Taco Niet | Just Climate Policies: Modelling for Evidence-Based Decision-Making

PFL 2021-2022, Equity + Justice, Climate + Environment, 2022, President's Faculty Lectures

Addressing the climate crisis in an equitable and just way will require significant policy and infrastructure changes in a short timeframe. It is imperative that the decisions we make now are grounded in principles of justice and equity while ensuring that the path we chart reduces emissions and avoids environmental collapse. To make effective choices, we need evidence-based decision-making tools like models to evaluate our choices and identify pathways with the best chance of solving the climate crisis. My work with the United Nations supporting countries through modelling has given me a broad perspective not only on the challenges we face, but also on the opportunities available, to build better energy systems and improve the lives of countless people across the planet.

— Taco Niet

Tue, 25 Jan 2022

Online event


The President's Faculty Lectures

The President’s Faculty Lectures shine a light on the research excellence at Simon Fraser University. Hosted by SFU president Joy Johnson, these free public lectures celebrate cutting-edge research and faculty that engage with communities and mobilize knowledge to make real-world impacts.

Each short lecture by an SFU researcher will be followed by a conversation with Joy Johnson and an audience Q&A session.

This year, lecturers will approach the themes of equity and justice from a variety of disciplines.

Taco Niet

Taco Niet, assistant professor of professional practice in SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering, builds modelling tools to address the challenges at the nexus of Energy+. Energy+ represents all aspects of nature and society, including energy, land, water, climate, health, and other impacts on human and ecological well-being. By helping build tools to understand these intersections, Niet contributes to solving the climate justice challenge. His research team is building a variety of tools, including a North American model to evaluate cross-border carbon policies, a Canadian model to evaluate land use implications of biomass, and tools used internationally to support policy dialogues.

Learn more by visiting the ΔE+ Research Group website



Event summary

Why energy systems researcher Taco Niet is "conditionally optimistic" about climate justice

By Hannah Chan (BASc Student, SFU School of Sustainable Energy Engineering) and Kamaria Kuling (PhD Student, SFU School of Sustainable Energy Engineering)

Dr. Taco Niet is an assistant professor of professional practice in SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering and the principal investigator of the ΔE+ (Delta-E-plus) Research Group. In his President’s Faculty Lecture, Dr. Niet discussed the importance of incorporating justice into our modelling and policy surrounding climate and the energy system.

Elder Margaret George of the Skawahlook First Nation started the event off with a welcome, and reminded us that we are the leaders and mentors of those that follow us. She offered a prayer that we be guided on our path. Dr. Niet then opened his talk with his own positionality, mentioning his upbringing as an immigrant growing up in Blackfoot territory, acknowledging how his background frames his research on the journey towards reconciliation and sustainability.

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While nearly all our electricity in B.C. comes from renewable sources, approximately 80 per cent of our energy system still relies on fossil fuels. Electrifying this 80 per cent entirely with renewable sources, including transportation and residential sectors, would be a huge change requiring a coordinated and concerted effort. The scale of the challenge ahead of us is massive and intimidating.

At the same time, B.C. has seen significant impacts of climate change this year in the form of devastating heat waves, wildfires and floods. Amidst these disasters, Dr. Niet framed the choice we have: we know the world will be really different in 30 years. Will it be because of positive changes we decided to make today, or will we be forced to react to our decision to not act?

Dr. Niet, along with his research group ΔE+, uses energy systems modelling to examine how we can decarbonize and electrify our energy system, while weighing the trade-offs that come with these changes. He invoked the quote by statistician George E. P. Box that “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” emphasizing that models are useful tools only when we understand what they can do, and what their limits are.

The models that Dr. Niet and ΔE+ have been developing explore optimal mixes of energy technologies while considering different policies and strategies for decarbonization. In addition to energy, other systems can be included and considered in these models. Climate, Land, Energy and Water Systems (CLEWs) models, for example, include all of those resource systems and the interactions between them for a more holistic view of positive and negative changes.

Another vital component, one that is difficult to define and incorporate into a model, is how changes to the energy system intersect with justice and equity.

Dr. Niet offered a few examples of this intersection with justice. He highlighted a study done by Tony Reames that discovered how LED light bulbs in a low-income neighbourhood cost twice as much as LEDs in a wealthy neighbourhood. It was easier for the big box stores, which were situated in the wealthy suburbs, to partner with utilities and offer rebates for the energy-efficient products, compared to the smaller stores in lower-income neighbourhoods. 

Systems of oppression are interlinked, and climate policies and decisions should not add inequality to the system. However, the situation is complicated and what may appear as a great policy can have many negative effects. An example of this is the electrification of our energy sectors. If no action is taken, the negative effects of climate change will be felt disproportionately by already marginalized individuals and communities. However, while electrification would have positive environmental impacts, it could also easily raise electricity costs. While some may not be affected by this, or even notice the change, others would be pushed into energy poverty. 

Complicated systems like this are why engaging different communities in decision-making is so important. The use of open-source modelling is also incredibly important in ensuring that the work done can be shared with others and benefit more communities. As well, there is a need for collaboration between experts of different fields and backgrounds to help observe and understand the issues from all perspectives. The emphasis this presentation had on the need for interdisciplinarity and engagement of communities beyond academia is a reminder that research and policies can only effectively solve problems when the most vulnerable communities are engaged. It leads us to think about how to make informed decisions while valuing, not burdening, these communities.

Dr. Niet’s presentation helps us to understand the importance of climate justice when it comes to engineering work. Issues are not isolated from one another, and this must be recognized when discussing climate policies for the future. Modelling tools can be effective in determining how our choices today impact us and future generations in the years to come. Going forward, let us be encouraged by Dr. Niet to be conditionally optimistic: let us recognize that our situation can be improved, but that "we must actively work to make things better."

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