and how traits influence such processes. She is currently involved in a project investigating abiotic and biotic factors in woody encroachment in Savannas. She collaborates on field work with Rhodes University in South Africa, and is expanding on her PhD which investigated fire influence on grass functional traits.

To layout her investigation of what is causing a reduced Savanna, Dr Simpson first explained the context of the ‘victim’ in the case – the characteristics and geographic distribution of Savannah ecosystems. Then the ‘crime’ – the encroachment of trees and diminishing Savannah grasslands. Although the increased tree cover could have benefits in the form of increased fuel wood and Carbon sequestration, negative implications in the form of reduced foraging, groundwater, visibility and ecotourism also occur. But most detrimental, the shift threatens the many species reliant on these open landscapes.

Dr Simpson took the audience through a storyboard of potential ‘suspects’:

  1. Reduced Fire Frequency: Intensive grazing and fragmentation is contributing to a reducing in fire frequency. This is detrimental for grasses that are able to thrive and out-compete trees in systems of high fire frequency due to faster regeneration and shorter life-cycles of grasses relative to trees. Changes in fire frequency also drive phenotypic divergence in Savanna grasses, with a reduction coinciding with a reduction in ‘seeder’ species. This creates a feedback whereby fire frequency changes alter community composition, which as a result changes flammability. Current observations show a reduced fire frequency = more trees can reach maturity = grass biomass reduces = reduced flammability contributing to the reduced fire frequency trend.
  2. Elevated CO2: C3 trees have a high growth response to elevated CO”, whereas C4 grasses do not. But – elevated CO2 cannot explain the spatial variability in savanna change.
  3. Rainfall: Encorachment also correlates with rainfall and likely interacts with CO2 via stromata – C4 grasses have an improved photosynthetic rate during drought, whereas C3 trees respond well to high CO2 and H2O.

Dr Simpson concluded her investigation with the verdict: more evidence is needed!

In her upcoming projects, Dr Simpson hopes to unpick the various interactions, as well as the role of plant functional traits, as the case of the Savanna encroachment continues. Dr Simpson also hopes to investigate new influences in the case – such as the role of elephants able to bulldoze trees to maintian the ecosystem, and the controls of species that allows some to proper better than others.

To watch the recording of Dr Simpsons talk and the Q&A, click this link.

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Federico Demaria: The Case for Degrowth


Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog

Can we live simply so others can simply live?

In this seminar, Dr Demaria explores the controversial thinking of a systems shift to degrowth, as a solution to many of the economical, societal and environmental challenges our capitalist society has produced.

Dr Demaria is an interdisciplinary socio-environmental scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (Autonomous University of Barcelona). He works on economics of ecology, ecology of politics and human geography. Dr Demaria is the deputy coordinator of EnvJustice project that studies and contributes to the global environmental justice movement. He is also an influential critique of  ecological and cultural critique of (sustainable) development. Through his critiques he has proposed transformative alternatives to current ways of living – degrowth. Dr Demaria has explored this alternative in the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (with Giorgos Kallis and Giacomo D’Alisa), as well as his most recent bookThe Case for Degrowth (with Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa).

Dr Demaria structured his seminar to the key chapters of his book. Making very clear the from the start that this proposal is meant to be controversial, Dr Demaria set the context for the current systems we operate and how they support the obsession with growth. He also outlines how growth cannot be compatible with sustainability, evidenced by the current environmental crisis we are faced with. Hence, we cannot solve everything with economic growth, and a different society is needed to prosper without growth.

Dr Demaria argued to satisfy degrowth it would be crucial to reduce the Global North consumption. Acceleration of growth has amounted to an accelerated environmental sacrifice. Adoption of western lifestyle and want to be ‘rich’ has fuelled this, driven by belief this is the only route for living.

But is degrowth even feasible? Dr Demaria addressed this by explaining how as a society, we are cooperative. The history of our society and it’s success exemplifies that. Dr Demaria elaborated on how there is a wealth of the commons, that by being in the commons, you are part of the change you want to see. This is important – because there will not be positive change unless people actually want it, and to want it we must have spaces to see the alternatives. Supporting and operating in cooperative commons would allow such a space.

Looking to the future, Dr Demaria also highlighted how, unlike proposals of circular economy and other ‘sustainable’ shifts that still prioritise growth, degrowth is the only path that stays within the 2C warmer future. Furthermore, degrowth in the global North will reduce pressure of exploitation in the global South. Important especially in the context that the most powerful limit of resources, is their use.

Dr Demaria gave an incredibly interesting talk, followed by many questions. To see the full talk and the QA, view the recording here.

Link to Book:  The Case for Degrowth

Link to recent article: The case for degrowth in a time of pandemic


GSI Seminar Blog: Ayesha Tandon (Science Journalist at Carbon Brief)

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s blog post 

Ayesha shared her insights and reflections from experience with climate change communication from a range of lenses. Her talk was interactive, thought provoking and was a great reflection exercise for academics to assess how we conduct our own communication.

As well as climate communication at Carbon Brief, Ayesha has also had science communication experience at governmental bodies (The Met Office), and in academia during her MSci Natural Science student at Exeter.

As lead science editor for the undergraduate STEM journal at Exeter University, Ayesha describe practices in academic models of communication, familiar to her academic audience. Highlighting how the audiences of scientific papers are confined to the same academic circles the authors are within. The specialist and technical language used in these papers to communicate ideas and arguments with accuracy, make them inaccessible to those without this knowledge – even if they have the want to be engaged.

Ayesha then went on to explain how the style, format and emphasis of science communication shifts outside of academia, in the cases of the Met Office and Carbon Brief. Both parallel in assumptions their readers do not get further than the first couple paragraphs of a piece. Ayesha explained the importance of “frontloading” – ensuring all key bits you want the reader to take in and go away with – are at the very start.

Also important to these communication outlets were use of graphics to explain the statistical results. In academia there is a responsibility to communicate results precisely, but as told by Ayesha’s experience at the Met Office and Carbon Brief; numbers are not well received by government and general public audiences. Instead, infographics are more engaging and accessible.

Ayesha shared some great examples of infographics, highlighting how informative they can be without the need for the full context. One example used were the ‘Climate Stripes’ by Ed Hawkins. This visualisation has been so impactful because it’s accessible – redundant of any text or numbers, the colours are universally understood.


Example of infographics used to communicate climate science. From l Met Office State of the UK climate 2019

Ayesha concluded her talk with key takeaways she’s gained from her climate communication experiences:

  • The pace and expectation of what’s achievable of these three institutes are different – media is rapid
  • Frontloading – pushing important information to the front with assumption reader will not get to the end of your piece
  • Social media can be useful for an accessible range of people – from academic to lay

“[Social media] will always be useful to invest in … to gain new audiences or inform your existing audience. It’s important as scientists we communicate our research .. if you don’t take any effort to try to communicate it to a lay audience you’ve missed out on the vast majority on the population.”

Ayesha Tandon, the importance of social media for science communication

This interesting talk was followed with an array of questions – keen to learn more from Ayeshas experiences to become better science communicators to non-academic audiences.

Questions from the audience:

  • How much interaction do you have with the scientist(s) who wrote the paper you’re doing a piece on?
  • It’s easier to get a lot of coverage on the bad news stories than the good news stories – we know what the problem is but we need to come together on the solutions, how can we push the positiveness?
  • What kind of papers were you covering for the government/what were they interested in for Met Office government briefing?
  • How do you communicate uncertainty in science to the public?
  • Do we really have to use emojis when communicating on twitter, if so which ones should we be using?
  • Is the increased speed of communication of climate the most effective way to communicate?

You can watch Ayesha’s Seminar and get her answers to the questions on the University of Exeter GSI YouTube playlist, here

If you would like to speak at a GSI seminar, please contact 

Date: 22/02/2021

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Will Seviour: Stratospheric Ozone Depletion and its Impact on Climate

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

Today (03/02/2021) saw the second seminar in the GSI Spring Seminar Series of 2021. We hosted speaker Dr Will Seviour, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Department of Mathematics, and the GSI.

Dr Saviour is a relatively new academic at Exeter, but brings with him a wealth of experience and specialism in Ozone and large-scale Earth System dynamics from the University of Oxford, John Hopkins University and University of Bristol. Dr Seviour’s work now looks into climate and extreme weather consequences of Arctic warming, and coupled dynamics of Southern Ocean dynamics – the topic of his talk.

Dr Seviour introduced the importance of ozone and it’s role as a planetary boundary – central to a habitable Earth. Ozone was also shown to have practical importance to the success of the sustainable development goals.

However, Dr Seviour soon delved into the consequences of the current state of ozone attention, it’s depletion. Ozone Depletion Substances (ODS) e.g. CFC’s, were shown to have had a strong control on Ozone, trending with their emission and eventual regulation. They were also shown to be powerful greenhouse gases.

Dr Seviour invited the audience to an interactive quiz, to rank where ODS sit amongst other common greenhouse gases (CO2, N2O and CH4) in radiative forcing. This produced the surprising result that ODS were only second to CO2 in their forcing, accounting for a 1/3 of warming effects of CO2 since the mid 20th Century. This strength was also identifiable in warming impacts – even by simulating models with only the forcing of ODS (and not other greenhouse gases), trends in Arctic melting were still observable. The focus then shifted to the south pole; why there is more ozone depletion over Antarctica and how it’s variable with atmospheric dynamics.

The ozone situation definitely wasn’t doom and gloom, as Dr Seviour then discussed the long term ‘healing’ trends being observed and modelled. Since a reduction in CFCs from the Montreal Agreement, and an assessment every 4 years on ODS, ozone depletion has started showing signs of recovery. But when would ozone return back to 1960 levels? Dr Seviour again invited the audience to an interactive quiz, to give their best estimates of the return for global and Antarctic levels of ozone. Majority of the guesses were around the current predictions of 2060 and 2090 respectively.

Thanks to a warming climate, the recovery may be even faster due to changes in stratospheric circulation. But, true to the Earth system, these changes will not be linear. Dr Seviour explained that this would lead to a cooling Southern Ocean, which would expand sea ice around Antarctica, then shift polar jets. Yet, there would still likely be a long term warming trend – driven by upwelling.

Dr Seviour’s talk left us with a new appreciation with the importance of ozone, and it’s climate control – whether that be through it’s greenhouse gas equivalent forcing, or the atmospheric dynamics it influences.

Several interesting questions followed, which Dr Seviour answered in detail as well as directing to follow-up resources.

You can watch Dr Seviours full talk here

To learn more about Dr Seviours work, you can view his publications and research projects on his personal website

Business Green – Positive tipping points to net zero and how to finance them

Professor Tim Lenton, GSI & Eoin Murray, Federated Hermes
Published in Business Green 1st December 2020

The finance sector has the means, and the scientists have the data, to
model interventions with much greater impact than we see today, explain
Federated Hermes’ Eoin Murray, and Tim Lenton from the Global Systems

Of President-elect Joe Biden’s many campaign commitments to address
the climate crisis, the most significant is the United States re-joining the
Paris climate agreement. Climate change is a global issue and requires
an international response, and American leadership is critical to success.
Biden’s win may therefore come to be seen as a tipping point in the
history of action on climate change.

Tipping points are normally used in climate science to describe small
changes in the earth system that result in much broader, often damaging
impacts that accelerate climate change. Well-known examples including
sea level rise resulting from the disintegration of the Greenland and West
Antarctica ice sheets, or the release into the atmosphere of
climatewarming methane deposits from thawing Siberian permafrost.

For many years, researching and understanding these tipping points
underlined the urgency of climate action. Today it is widely understood
that we need to decarbonise the economy, and to do this rapidly. Right
now, we need tipping points in the other direction – small interventions
that accelerate large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

We have already witnessed many of these positive tipping points and
have learned much about how they function. So far, it is the
governments who have produced the most effective ones. Section 172
of the UK’s updated Company Act, for example, requires businesses to
disclose material risks from the long-term impacts of their activities on
the environment. An escalating tax on carbon emissions has brought
about a collapse in coal’s share of the UK power mix, from 40 per cent
to just three per cent in six years. These policy interventions are
important, but we cannot regulate our way out of the climate emergency.
Unregulated positive tipping points are also necessary.

The transformation of the power sector is taking place due to the
economics of technological innovation. The first tipping point arrived
when renewable energy started producing electricity more cheaply in
some places than fossil fuel-burning power plants. The next will come
when the costs of building new wind or solar capacity become cheaper
than a new coal or gas plant. The entire power sector will have tipped
towards full decarbonisation when the cost of new renewable power
becomes cheaper than maintaining existing hydrocarbon power plants.

Tipping points can also occur with changes in people’s behaviours. The
trend towards plant-based diets in the food sector is one example, or the
collapse in demand for air travel that could potentially outlast coronavirus
travel restrictions. Changes in public opinion however can be much more
difficult to orchestrate than policy or economic interventions.

This is why the finance sector is critical to action on climate change.
Since capital touches every facet of economic decision-making, from
project finance to portfolio allocation, the quickest route to success is the
greening of money.

More and more shareholders recognise their role in shaping these public
goals. They actively engage with management on corporate climate
strategies. Institutional investors, who have a responsibility to mitigate
systemic climate risk, increasingly back climate-related shareholder
resolutions. One pension fund was mandated by the courts to consider
climate risks in its investment strategy. It responded by setting a net-zero
target for financed emissions by 2050.

But are these really tipping points? Could the finance sector deliver more
for climate action? If bankers and fund managers knew where and when
to invest to tip the low-carbon disruptors businesses towards exponential
growth, then finance could have a key role in accelerating climate action.

Understanding these tipping points, and engaging with companies to
capitalise on them, would bring outsized returns to both shareholders
and citizens.

The reality of day-to-day business may prove more challenging to predict
than the future of the climate. But the finance sector has the means, and
the scientists have the data, to model interventions with much greater
impact than we see today. Given the limited time available to stop
climate change, we must all work together to prioritise these new

Eoin Murray is Head of Investment at Federated Hermes International,
and Professor Tim Lenton is Director of the Global Systems Institute at
the University of Exeter