The anthropogenically induced climate change is a core geopolitical challenge in the twenty-first century, which will be decisive for the long-term global cohabitation of humans, and economic opportunities as a base for wellbeing (WBGU 2011). The energy sector is responsible for 60–70% of global greenhouse gases (IEA 2015), which sets the transformation of the energy system at the centre of any discussion on how to de-fossilize economic systems and thus minimize the carbon footprint of societies. As climate change is a global challenge, the same is true for changing the way energy systems function.
Ways and means to decarbonize the energy supply are the topic of a broad range of discussions at the highest political levels and are also the topic of uncountable scientific articles. Common to most political or scientific contributions is the use of or reference to scenarios (e.g. IEA 2019). Scenarios show development options by revealing important interdependencies and their relevance. However, scenarios do not predict the future, which is often ignored in discussions. Instead, model-based econometric or techno-economic scenarios make an important contribution to science-based policy advice by pointing out alternative futures and their implications. Since past and current political as well as societal developments reveal that the shape of an energy system and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions are the outcome of multidimensional interactions within civil society, as well as between civil society, politics, technology, and the economy (Geels 2004; Verbong and Loorbach 2012), meaningful transition scenarios require a sound consideration of the interplay between society, technology, and environment.
The German energy transition process is an informative case. It reveals the necessity to consider not only techno-economic constraints but also societal ones. Taking into account the history of the German transition process, the societal dimension, and the relevance of interactions between policy, civil society, economy, and technology is clear. Although nowadays motivated by climate protection considerations, the citizens’ movements against nuclear power, which gained prominence from the 1970s, have been identified as one historical but important impetus of the current transition efforts of the energy system (Morris and Pehnt 2012). The design of the German supportive scheme to promote renewable energy carriers also not only reveals the relevance of citizens’ movements but also leads to the continuous involvement of civil society in the outline of the future energy system (cf. Morris and Pehnt 2012; SRU 2013). The obvious necessity of interpreting the German energy transition as a socio-technical system is not a country-specific condition, however. Similar conclusions can be drawn for the analysis of transition processes of energy systems in other countries (e.g. Geels et al. 2020).
However, only a small proportion of societal processes have so far been considered in the techno-economic scenario studies, which dominate political advice. The interplay between civil society, politics, technology, and economy is generally not captured (e.g. IEA 2015; EIA 2013; European Commission 2013; Mander et al. 2008; Spiecker and Weber 2014). A similar, but complementary drawback can be observed in climate scenarios, where techno-economic constraints and the interaction with them are frequently not sufficiently considered (Schweizer and Kriegler 2012).
In an endeavour to improve the integration of socio-technical dynamics in energy scenario research, the presentation and discussion of a scenario approach, which tries to depict the systemic interplay between civil society, politics, economy, and technology in a systematic and comprehensive way, is the overarching aim of this special issue. It addresses this challenge by equipping the traditional energy model analysis with a systematic analysis of the uncertainties and complex interactions of the social, political, economic, and technological contextual factors of the energy system, using an instrument of qualitative system analysis called cross-impact balances (CIB, Weimer-Jehle 2006).
The approach takes into account the long tradition of model-based techno-economic scenarios as well as of societal scenarios. It links both traditions to generate so-called integrated or socio-technical scenarios. The general idea of the approach was put forward in other disciplines, in particular in environmental research and climate change research (Alcamo 2008; Nakicenovic et al. 2000), and was recently improved (Schweizer and Kriegler 2012; Schweizer and O’Neill 2014) by enhancing the qualitative part of scenario construction, using the CIB. While this improvement has been recognised and recommended for climate scenario research and beyond by various scholars (Kemp-Benedict 2012; Lloyd and Schweizer 2014; Carlsen et al. 2017; Guivarch et al. 2017; Elsawah et al. 2020), its potential for application in other research fields has received less attention. This special issue tries to give new impetus at this point and adapts this methodological development to the field of energy scenario research.
The expectation of adopting this approach is not only to satisfy scientific curiosity but also to enhance the quality of the findings with regard to the coherence of techno-economic with societal developments and thus to the robustness of policy advice.
The special issue aims at two goals: on the one hand, the roots and conceptualization of the method of socio-technical scenarios will be analysed. On the other hand, two case studies reveal the flexibility of the approach. The case studies will address the German endeavour towards greenhouse gas mitigation as a regional example. The application of the approach itself is not limited to a specific regional context.
In its aim to improve the systematic integration of socio-technical context processes in energy scenario research, the special issue puts itself in a wider context of recent broad-based efforts by the scientific scenario community to critically review previous practice, identify flaws, and enhance the application of scenario methodology in environmental and energy research (e.g., Elsawah et al. 2020). The influence of socio-technical dynamics is only one challenge in the field. Another issue is, for instance, how to better deal with complexity and uncertainty in general, as addressed in a recent special issue of Environmental Modelling and Software (Guivarch et al. 2017). This topic is closely connected to the challenge of addressing socio-technical effects, because the uncertainty of societal and social developments is one source of uncertainty for environmental and energy systems, and the systemic interplay between the contextual factors and the feedback from the system to the context is an element of system complexity. In this broader environment, the present special issue intends to complement the Guivarch et al. (2017) special issue, and as a component of the current efforts of the scenario community towards better scenario practice.