A Different Approach to Quantitative Analysis

In order to be policy relevant, a quantitative analysis of the performance of socio-ecological systems has to consider the short, medium and long terms across different levels of organization and across different dimensions of analysis. This tall order entails a set of formidable epistemological challenges for the analyst, and became obvious due to the evidence gathered in two previous EU FP6 and FP7 projects involving parts of the same partnership:

  • Development and Comparison of Sustainability Indicators (DECOIN)
  • Synergies in Multi-scale Inter-Linkages of Eco-social systems (SMILE)

Both the experiences and the results obtained in these two projects have clearly indicated the necessity to explore alternative methods of quantitative assessment of sustainability, based on the acknowledgment of the complexity of energy and material flow analyses. This implies that the complexity of the relations to be studied cannot be addressed by adopting simplistic analytical approaches, in particular not those reducing the assessment of performance to a single out-put/input ratio, which then has to be pushed beyond a given threshold in the pursuit of an “optimal” solution. Instead, any potentially problem-solving strategy needs to be informed by the answers to three basic questions, which the combination of scientific approaches demonstrated in the project EUFORIE does address:

How to generate quantitative biophysical sustainability analysis complementing the economic narratives?

Economic analyses of the process allowing the formation of prices assume the existence of a situation of relative scarcity. Only under this assumption, it is possible to reach an equilibrium between the demand and supply mediated by functional institutions. However, this implies that the basic assumption required for the applicability of economic analysis is that our economies will never experience a situation of absolute scarcity (complete lack of sustainability resource and all its substitutes). In fact, in the case of absolute scarcity for primary goods, the price would become infinite and the stability of the institutions would suffer; they might even collapse. If we accept this, then it is not wise to rely on economic narratives assuming by default that absolute scarcity is not possible – i.e. that the invisible hand of the market and human ingenuity will al-ways guarantee the existence of backstop technologies producing at the right time and in the right place sufficient quantities at affordable costs of a suitable substitute to limited resources. On the other hand, economic analysis is essential to study the economic viability of sustainability scenarios and to assess the effectiveness of monetary policy instruments (taxes, subsidies, incentives). This implies that on one side we have to develop biophysical analyses, which are completely independent of economic narratives to be able to study the issue of external limits (ab-solute scarcity) as constraints to any sustainability strategy. In a next step, however, these analyses have to be combined with (improved) economic ones, in order to maintain their policy relevance.

How to generate quantitative analyses capable of linking across different levels and scales to study their unavoidable interactions within complex adaptive systems?

Such systems are organised at different levels which always generate interactions (delays, synergies, trade-offs) affecting the characteristics (performance attributes) observable at different levels and scales. For instance, paying taxes is bad for households but good for the community to which the households belong. Having a decent speed (higher than 40 km/h) may be a good attribute for a car, but it increases the consumption of gasoline and the impact of accidents. Packaging fresh fruits implies higher energetic costs for making the packaging, but reduces the post-harvest losses. The extra cost of the packaging is bad for the consumer but an income for its producer. As these brief examples indicate, when assessing the performance of an element of a complex system we cannot expect to describe its performance using just one attribute (indicator) at a time. When deciding about a long trip we want to mediate between different relevant criteria, for instance: (i) the time required to arrive; (ii) the economic cost; (iii) the comfort during the trip; (iv) the environmental impact of the chosen means of transportation. Complex systems exhibit emergent properties (performance characteristics) at higher system levels; processes at these levels cannot be explained only taking into account observable factors from that level. Traffic jams result if enough car-owning individuals consider conditions (i) to (iv) to be fulfilled, while at the same time undermining this fulfilment. The more roads are built as a response, the more the traffic increases. Using just a single definition of “efficiency” implies only generating hypocognition (the neglecting of other potentially relevant pieces of information).

How to generate a quantitative analysis aware of the obvious fact that social activities are not determined only by available technologies and economic dynamics?

Social systems do express functions associated with shared definitions of purpose reflecting the existence of aspirations, normative values, fears, taboos, habits and routines integrated into existing formal and informal (social) institutions. Therefore, the sustainability of a society is associated with the ability to coordinate and adjust different sets of social practices. However, such practices change with the evolution of: (i) internally driven expectations about the quality of life and normative values; and (ii) the perceptions of constraints and threats, which are externally driven. In this continuous process of adjustment, technology plays an important role, because it affects the definition of the option space of what can be done. However, technology is just one of the factors required for successful adjustments. Acknowledging this point entails acknowledging that sustainability is not about changing technology in order to preserve the status quo. Rather sustainability is about reaching a social agreement on how to establish a new set of social practices capable of guaranteeing an acceptable living standard, preserving the cultural identity of the society – i.e. the robustness of the social fabric – within the constraints imposed by the biophysical boundary conditions.

In EUFORIE, as a project on energy efficiency, we dealt with these three challenges by exploring the possibilities of quantitative energy efficiency analyses on a biophysical basis, applicable across scales and taking into account the co-existence of different interpretations of the concept of efficiency. More specifically, the project intended and managed to demonstrate that a concept of efficiency as a single output/input ratio calculated at a given scale is overly simplistic and thus not suitable as the basis for sustainability policy. In particular, generating such a single quantitative assessment requires a lot of pre-analytical choices leading to the identification of just one single level and a given spatial, temporal and functional scale. These pre-analytical choices are based on assumptions, not on evidence, and imply “hypocognition”, the neglect of other equally scientifically robust and socially legitimate definitions of efficiency, referring to other relevant criteria of performance.

For this reason, EUFORIE has explored the potentialities of adopting a suite of possible definitions of energy efficiency at different levels of analysis. The resulting different analytical approaches provided a diversified set of policy relevant information, reflecting the adoption of different perspectives. This approach was tested in a series of EUFORIE case studies at different scales (consumers, firms, city level, regional level, country level, and macro-economic regions such as EU and China). The insights obtained from the analysis of these case studies offer useful information and knowledge for the European Commission and for EU Member States regarding how to handle of the concept of energy efficiency in policy making.

The activities of the project comprised simultaneously:

  1. Scientific analyses characterising patterns of energy and material efficiency in Europe at different temporal and spatial scales using non-equivalent approaches to quantifying “efficiency”. The analysis generated rich results exploring the relevance of different interpretations of “efficiency” and illustrated potential benefits and risks of failure associated with the use of the concept of efficiency when formulating policies.
  2. Participatory processes exploring the potential role of stakeholders in the co-production (with scientists) of more effective characterisations of the energy performance (efficiency and sufficiency) of social agents. Changes in social practices were found to require structural change, and the deliberation with decision makers to identify more effective policies in terms of energy and material resource use.