With climate change increasing some resources’ uncertainty – and global development making others scarcer and more interdependent – society requires improved planning and policy frameworks to deliver a secure, equitable and resilient transformation to net zero. In this article from our publication On Resilience, Professor Julien Harou, Dr Eduardo A. Martínez Ceseña and Professor Mathaios Panteli explore how a multi-sector approach to planning can improve resilience
• To secure future prosperity while enabling the net zero transition we must consider system-scale interactions between water, energy, and food resource systems in planning, design and policy.
• Decision making tools should be used to inform policy, including new multidisciplinary simulation frameworks and AI-assisted design to identify ‘best achievable’ solutions which efficiently balance economic and resource provision.
• Multi-sector planning is an investment in the future, it ensures limited funds are directed to infrastructure investments that promote sustainable resilient development which mitigates and adapts to climate change.
The development and management of water, energy, and food resources impacts the distribution of socio-economic and environmental benefits and costs. With climate change increasing some resources’ uncertainty – and global development making others scarcer and more interdependent – society requires improved planning and policy frameworks to deliver a secure, equitable, and resilient transformation to net zero.
Given these challenges, one essential ingredient to securing future prosperity while enabling the net zero transition is to consider system-scale interactions between water, energy, and food resource systems in planning, design, and policy.
Analysts and decision makers should consider interdependencies with other resources at system-scale (regional to national) in their assessments of net zero interventions, such as policies and infrastructure investments. This can inform synergistic bundles or pathways of development actions which efficiently balance societal goals, and are resilient to multiple uncertainties.
Multi-sector linkages in the UK and globally
In several areas, considering multi-sector links will lead to better future investing. We review two below.
Water supply planning has been led by water companies in England and Wales since privatisation in 1990. With water resources now largely over-allocated for water supply, energy, agriculture and the environment, sustainably utilising the remaining resources will require coordination and cooperation between sectors. This could involve temporary trading of water licenses during droughts, sharing storage space in new reservoirs, or developing energy resources that use less water. For example, solar and wind power do not require water cooling, but thermal generation does. A regional multi-sector planning process has been launched in England and Wales to improve the company-centric planning used in the past, and this transition should be encouraged.
Water-energy interdependencies vary by country. In the UK, river water used for cooling generation plants is a potential climate change vulnerability. In many emerging economies, hydropower is growing in an effort to exploit low-carbon natural resources that are economically viable. Intermittent renewables, like solar and wind, require quick dispatchable energy sources like hydropower to ensure grid stability. However, operating hydropower dams in this way can have negative ecological impacts and can release water when it is unusable for irrigated food production. A recent study published in Nature Sustainability shows how strategically developed power systems mitigate this problem using diverse generation technologies, while accelerating the net zero energy transition. UK policymakers should take water-energy linkages into account when commissioning domestic projects and financing those abroad.
Decision-making tools to inform policy
Scientists, economists, and engineers have used computer simulation over the last 50 years to help understand how human-natural systems work and to help evaluate proposed investments and policies. System simulations track resource flows (money, energy, water, etc.) over time, and enable understanding of the link between interventions, such as new investment or policies, and the distribution of their benefits and costs over time, space, and economic sectors. Until recently, simulations were typically used to assess single interventions, rather than an ensemble of existing and potential future interventions. Even when system-scale multi-intervention analysis is used, only a single resource system is typically considered, such as a power system, river basin, food production operation, and so on. Now, new multi-disciplinary simulation frameworks and software libraries are making multi-sector simulation increasingly practical for real world studies. These models march through time for various plausible scenarios, tracking how the sectors impact each other at each modelled time-step to consider complex interdependencies and feedbacks.
Building on multi-sector simulation, the next relevant breakthrough is artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted design. New AI search algorithms allow the optimisation of complex human-natural systems (investment selection, operation, or both) while considering multiple concurrent objectives without the ‘a priori’ weighting of objectives. This allows ‘a posteriori’ design, where stakeholders gauge the importance of each goal, knowing how much advancing one might reduce other performance aspects. ‘Pareto-optimal’ subsets of designs are also identified – that is, those where if any one aspect of performance is advanced, it will necessarily come at a cost to one or more other objectives. This set of ‘best achievable’ solutions for any combination of objectives can be provided to stakeholders thanks to new AI-assisted, multi-objective decision-making methods. The selected schemes highlight the best achievable trade-offs, and identify which interventions create synergies and are resilient to climate and other possible changes. A recent study showed how this approach could be used to efficiently balance economic and resource provision benefits between countries that share water and energy resources.
What can be achieved from multi-sector assessment and design?
If AI methods allow quickly sifting through billions of intervention bundles for those that most appropriately balance societal objectives, then which objectives should be sought after in net zero multi-sector systems?
Efficiency: There is no guarantee that planners will be looking at the best future options without explicitly seeking the help of appropriate search algorithms. Regulators and policymakers need to ask whether an intervention will lead to a system which cannot be further improved without sacrificing other aims – or in other words, is this the best, most achievable compromise between key objectives? The answer should be ‘yes’, and this requires using new AI-assisted system design approaches.
Resilience: Policymakers should demand a rigorous definition of resilience that explicitly considers multi-sector linkages and encapsulates how interventions enable robustness and adaptability. If future supply and demand evolve differently from our projections, will the intervention be unsuitable (‘white elephant’) or will it still be a smart modular choice which fits into the future resource system landscape no matter how the future evolves?
Equity: Investments and policy changes lead to changes in financial, social and environmental benefits and costs, so knowing how economic changes will be distributed amongst regions, sectors and social groups is essential.
Emissions: A viable future world requires net zero emissions from all or most sectors of the economy. Multi-sectoral designs should explicitly consider their own emissions and how one sector might adapt to demand changes from other sectors. For example, can the water sector lower emissions and manage water scarcity if the future UK energy sector evaporates more via green hydrogen production?
How policy can advance multi-sector design and planning?
Regulatory and investment planning frameworks should be multi-sector. Each resource system should consider the needs of other sectors and its demands on other resources. Regulators should require reporting on how multisector benefits will be realised and if risks or demands on other sectors are changed. Mitigation and adaption measures for multiple uncertainties must be made adaptively, and this concerns policymakers, regulators, multilateral donor banks and development agencies.
Reporting on synergies needs to be embedded into planning. When assessing interventions and investments, regulators and financiers should move beyond risk and cost-benefit single-asset assessments and explore a wider scope of considerations. They should ask whether the new asset leads to an increase in system-scale resilience, and whether it enables achieving synergies and acceptable trade-offs with other assets of its sector and with other resource systems. For example, can new water supply reservoirs also increase flood resilience benefits, and store water on behalf of other sectors? Reporting on system-scale gains will need to be embedded into planning processes and regulatory regimes to become a reality.
Planners need to ask hard questions. Planners should not shy away from complexity. Some big themes on the horizon include: will different groups (economic, regional, social) be equally exposed to future uncertainties, or are certain actors disproportionately exposed to future risks? Will today’s investments make sense in tomorrow’s potentially changed regulatory landscapes? For example, if intersectoral trading of water becomes a reality in the UK, does this impact which water transfers and regional storage assets make more sense to build today?
Multi-sector planning is an investment in the future. It ensures limited funds are directed to policies and infrastructure investments that promote sustainable resilient development and mitigate and adapt to climate change.