Theme 1: Visioning

What could low-carbon transformed futures look like?

This theme seeks to understand possible and preferred visions of future low-carbon societies. Using a series of innovative and complementary approaches, it will re-imagine the ways in which societies can be configured. Alongside this, we examine the underlying processes behind shifts in discourses of climate change and radical decarbonisation.

This theme develops the normative direction for CAST through: (1) stakeholder deliberations and modelling of societal systems, that consider transformational priorities and trade-offs; and (2) examining and tracking the evolution of public understanding and discourses over the five initial years (and potentially 5-10 further years) of the Centre.

Positioning the UK in a global context, the theme also provides comparisons across countries. Since the highest proportion of future emissions is predicted to come from emerging economies, we will focus on two rapidly developing countries (China, Brazil), in addition to a nation with ambitious policies in the challenging areas of consumption, diet, mobility and comfort (Sweden).

Research questions

(a) What are feasible and desirable pathways for achieving climate change targets and other sustainability goals, and how do these vary within the UK and across other countries?

(b) What are the societal values and potential trade-offs associated with low-carbon, sustainable transformations?

(c) How do public perceptions and media discourses of climate change shift in response to climatic, scientific, and socio-political events, and what are the implications of this for leveraging transformations?

Project 1.1 Public engagement for ‘desirable’ and ‘feasible’ visions of change

The importance of engaging both publics and stakeholders with energy system change is now recognised as an explicit policy goal, especially in cases where policy challenges do not have a single solution and affect the majority of the population. Cutting across most economic sectors and government departments, achieving transformational change in the challenging areas will be complex. Evidence regarding public acceptability will be essential before firm policy recommendations can be made. Project 1.1 explores the multiple social understandings, visions and trade-offs for low-carbon, climate-resilient transformations for the UK using a whole-system lens. We will develop and apply deliberative participatory and visioning methods to explore public perceptions of transformational change, both at the systems-level and in each of the four challenging areas.

Project 1.2 Comparing visions of change across countries

Responses to climate change and visions of low-carbon futures diverge across countries, particularly in relation to the challenging areas, where culture exerts a strong reciprocal influence on consumption, diet, mobility, and comfort. Project 1.2 will apply a cross-cultural focus to examine possible and preferred visions of low-carbon lifestyles and societies in three diverse cultural settings: Brazil, China, and Sweden. Each setting reflects countervailing factors influencing the potential for low-carbon transformation. Brazil is central to global efforts to mitigate climate change as over 70% of the Amazon rainforest lies within its borders. While it is a leader in low-carbon transport fuels, red meat and material consumption are growing rapidly. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases but has ambitiously pledged to reduce emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. It is the world’s largest market for meat products, but is seeing a rapid rise in vegetarianism. China is now also the world’s largest electric vehicle market. Sweden has been ranked the EU’s leading nation for action on climate change; in relation to the challenging areas of consumption, Sweden has also pioneered innovations in the sharing economy (e.g., mobility, tools, toys). Together with our international collaborators, project 1.2 will engage with citizens in these countries to explore low-carbon visions using deliberative and ethnographic research methods.

Project 1.3 Scenarios and enhanced modelling

This project will provide quantitative emission projections for the four challenging areas, placing them within the context of broader transformative change in the energy and land-use sectors, and will consider co-benefits as well as negative consequences for the UK and comparator countries. Project 1.3 will generate alternative low-carbon visions for consumption, diet, mobility and thermal comfort in the UK based on a systematic review of existing 1.5 to 2°C emission pathways, as well as quantitative modelling and analysis using existing tools. It will also develop and analyse energy and land-use transformation pathways in global 1.5 to 2°C scenarios, downscaled to comparator countries (China, Brazil, Sweden) as well as the UK. The project will also undertake a multi-criteria assessment of the resulting visions. New scenario assessments will be carried out in collaboration with the world-leading IMAGE modelling group at Utrecht University.

Project 1.4 Public perceptions of climate change and transformative action over time

This project will examine public perceptions of climate change in the context of the Centre’s core principles, using multi-wave, multi-country (UK, Brazil, China, Sweden) surveys and secondary analysis of existing datasets. We will explore how perceptions are changing, for example in response to climatic, scientific and socio-political events, and draw conclusions about ways to accelerate perceptual shifts. The survey will comprise two elements: a core tracker module that repeats standardised measures of belief and behaviour at every wave in order to track perceptions across countries and over time; and a bespoke module that is responsive to emerging issues and research needs. A complete database, comprising newly collected and previous data and our analyses, will be made publicly available via an online Data Portal accompanied by a visualization tool to engage a wide-range of users with the public perception database.

Project 1.5 Media representation of climate change and transformative action

The media are important actors in the construction of public and policy discourses, acting as both an arena for debate and information provision, and weaving their own cultural and political meanings around issues and events. Media reporting is known to shape wider public discourses and imaginaries circulating across society. While there has been extensive research surrounding media representations of climate change as an issue, there has been little research into how discourses around transformative change and radical decarbonisation are emerging. Project 1.5 will explore when and how discursive shifts emerge, identifying: (a) the narratives that currently dominate media discourse and how these are changing; and (b) the discursive frames and assumptions that construct these storylines, including in relation to values and co-benefits, and responsibility at different scales.

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