Earth Notes: A Note On A Possible UK Policy Modelling Tool

What-Ifs and Goal-Seeking for policy makers and the rest of us?

(Originally written 2009/10/26.)

If you ruled the world and wanted to tackle climate change, what tools would you use to help you choose what to do? Equally, what tools might those in government today use? And if you as an ordinary member of the public wanted to see if you agreed with government's choices or make your own suggestions or show where government was taking the wrong path or missing a trick (while not ignoring the laws of physics) how might you do it?

In the UK the government publishes a great deal of good data (for example in the DUKES Digest of UK Energy Statistics), and bodies such as the IPCC have views on contraints on carbon emissions if we are to avoid, for example, exceeding 2°C temperature rise. Can these be tied together to devise policy or drive computer games or support a SETI@Home-style collaboration or all of the above?


Goals might be of the form:

  • "UK Electricity should be 50% zero-carbon by 2030 and zero-carbon by 2050."
  • "All UK energy use (including electricity generation, transport, heating, and embedded in imported goods) should not cause emissions of more than 700 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2100."
  • "There can be no nuclear energy in the UK once existing power stations close."
  • "We must only use renewable energy sources in the UK by 2050."
  • "We must only use zero-carbon energy sources in the UK by 2050."
  • "All new renewables should be out of site of all UK residences".

Some of the goals, such as the target proportion of zero-carbon electricity on the UK grid, and the target total CO2 emissions to a given end date, are probably easy to check for being achieved in a model. Others can possibly be user-driven inputs linked to a time-line. It may also be possible to back-calculate missing/free values once other values are set.

The carbon and financial costs of various choices can be deduced from data such as DUKES in a fairly simple arithmetic manner.

In other cases more complex formulae with multiple inputs may be needed, or the sum over a range of probabilities may be needed, or even more difficult are "path dependencies" (the route to a given end) such as "many good UK nuclear sites are on low-lying coasts; if we don't build fast enough they will be flooded."

Base Data and Models

Base data should be available from a number of sources such as DUKES and other UK (government) sources, with labelling of data origins. This also makes it possible for users to include their own data from other sources.

The system should be seeded with basic models but it should also be possible for users to easily create/maintain/publish their own models and data dependencies. As few components as possible should be black boxes.


It should be possible to get data into and out of the system in various ways, eg spreadsheet, Web form, applet, video game, with models equally interchangable and with a core set along with the raw data. The aim should be to keep the medium separate from the message and give the widest practical range of access to the data, models and tools, and allow third parties to examine/override/create/correct data and models, with both as first-class entities in the system, and with clear traceability.