Creating the UK socio-economic scenarios for climate resilience

Paula Harrison, Simona Pedde and Zuzana Harmáčková from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) provide the latest update on the ongoing UK-SSPs project. They share more about what socio-economic scenarios are, why they are important and introduce the five UK socio-economic scenarios which were developed through cross-sectoral stakeholder engagement.

What are socio-economic scenarios?

What kind of future development can we expect in the UK? How will changing public attitudes in the UK affect technological development and resource exploitation? What if fossil fuels are not phased out?

These and many other questions can be explored through future socio-economic scenarios. The scenarios provide a range of plausible socio-economic futures (“what might happen”) for the UK that are coherent with the latest and widely applied climate change community scenario framework of Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs) and Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). RCPs have been widely applied to climate models to produce climate scenarios on multiple scales (e.g. UKCP18) for investigating climate change impacts and risks.

SSPs are equally important to assessing climate risk and resilience because physical climate change and continued socio-economic change are highly interrelated: socio-economic factors determine greenhouse gas emissions and land use changes that cause climate change; they also determine our levels of vulnerability and capacity to adapt to climate change.

The global SSPs used by the IPCC are a set of plausible socio-economic future outlooks up to 2100 that provide the challenging context within which future decisions on climate change mitigation and adaptation must be determined and implemented. Until now, no equivalent UK version of the SSPs existed. We have addressed this gap by developing an internally consistent set of multi-driver UK-SSPs.

Creating the UK-SSPs

The UK-SSPs were co-created with a wide range of UK stakeholders covering the four UK nations and a range of sectors (e.g. agriculture, water, biodiversity, infrastructure) to integrate national stakeholder knowledge on locally relevant drivers and indicators with higher level information from the European and global versions of the SSPs.

This was achieved through an intensive participatory process that started from draft UK-SSP narratives developed within the UK-SCAPE project through a stakeholder workshop in 2018 followed by two stakeholder questionnaires. We then extended these draft UK-SSPs regionally, temporally and sectorally using an online stakeholder workshop in May 2020, a set of semi-structured interviews and a further questionnaire. This was supplemented by significant analyses by the research team to process, clean, consistency check and bring together the different knowledge and viewpoints from stakeholders from each of the four UK nations, whilst maintaining consistency between the content of the UK-SSP narratives and the European/global SSPs.

Outcomes of UK stakeholder consultation

Fourteen key driver categories identified

Fourteen key driver categories were identified by stakeholders as being particularly important and uncertain for determining the socio-economic development of the UK over this century. Notable key driver categories:

  • Governance and international relationships – how different UK regions are governed (centralised vs. devolved) and how international relationships are shaped (protectionist vs. globalised).
  • The nature of economic development – whether there would be a focus on traditional market-based economic growth vs. more novel economic systems (e.g. inclusive wealth, de-growth, non-monetary).
  • Societal characteristics – several driver categories covered key aspects of societal characteristics such as demography, social structure, public attitudes, access to education and good health.
  • Technological development, energy and transport – different types of innovation in technology, energy, transport and IT represented other clusters of drivers that may influence and shape mobility and natural resource use.
  • Food system – Access to, and demand for, different kinds of food and the shape of food systems were also considered to be key drivers of future UK societal development.
  • Response to global shocks – Response to global shocks was also identified as an important driver for triggering novel transitions in socio-economic development.

Following identification of the fourteen driver categories, narratives were developed for each UK-SSP by brainstorming likely events and how they may arise over time through the interaction of the drivers. This enabled broad lines of development to be elaborated for a range of sectors (urban, water, agriculture, forestry, biodiversity, coasts, health, energy, transport, infrastructure) in the four nations of the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

Five new UK socio-economic scenarios

The five scenarios have very different outcomes for the UK that can be further investigated, particularly with modelling teams, to increase understanding of the effects of multiple socio-economic drivers on key economic sectors and the environment, and what this means for the development of resilience climate change adaptation and mitigation policies.

UK-SSP1 – Sustainability

The most positive scenario, UK-SSP1, shows the UK transitioning to a fully functional circular economy as society quickly becomes more egalitarian leading to healthier lifestyles, improved well-being, sustainable use of natural resources, and more stable and fair international relations. It represents a sustainable and co-operative society with a low carbon economy and high capacity to adapt to climate change.

UK-SSP2 – Middle of the Road

UK-SSP2 is a world in which strong public-private partnerships enable moderate economic growth but inequalities persist. It represents a highly regulated society that continues to rely on fossil fuels, but with gradual increases in renewable energy resulting in intermediate adaptation and mitigation challenges.

UK-SSP3 – Regional Rivalry

The dystopian scenario, UK-SSP3, shows how increasing social and economic barriers may trigger international tensions, nationalisation in key economic sectors, job losses and, eventually a highly fragmented society with the UK breaking apart. It represents a society where rivalry between regions and barriers to trade entrench reliance on fossil fuels and limit capacity to adapt to climate change.

UK-SSP4 – Inequality

UK-SSP4 shows how a society dominated by business and political elites may lead to increasing inequalities by curtailing welfare policies and excluding the majority of a disengaged population. The business and political elite facilitate low carbon economies but large differences in income across segments of UK society limits the adaptive capacity of the masses.

UK-SSP5 – Fossil-fuelled Development

UK-SSP5 shows the UK transitioning to a highly individualistic society where the majority become wealthier through the exploitation of natural resources combined with high economic growth. It represents a technologically advanced world with a strong economy that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, but with a high capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Next steps

In the next phase of work, the project is finalising a set of systems diagrams that capture and visualise interrelationships between the fourteen key driver categories for each UK-SSP narrative. We are also finalising graphs of semi-quantitative trends in 50 socio-economic variables and detailed spatially-explicit projections for 10-15 key socio-economic variables to enable the UK-SSPs to be used in future modelling studies of climate risk, resilience and vulnerability.

For more information on this project, click here for the dedicated project webpage.

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