Expert Perspectives

Embedding the Social Sciences in a Long-Term Carbon-Neutrality Scenario: Perspectives on a 2050 Zero Net Emissions Study

At the end of 2017, Entreprises pour l’Environnement (Businesses for the Environment, or EpE) launched the ZEN 2050 study to explore what a carbon-neutral France would look like, which levers could be mobilized, the speed with which this could be done and the corresponding deadlines, as well as the short-term measures necessary to kick-start the trajectories compatible with carbon neutrality by 2050.1 This study, expected to be published in May 2019, is original in its cross-cutting nature, examining  different economic sectors and sociological factors as well as their complex interactions. It includes numerous contributions from the companies represented on the EpE steering committee. Along with technological, business, macroeconomic, and scientific dimensions, the study embedded sociology in both the diagnostic definition and the definitions of the levers. This was required not only to enhance the accuracy of the levers’ quantitative impact but also to assess the degree to which they were accepted or refused, better understanding of which would improve the effort’s feasibility and the ability to foresee potential obstacles on the road to a net-zero emissions (ZEN) society.

It is useful to recall that modeling for a ZEN society by 2050 includes two different methods. The first consists of inserting numbers into the model, numbers that depend on the initial modeler’s assumptions (Which type of data is deemed to be pertinent? Which can be taken into account by the model?). In many modeling exercises, price is the primary factor, as price impacts supply and demand (as in Pole energy modeling). Other models are more complex and may include land use, numbers and types of vehicles, and so on (as in TRANUS, an integrated land use and transport modeling system). The second method is forecasting, which seeks to define an objective (or a state of affairs) at a defined future time, such as the ZEN 2050 scenario.

While in practice these two approaches are integrated routinely, they can create challenges when we attempt to integrate sociological factors into the analysis. The first challenge is that modeling and forecasting are almost nonexistent in the social sciences. While modeling requires calculable numbers, social sciences often deal with noneconomic, “multirational” factors such as perception of comfort, the good life or energy. This puts the social sciences in a delicate position, since climate and energy governance requires future-focused analyses. In addition, there is an increasing demand at all levels and by all types of actors (including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) for social science insights into climate and energy issues. This forces the social sciences to confront a new, threefold challenge:

  1. They have to collaborate with other disciplines (as these must with the social sciences) to offer transdisciplinary elements of understanding and policy recommendations.
  2. They have to tackle a relatively new field of study (climate, in its interactions with all other “classical” social, political, and organizational issues).
  3. They are asked to contribute to forecasting and modeling approaches, which are sorely lacking in the social sciences.

These challenges do not make the task impossible, and even though there are limits, we are very far from having exploited the potential of integrating the socials sciences into prospective and modeling work. Aside from the results it produced, our ZEN 2050 project offered a great opportunity to explore these issues. While not all methodological issues were resolved, the study offers insights into the added value of making sociology an integral part of a forecasting and modeling exercise. Globally, integrating social factors into other types of analyses tends to decrease the predicted capacity to reach ambitious reduction targets. This is another way of saying that sociological factors must be taken into account if we wish to understand how to reach these targets.

Our study thus first used three categories of reactions toward ZEN efforts (a recategorization of seven types of energy-climate sociological profiles, which had emerged from previous research projects on climate and energy). It is important to understand that these categories of agents are not economic but sociological, based on social factors. They are linked to perceptions, beliefs, social representations, and, of course, practices:

  • resisters, who consider any effort as an erosion of their comfort and individual rights (20 percent)
  • motors, for whom changes in practices are a positive way to put their values into practice (60 percent)
  • variables, who modify their practices according to the sector and their life phase (having a second child, buying a home, retirement, etc.) (20 percent)

A high number of “resisters” would reduce the likelihood of reaching ZEN by 2050, and a high number of “motors” would increase it. Thus, these profiles do not change the modeling approach, but they do have impacts on the outputs of that modeling. Our study postulated that these basic categories would remain relatively constant over time, since the factors constituting these categories represent deep and basic trends in the population. Profound changes in these categories would imply profound social and political changes, and the objective of our study was to evaluate whether we could achieve ZEN by 2050 without social and technological ruptures. In 2050, in other words, the percentage of each category should be the same as it is today. But, and this is key, these categories will exist in a low-emissions society thanks to improvements in processes, renewable energy production, technologies, and infrastructure (such as building retrofitting, policies with respect to agriculture and food habits, etc.). Thus, even the most entrenched “resisters” will emit less in 2050 than in 2020. For example, recent trends show an increase in flexitarianism (decrease in meat consumption). We took this trend into account in our sociological forecasting, concluding that “motors” will be vegetarians, “variables” will be flexitarians, and “resisters” will still eat meat regularly. But contemporary sociological trends also reveal a growing preference for local, organic meat. Thus, “resisters” will still consume meat, but it will be far more local and organic—and as a result will entail fewer carbon dioxide emissions. Another example is that while “resisters” will refuse to abandon their personal vehicle, they will purchase low- or noncarbon cars. “Motors” will use other types of transport, and “variables” will choose a transport mode according to their life phase. In this case, having a second child is often a trigger for car acquisition.

So, how did we integrate sociology into modeling and forecasting a ZEN society by 2050? Our study used three different options.

First option: “Direct feeding” into the modeling calculations. Energy-saving through behavioral changes may result in a 15 percent decrease in energy use by a certain category of the population (“motors”) that is very sensitive to this issue. But energy-saving efforts in housing due to smartgriding tend to show only a slight decrease (5 percent). These numbers could be directly integrated into the model evaluating energy consumption by households.

Second option: “Indirect feeding.” In this case, sociological insights require a “translation” (for example, qualitative results as to why people resist change) into numbers that can be handled by the model. While sociology can offer statistical data, sociology’s real strength lies in the depth of its qualitative explanations as to why people act the way they do on a daily basis—their multiple and different motivations, not often linked to climate issues. Not understanding this brings a loss in public policy efficiency, efficacy, and even the legitimacy of climate and energy policies, measures, and programs. The translation process is made easier or more difficult by the model itself. Ideally, for this to work, both the modeler and the sociologist need to have a basic understanding of each other’s working assumptions and methods. In practice, it has meant reevaluating the quantitative impact of emissions-reduction levers. Hence, in this case, our social categories were partly included in the calculations relative to the percentage of mobility modes that can be realistically expected. “Motors” would be the noncar users (20 percent), while “variables” would be the strategic multimodal users (60 percent). As for meat consumption, 20 percent would be vegetarian in 2050 (and this could be used in modeling), which seemed to us very ambitious in France, where only 2 percent of the population was vegetarian in 2018.

Third option: independent contribution. Here, sociological insights are not integrated into the model at all. Rather, they are used to offer a more complete picture of the situation or when it is impossible to integrate those insights into the model. For example, while price is a factor affecting a population’s practices, sociology has long revealed that it is only one factor among many others, including comfort, efficiency, pleasure, conflicts, environmental values, and so on. This is where our portraits in the form of short fictional stories come in.

In our ZEN 2050 project, these three methods were used through two approaches: by economic sector and cutting across the economy. For some sectors (such as industrial production), sociological factors were not significant in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but in others, they were fundamental (such as in mobility and eating habits).

For the sectorial approach, each “discipline” (economics, technology, urban planning, agriculture, etc.) would begin by producing a state of the art “picture” of the present situation. In the case of mobility, sociology can offer considerable data regarding not only how many people use which mobility mode but also why they use it. Thus, an EpE partner produced quantitative results on the number of vehicles (and which type) at the national level, and then sociological factors and numbers were integrated to offer insights as to why, for example, certain categories of agents resist low-carbon mobility. This could then be integrated into the forecasting work. Also, some key sociological factors were highlighted independently.

While this was interesting and necessary, offering “hard” data on how many people may be vegetarians or ride a bike does not say much about how people will live in a ZEN 2050 society. How will they feel about it? What will their quality of life look like? This led to another original contribution to our work that was not integrated into models. Instead, we adopted a more independent approach by writing nine short “portraits,” stories depicting not only how people live but also how they feel and think about their lifestyles and society’s efforts at reaching ZEN as well as some of their perceptions and daily activities. For a social scientist, this projection was the most challenging part of the project, methodologically speaking: while “fictionalized,” the portraits needed to be based on reality. So, we again used contemporary statistics on, for example, motivations for decreasing meat consumption. These were crossed with our three sociological categories. But we also used actual quotes from real people, from face-to-face interviews conducted in previous studies.

While some methodological challenges of embedding social sciences into a long-term climate scenario can still be improved (quantitative impact, heterogeneity of sociologic reactions, etc.), several positive outcomes of this work can be highlighted. Taking into account people’s behavior as well as reluctance to change contributed to building the legitimacy of the study, since—as has been demonstrated again by the “yellow vest” protests in France—climate policies cannot follow only an economic and technical approach. The “portraits” also help clearly illustrate the outputs of the study and the modes of living that result from living in a carbon-neutral society.

1 A joint effort by some 40 leading French and international corporations and French partner of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, EpE views the environment as a source of progress and opportunities. Its members work together to take the environment more fully into account in their strategies and operations.

ZEN stands for zéro émissions nettes (net-zero emissions).

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.