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The energy use challenge and the UK Government’s response

How can governments engage citizens to change the way we produce and consume energy? Climate change is ubiquitous, and the need for action and change well-known. The UK Government has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and is well aware that the energy landscape of the future consists of a myriad of potential scenarios. The challenge therefore remains in balancing the impact of change upon affected stakeholders and society.   

The energy calculator DECC 2050 was created by the UK’s then Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to allow the public to actively interact and engage with these possibilities. It allows citizens to consider actions they - and their governments locally, nationally and internationally - can take each day - and to see the implications of those decisions in real time.

DECC 2050 generates awareness of the numerous, sometimes conflicting, factors that decision-makers face when trying to reach energy goals

Users are able to create their own energy pathway for the country, confronted with the multiple choices and trade-offs faced when trying to decarbonise the economy whilst maintaining safe and affordable energy supplies. Users can experiment with different strategies to meet the UK’s target, adjusting, for example, travel behaviours or the number of wind turbines. The calculator models what is physically and technically possible in 42 sectors and users can witness in real time the implications of their decisions.

The science behind the simulation

DECC 2050 demonstrates the potential utility of simulation as a ‘safe space’ for policymakers to experiment in their decision-making process, as it generates awareness of the numerous, sometimes conflicting, factors that decision-makers face when trying to reach our energy goals.

The calculator draws on robust scientific and engineering data, with support from the advice of industry experts, NGOs or academia. Since its launch in 2010, the tool has evolved considerably, improved by additional evidence released by the energy and climate change communities. A challenge however, lies within that data. As with any model, there are inherent assumptions built into the calculator, and with constantly evolving figures, the underlying algorithms can sometimes struggle to keep pace with new scientific insights and reflect the complexity of climate science as an emerging field. Allowing users to comment and critique the tool in an online forum has enabled continuous updates to be made.

Simulation as a safe space for experimentation

DECC 2050 has been enthusiastically adopted and replicated around the world including in India, Taiwan, and Belgium. DECC (now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) also built a follow-up Global Calculator, exploring ways to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. The tool demonstrates that, in spite of difficulties with ever-changing data, simulation can provide audiences ranging from the general public to decision-makers with a powerful tool and space to experiment with policy mixes.

Image: Screenshot of the DECC 2050 Energy Calculator.