Introducing socio-economic scenarios

Socio-economic scenarios as a tool to explore the future are being developed by the UK-SSPs project for the SPF UK Climate Resilience Programme. The project is commissioned by the Met Office and is carried out by Cambridge Econometrics in collaboration with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), University of Edinburgh and University of Exeter.

The UK SSPs project will produce UK-specific downscaled socio-economic narratives and gridded data for a range of indicators to 2100, consistent with the Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs) that will underpin the next IPCC assessment report.

The project builds on work by the UKCEH National Capability project UK-SCAPE that has been written up as a paper and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment by Simona Pedde et al.

Paula Harrison, one of the paper’s co-authors, delivered a webinar on “Co-Creating socio-economic scenarios to support future research and policy on UK climate risk and resilience” for the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, chaired by UKCR co-Champion, Suraje Dessai.

The webinar sets out the basics about socio-economic scenarios, which are projections presented through plausible stories or narratives and describe drivers of change – economic, social, technological, policy and governance – and can be qualitative or quantitative.

Describing the SSPs in the UK Climate Resilience Programme, Paula Harrison emphasised these are exploratory, that is, plausible socio-economic futures (what might happen), and not desirable futures (what we want to happen) .

Global consistency

The IPCC scenarios consist of three main elements: RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways), SSPs (Shared Socio-economic Pathways) and SPAs (Shared Policy Assumptions). All are needed to create integrated scenarios and analysis.

There are five SSPs based on best current hypotheses. These are important to climate risk and resilience studies 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.

Currently there are no UK specific SSPs, which is an important gap.  The UK-SSPs project will develop UK socio-economic scenarios consistent with the IPCC scenarios.

UK Shared Socio-economic Pathways

There are two UK projects working on SSPs: UK-SCAPE and the UK Climate Resilience Programme (UKCR). The UK-SCAPE project on spatially-explicit projections of environmental drivers (downscaled climate, socio-economic, land use and pollution scenarios) developed a first set of UK SSPs and the UKCR project is further extending these for the wider research and policy communities.

Both projects build on the global SSPs products: a set of narratives; tables of broad trends, and a set of quantifications with country-specific projections of key variables.

There are also existing SSPs for European Pathways from the IMPRESSIONS Project, which finished in  2018. More local SSPs were created for a number of regions around Europe, including Scotland.

Both UK projects extend the global and European SSPs to the UK, looking at three types of extensions: spatial, temporal and sectoral.

The approach

The projects used a highly participatory approach in which stakeholder mapping across the research, policy, business and NGO communities and a wide range of sectors was key. They also took account of country representation across the UK, gender and age.

Having commenced earlier, UK-SCAPE was able to hold a physical workshop in Birmingham in 2018 that produced draft narratives, which were subsequently cross-checked against questionnaires.

Covid-19 restrictions meant that the workshops moved online for the UKCR project, which allowed involvement with more stakeholders and simultaneous analysis by the team, but created some other challenges. Both workshops identified 14 driver categories that stakeholders considered to be particularly important and uncertain for societal development in the UK over the 21st century. These formed the backbone of the UK SSP scenario narratives to ensure local relevance.

The second online workshop further developed the draft narratives from the UK-SCAPE project. It also produced a new set of system diagrams showing interrelationships between the drivers within each scenario narrative. The online workshop was followed up by semi structured interviews and a questionnaire to cross-check and ask final clarification questions.

Further information

The paper in Science of the Total Environment captures this first set of outputs on the UK SSPs, and Paula Harrison’s webinar presentation explains the process set out here in more detail.

The UK-SSPs are also mentioned in a review and assessment of the global climate change community scenario framework in a paper on Achievements and needs for the climate change scenario framework in Nature Climate Change by O’Neill et al, for which Paula Harrison is a co-author.

UK-SSPs also has its own website, http://www.camecon.com/uk-socioeconomic-scenarios/.

Read a summary of the online workshop here

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Last updated June 2020

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