Advances in Energy-Climate Change Models Will Help Refine Policies

Narasimha Rao, associate professor of energy systems at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE) testified May 4 on climate and energy research at the Department of Energy  (DOE) before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy.  Rao, whose research examines the relationship between energy systems, climate change and human society, discussed the importance of more inclusive and realistic modeling to help formulate policies on climate change.

Rao QA

Rao’s work has focused on the social impacts of evolving energy policy on developing countries. He directed the Decent Living Energy project at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which quantifies the energy needs and climate impacts of eradicating poverty around the world.

Subcommittee Chairman Jamaal Bowman said during the hearing that solving the climate crisis is not only a technological challenge, but requires rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. These changes “must lift up workers, the poor, and redlined communities of color who are already hit hardest by the fossil fuel economy and impacts of a warming planet.” 

Rao discusses how interdisciplinary research and the integration of social sciences can help improve understanding of regional and economic differences and impacts at a more granular level and better inform policy on climate change and environmental protection, especially for disadvantaged communities.  

How can energy-climate modeling reveal new opportunities for policies that shape consumption choices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve well-being?

Narasimha Rao: The models that I am concerned with and have worked with are those that try to project scenarios of human activities as we move forward into the future, taking into account different trends and societal changes, population growth, economic growth, migration, energy efficiency improvements, and other technological and behavioral changes. They try to represent narratives of the future around how society may evolve and then consider different combinations of policies and technologies in the energy system that could achieve our targets for mitigating climate change. By including behavioral change and different measures of well-being in these models, such as health and economic outcomes, we can assess how mitigation options perform along various social objectives. 

Narasimha Rao, teaching a class Narasimha Rao

What socio-economic factors need to be addressed in energy-climate model research that previously have not been included and explored? 

Rao: The models basically took energy demand and people's behavior as a given. And they used single representative households. If you want to accurately project energy demand in the future, we need to consider the heterogeneity amongst people at all income levels, physical conditions, as well as preferences and cultures that influence behavior and lifestyle patterns. If we just have a single representative household, we don't see those at the bottom of the income distribution who may be facing a disproportionate burden. And, it is not just individuals and households, it’s government, firms, markets, and institutions. All of these have to be better represented, so we can more accurately reflect the pace and extent of decarbonization that will come from our policies. 

How can environmental policies that are aimed at mitigating climate change impact disadvantaged communities in negative ways that had not been predicted in the models? And, how can policy address the trade-offs?

Rao: We're going to shift a lot of demand to electricity, and until you completely transition to green energy, we may actually increase pollution from power plants in disadvantaged communities.  We need to know that. There’s also the risk of the digital divide becoming a barrier. If we are expected to use smart gadgets and smart meters in our homes and don't know how to use them, that is another risk of exclusion. 

If we want to introduce new technologies, we want them to be affordable for people. If we better represent income distribution in models, it will allow us to see those price shocks that people face, which will tell us how much we need to provide to support them and prevent them from falling into poverty.  

What next steps need to be taken in energy research modeling?

Rao: We need to collect more data. We need to do more qualitative research, more fieldwork, and more surveys to collect information where we can ask specific questions, such as what are your barriers to using an electric car? What prevents you from being able to utilize UberPool? We haven’t done enough research in those areas, and that’s even more of a case around the world.  

We can make incremental progress through case studies that can inform us, but broad-based changes in how we represent social processes will take a couple of years.

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