Klipheuwel wind-farm
Wind-farm facility at Klipheuwel in the Western Cape, South Africa.
​Credi​t: Klipheuwel wind-farm. 

Mapping the future for feasible climate action

Jessica Jewell, assistant professor in Energy Transitions at Chalmers University of Technology, has been awarded a 1.5€ million grant by the European Research Council for a project entitled MechANisms and actors of Feasible Energy Transitions (MANIFEST) which will run from 2021-2026. The project will advance our understanding of whether and under what conditions it is feasible to avoid dangerous climate change.
– We know how to solve the climate change problem in mathematical models, but we need to understand how to solve it in the real world, says Jessica Jewell, at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment.
Technologies needed to decarbonize the electricity system are already commercially available. And there are mathematical models of how these technologies can be deployed sufficiently fast and at a large enough scale to displace fossil fuels and meet climate targets. Yet there is no scientific method to evaluate whether these scenarios are feasible in the real world, given the socio-political and technological constraints in different countries and regions. 

The project MANIFEST will develop a new scientific understanding of the feasibility to decarbonize the electricity sector focusing on both launching low-carbon electricity in developing countries and sustaining the growth of renewable electricity already in place in front-runner countries.  

We asked Jessica Jewell a few questions about the grant, the project MANIFEST and the greatest challenges to overcome for the electricity sector. 

How did it feel when you heard that you were to receive this grant? 

– I was surprised and super excited. My research is really interdisciplinary which is typically pretty hard to get endorsed by scientific review panels. I also feel very grateful for everyone who helped me develop as a scientist: first at Central European University where I was a doctoral student, then at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and the University of Bergen and now at Chalmers. 

You describe the project MANIFEST as a "shift in the thinking about the feasibility of climate change mitigation". Can you describe that change, and why a change is needed? 

– We know how to solve the climate change problem in mathematical models, but we need to understand how to solve it in the real world. The main scholarly approach to assess whether something is feasible in the real world is to look at whether anything similar happened in the past. But for climate change this runs into a problem because both the challenge and what we need to do are unprecedented so there are no direct historical analogues. Thus, analysing the feasibility of successful climate change mitigation may scientifically seem to be at a dead end. I overcome this stalemate by looking at the past and ongoing climate actions through a particular social science lens called ‘causal mechanisms’. 

– My hypothesis is that while a lot of things are changing (e.g. clean technologies are becoming cheaper, population and energy demand grow), the political, economic and social mechanisms that shape our capacity to act on climate are the same. By understanding these mechanisms through empirically observing the past I hope to be able to predict what is and is not possible to do in the future.

One of the methods described in this project is called "dynamic feasibility space". What does that entail, and how can you use that method in this project? 

– A dynamic feasibility space is a tool I have developed to map empirical observations of past climate actions or energy transitions in order to tease out the underlying mechanisms shaping them. I’ve used this tool to map and understand the feasibility of rapid coal phase-out and in MANIFEST I want to similarly map and compare historical expansion of renewables to the expansion that countries plan in the future and that we need to see to reach the climate targets. 

What do you see as the greatest obstacles to overcome, in the shift to a fossil free electricity system? 

– I see two main obstacles. First is how to sustain high growth rates in technology front-runners, countries which already have viable renewable electricity sectors providing up to 40% of their electricity supply, such as Denmark and Germany. For these nations it is important to sustain high growth rates to reach even higher levels of use of renewables. For example, recently, the growth of onshore wind power in Germany has significantly slowed down, primarily because of the lack of available sites. We need to understand whether this obstacle is simply a bureaucratic complication of handling planning permits, or whether it reflects the deeper mechanism of increasing social resistance and conflicts over land use which would be more difficult to overcome.

– The second and bigger challenge is to figure out how to launch low-carbon electricity in developing countries, on what is called ‘the technology periphery’. Today the US and Europe with only 10% of the world’s population have 50% of global wind and solar power, but if we are to achieve climate targets, we need to deploy massive amounts of low-carbon technologies where the bulk of energy use in the 21st century will occur, i.e. in the Global South. This is a very different challenge because most of these countries do not yet have viable low-carbon electricity sectors (manufacturers of equipment, project developers and operators, functioning regulation and electricity markets) as in front-runners. How fast can all this knowledge, institutions, policies and business models diffuse from the front-runners (or emerge domestically) is a critical question, because only then can we expect the beginning of sustained growth of renewables.

More info on the ERC: ​

The European Research Council (ERC), supports excellence in research in EU member countries. The Council primarily does this by three major systems for research that fits within the EU's Seventh Framework Programme. ERC Starting Grants for outstanding scientists who are at the beginning of his career, ERC Consolidator Grant to support researchers at the stage at which they are consolidating their own independent research team or programme and ERC Advanced Grants that can be awarded to researchers who has established their own research groups.

Text: Christian Löwhagen

Published: Mon 07 Sep 2020.