Concept Mapping a Global Low Carbon Transition Pathway

It's not simple...

A while back, I was asked by the Policy Research Initiative to do a comparative literature survey of prominent low-carbon transition plans around the world, and to draw some implications of different scenarios for Canada.  In all, I surveyed 15 studies comprising 40 scenarios - six scenarios that focus on greenhouse gas emissions trajectories; fourteen scenarios that modelled energy system development and the political, social and economic consequences of climate change; and twenty scenarios that set emissions targets for a date in the future and worked backwards to identify pathways to reaching them.  I figured that I would post the ‘concept map’ of key drivers and uncertainties which I developed during the course of the research.

Scenario planning is a widely-used method by governments, corporations, and other organizations for managing the risks and uncertainties that are inherent in the future. The aim is not to predict the future, but rather to encourage decision-makers to think more openly and creatively about the future by expanding their ‘mental maps’ of the world,  hopefully leading to more comprehensive plans and thus ‘better’ decisions for the future.  Scenarios vary widely in their analytical rigour, the complexity of the models and logic for understanding behaviour, and the number of parameters that are considered in the construction of the scenario, but in generally consist of two kinds of concepts: ‘drivers of change’ and ‘critical uncertainties’.

Drivers are the things which impel changes in other areas and are generally assumed to be outside of direct control - for example, the rate of population growth is a driver for energy consumption which, though capable of being influenced indirectly, is largely outside the control of most jurisdictions.  Drivers are often driven themselves by ‘sub-drivers’.  In the case of population growth, fertility and mortality rates determine the rate of growth directly, and are themselves driven by things like the state of healthcare and education.  Uncertainties are future events or occurrences that may or may not happen, but are difficult to predict and would have serious implications for the person or organization doing the forecasting.  In the case of energy, an important uncertainty is whether the international community will be able to arrive at a consensus agreement with binding targets for GHG emissions (a followup to the Kyoto Protocol).

Attached is a ‘concept map’ of the drivers and uncertainties used in the 40 scenarios surveyed for the PRI, and the connections between them.  Wikipedia describes a concept map as a way of “representing relationships between ideas, images, or words, in the same way that a sentence diagram represents the grammar of a sentence, a road map represents the locations of highways and towns, and a circuit diagram represents the workings of an electrical appliance.”  Concept maps can be useful in organizing and communicating information, and help promote understanding of complex issues.  In a way, all scenario planning is concept mapping, though not always presented in a visual format.

There are five categories of drivers/uncertainties included:  Economic (blue); Social (red); Technological (brown); Environmental (green); and Political (orange).  The map conveys the complexity and difficulty of achieving a transition to a low-carbon future.