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The common problem of consensus

Last week I wrote about the launch by China of their version of DECC’s 2050 Pathways Calculator. What I didn’t mention was that the Chinese officials were so enthused that they wanted to encourage other countries to copy DECC as well. So the launch had representatives from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, the USA, the UK and Vietnam.

We talked energy and we talked climate and, mostly, we talked 2050 calculators(1). It confirmed to me that we all want energy systems that support jobs and growth, that relieve fuel poverty, that don’t cause dangerous climate change or pollution, that don’t cost much, that are low-risk and that are publicly acceptable. It also confirmed to me that we all differ in what we are willing to compromise from that ideal. So far, no surprise.

But I was surprised. Or perhaps just a victim of a blinding flash of the obvious: when faced with these compromises, the differences between countries are no bigger than the differences within countries. The UK has all colours of views, some very strongly held. The same appeared to be true everywhere. The common problem we all seem to face is what to do, given these differences.

Almost all the countries had analysts – people like me who try to work out the best compromise, given the facts. Almost all the countries also had stories about how such analysis didn’t deliver consensus: the analysis might be too opaque to be trusted; or it might exclude trade-offs that important groups thought sensible; or it might rely on facts that are uncertain or unknowable; or it might be communicated badly. More problems in common.

We’ve had a go at some of these problems with the the 2050 Pathways Calculator: we’ve tried to make it simple and transparent enough to be trusted; we’ve tried to make it expressive enough for people with wildly different views to express their beliefs and preferences; and we’ve tried to make versions that work for different levels of expertise (excel, web, my2050). It is far from perfect, but we’ve discovered a lot of people that like it and in Beijing we heard a lot more enthusiasm. Over the next couple of years I expect our approach will be copied again. A common solution to some common problems.

But the 2050 calculator is a common solution to the small problem of good analysis, not to the big problem of achieving consensus about what to do. Something we are thinking about is whether and how we can get this consensus. We’ve had a go: we’ve made our tools public and seen them used in lots of different ways by enthusiasts, academics and industry; we’ve been sent thousands of different pathways and attempted to analyse their attributes; we’ve tried out different types of workshop with different groups of people: MPs, civil servants, industry experts, diverse members of the public and schoolchildren. But we are debating whether we need to do something more systematic to solve our common problem of consensus.

I’d welcome your ideas. If they work, they might even be copied round the world.

(1) In addition to the UK and China, South Korea and Belgium are both in the process of building their own.



5 Responses to “The common problem of consensus”

  1. Peter Newman says:

    Tom– Oh, dear, I commented too soon on last week’s blog suggesting roll out to other countries. Well done for reading my mind before I’d even formed the thought!

    Putting information and thinking tools like the 2050 calculator into people’s hand is undoubtedly a great step for transparency. But consensus rarely happens in overnight or in one step – like all negotiations, you have to work at it, paring down to what is acceptable to the majority. For example, can anything be learned from feedback so far on what options are not acceptable or least popular?

    I’d be happy to discuss this further (contact by email or via LinkedIn).

  2. Tony says:

    Couldn’t you make the various countries problems anonymous, give each country a copy of another’s problem, tell them to solve it. This would proberbly give a top 5 of common problems. Maybe everyone could agree that solving them would be enough?

  3. Robert Sansom says:

    Hello Tom

    Very interesting. You might be interested in the Energy Islands group exercise designed by UKERC (see ). It is designed for students with the focus on seeking consensus on carbon reduction targets. We’ve run it for a number of years at our international summer school and it’s been very successful.

    With best wishes


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