The UK Government is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment. Delivering on these parallel objectives, however, involves numerous tensions. Future low-carbon energy pathways that, for example, depend on the sourcing of feedstocks through hydraulic fracking have implications for the availability of clean water and hence for the ecosystem services such resources provide to other industrial, domestic or agricultural users. Likewise, pathways that envisage more wind farms have implications for the quality of the natural landscape and the cultural ecosystem services people derive from the visual enjoyment of those landscapes.
The central objective of this project is to explore future UK low-carbon energy pathways and quantify their differing implications for stocks of natural capital (e.g. groundwater and natural habitats) and for the provision of ecosystem services (e.g. irrigation, visual amenity, recreation). In addition, the project will apply methods of economic valuation to estimate in money terms the value of the ecosystem service changes associated with different future energy pathway.
Ultimately, the project seeks to provide policy makers with tools that allow them to take a whole-systems perspective on energy futures in a way that integrates energy and environmental considerations into a single framework. The research programme will begin with workshops bringing together members of the valuing nature and energy futures research communities.
The aim will be to encourage discussion between the participants and to arrive at a shared understanding of the conceptual framework that should underpin the research as well as to establish the baseline of existing knowledge. Part of that knowledge base will be a description of the particular future energy pathways to be explored in the project. The next task for the research team will be to develop a detailed life cycle characterisation of each pathway.
Drawing on previous research, the project will then identify the anticipated ecosystem service impacts of each particular element of a pathway. And, where available, collate evidence regarding the estimated value of those various impacts. For numerous elements, however, those impacts and/or values may be unknown. Indeed, the project will seek to fill those knowledge gaps through a set of case studies. These will explore aspects of bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, visual disamenity, impacts on marine recreation biodiversity consequences and the impacts of infrastructure to reduce energy demand.
Drawing on the results, the research will then seek to integrate the available evidence so as to assess the environmental impacts of each energy pathway in its entirety. To that end, the project will build on previous work by extending two complementary modelling platforms. The first is a micro-economic model that allows for a spatially-disaggregated exploration of the impacts of each pathway. The second employs macro-economic modelling to understand how natural capital use in different pathways impacts on the broad functioning of the economy and concomitant implications for growth, jobs and trade.
To provide a holistic assessment of each pathway, a further work stream will quantify the international implications for natural capital and ecosystems services of UK decisions on future energy systems. The findings will be made available to academics and policy makers through an extensive programme of dissemination and knowledge exchange. In addition, through training a cohort of PhD studentships, the project seeks to leave a legacy of academic capacity focused on the interface between energy and the environment. Together, the new knowledge and expertise delivered by the project will provide a major contribution to ensuring that energy and natural capital policies can be developed in a coherent manner for the maximal benefit of society as a whole.