4 item(s) found.

Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

We cannot deal with complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are. This problem is evident with the use of the concept of efficiency in policy discussions and in the definition of indicators. In fact, on a practical and conceptual level, efficiency is an ambiguous and problematic concept to implement in quantitative terms. Of particular concern is the lack of contextual and qualitative information provided in energy efficiency measurements based on simple ratios. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and three video lectures reflecting on the conceptual and practical problems associated with the use of the concept of efficiency in the policy domain.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


How should we measure efficiency? (1 min 57 sec)

How should we measure efficiency? Why are energy efficiency indicators always promoting new gadgets and devices affordable only by the wealthy, while sharing practices, which are normally enacted by the poor and that are equally or even more effective for energy conservation, are systematically ignored?  Choosing an indicator of energy efficiency is never neutral, and it generates “hypocognition” (the missing of other relevant aspects to be considered). These points are explained with clear and simple examples.

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic​ (16 min 40 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic. Equating increases in ‘efficiency’ (based on a definition of performance referring to just a single relevant attribute to be improved, among many others) with ‘sustainability improvements’ is misleading. In fact, the performance of complex systems can only be perceived and described using different levels of analysis and many dimensions of analysis. A simple output/input can only be defined at one given level and dimension at the time. This entails that indicators of efficiency generate “hypocognition” (the missing of relevant aspects of the issue dealt with in the analysis). Several examples are given to illustrate this point.

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions​ (12 min 10 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions. The analysis and the comparison of the performance of the economy of different countries based on simplistic definitions of efficiency should be avoided. One cannot compare efficiency in terms of the use of food of a very old lady, versus that of a young girl and versus that of a breastfeeding woman. When selecting indicators of performance, we cannot compare ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’. In order to characterize the performance of different economies, we have to be able to characterize their mix of production activities, their level of consumption, their level of openness (the terms of trade), the availability and quality of their resources, the goals of their society, etc. If we are not able to contextualize all these factors, the use of indicators dividing one number by another simply cannot generate meaningful information about the efficiency of an economy.

The Jevons Paradox: Why quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency are useless​ (11 min 8 sec)

The Jevons Paradox—Why are quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency useless? Complex adaptive systems are becoming in time and continuously adjusting to the changes imposed on them. For this reason, the more we increase the efficiency of the technology used by humans, the quicker the particular function expressed using that technology will become something else. This is a predicament that affects not only the validity of the policy based on efficiency (the results will be different from what was expected at the moment of the planning) but also the validity of the quantitative analysis (what has been modeled will no longer exist because of the implementation of the policy). A few simple examples show the relevance of these points.


Teams Involved

Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Violeta Cabello & Ansel Renner

The integration of European water and agricultural policies is the subject of a long lasting debate. Within that debate, the importance of agriculture as the main driver of impacts on water bodies has been formally considered since the approval of the Water Framework Directive in the year 2000. Only recently, however, has the European Commission (EC) promoted alignment of water and agricultural policies in its Rural Development Programmes. One important step in that promotion was the creation of a joint working group between the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Directorate-General for the Environment – a working group tasked with steering integration of the two policy domains (EC, 2017). Currently promoted strategies focus primarily on the optimization of contemporary water and agrochemical use practices at the farm level (Rouillard and Berglund, 2017). In the light of on-going experiments, how to better harmonize water and agricultural policies, what concepts and instruments to use in that harmonization and at what governance levels are questions that will be addressed in the years to come.

One policy instrument that merits more attention in the ongoing policy discussion is the coupling of monitoring systems. Monitoring is the process by which the implementation of policies is followed up and evaluated, usually through a set of quantitative criteria and indicators. Indeed, indicators are the main tool used by the European Commission in their assessments, partially because they enable the bottom-up aggregation of information from the scale of implementation up through to the continental level. Both water and agricultural policies have innovated in their monitoring systems by developing varied sets of indicators and measurement procedures. Yet, these systems are not integrated. The recent Common Agricultural Policy monitoring and evaluation framework includes indicators on water quality and availability, but those indicators refer to the national scale and lack any connection with the monitoring efforts associated with the Water Framework Directive. Therefore, by looking at the set of numbers provided, it is impossible to know why and how agriculture impacts water resources in Europe. In a previous article of The Nexus Times, Völker and Kovacic caution against the performative role of numbers in evaluating progress towards policy targets. That is, the way indicators are conceived has an effect in the way policy goals themselves are perceived. Once measurement procedures are established, Völker and Kovacic argue, they become more rigid and difficult to change. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask now what indicators and accounting procedures are relevant and needed in the process of harmonization of water and agricultural policies.

As part of the MAGIC project, we are prototyping a coupled water-food accounting system that connects farming system typologies to the water bodies they depend on. The following data dashboard shows an integrated set of environmental and socio-economic indicators using data from the province of Almería in southeastern Spain. In our prototype, we focussed on quantitative impacts on aquifers and diagnosed social-ecological patterns in the year 2015. That is, we explored and relayed crucial information over what farming systems are driving the various levels of aquifer overexploitation.

Figure 1 – An example of an integrated monitoring system of water and agricultural policies for the region of Almería in Southern Spain. Source: Cabello et al. 2019.

During our research, we learnt that it is key to both monitor impacts in relative and absolute terms and to place environmental pressures such as water withdrawal and fertilizer leakage in the context of their wider eco-hydrological system. For instance, in the analyses of indicators in Figure 1 we observed that high overdraft rates were observed in both high-volume and low-volume aquifers. While low aquifer recharge rates were a major driving factor, we also learnt that similar levels of aquifer impact can be driven by various mixes of agricultural system types each with different production and market strategies. Attending to social-ecological diversity, such as that provided by mixes of agricultural system types, appears as a key challenge for future policy reviews and integration efforts. Current efforts are bogged down by sparse agricultural data defined at relatively aggregate scales, an aspect which creates difficulty as far as integration with water data goes. Difficulties aside, the integration of water and agricultural policies is an urgent task highly relevant for the future health of the European environment. Moving forward, the advancement of a coupled monitoring system between water and agricultural policies will require public administrations to make a serious effort to produce coherent databases.



Cabello, V., Renner, A., Giampietro, M., 2019. Relational analysis of the resource nexus in arid land crop production. Advances in Water Resources 130, 258–269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.advwatres.2019.06.014

European Commission. 2017. Agriculture and Sustainable Water Management in the EU. COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT. Available at: https://circabc.europa.eu/sd/a/abff972e-203a-4b4e-b42e-a0f291d3fdf9/SWD_2017_EN_V4_P1_885057.pdf

Rouillard, J., Berglum, M. 2017. European level report: Key descriptive statistics on the consideration of water issues in the Rural Development Programmes 2014-2020. Report to the European Commision. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/pdf/EU_overview_report_RDPs.pdf

The treacherous use of indicators for SDGs

The treacherous use of indicators for SDGs

Mario Giampietro

The experience of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has shown the difficulty of  trying to achieve international consensus on required action to tackle global challenges such as the problem of climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on the other hand, rather than looking for an international consensus on specific actions for achieving “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”, directly opted for a detailed formulation of targets and indicators. In 2015 the UN General Assembly provided no less than 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 169 targets for the 17 goals, each of which has between 1 and 3 indicators to measure progress toward the targets. In total, 232 approved indicators to measure progress. However, as with the case of climate change, when looking at the results both on people (provided by UNHCR) and on the planet (in the latest IPBES report) there is no sign of an imminent wave of peace and prosperity.

The question we need to address here is the following: Is there is a systemic problem with the strategies selected by international bodies and national governments to deal with so-called “wicked” problems such as sustainable development and climate change?  Is the translation of a mission explained in semantic terms as peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”  into a set of 232 pre-approved indicators a wise move? To address this question, I use the approach developed in MAGIC to look at three types of narratives that need to be integrated when discussing complex policy issues.

Justification narratives—To guide specific actions useful for society, it is essential first of all, to identify societal concerns i.e. the perception of a stress to be avoided or the existence of unsatisfied wants. Next step is to prioritise these concerns because valid justification narratives can be in contrast. For example, “aspiration for economic growth” (SDG 1 & 2) and “need to preserve the environment” (SDG 14 & 15). This entails that the priority given to justification narratives always depends on the context. Dealing with contrasting justification narratives is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Normative narratives—In the context of governance and politics, normative narratives identify actions needed to address specific concerns. However, the choice of a specific action depends not only on a previous prioritisation over existing concerns but also on the analysis of the consequences of the action in terms of winners and losers. When dealing with the goal of “zero hunger” (SDG 2) we can make several suggestions: (i) give funding to the ministers of agriculture of countries with malnutrition; (ii) making fertilizers available to poor farmers; (iii) distribute emergency food in refugee camps.  Trade-offs between these solutions will generate different types of winners and losers.  Implementing more effective agricultural policies may improve the situation in the future, but does nothing to help poor farmers now; starving people want food not fertilizers. The perception of the usefulness of the chosen normative narratives always depends on the feelings and values of stakeholders. When “considering the nexus between energy, food, water, land use, ecological services, across different scales and dimensions, the legitimate aspirations of individual countries, the whole planet, present and future generations” [1] it becomes obvious that the choice of a specific action(s) to be taken is a political problem, not a scientific one.

Explanation narratives—In modern society, when implementing policies, “scientific evidence” is commonly cast in quantitative form, and thus indicators become a privileged form of evidence. Indicators allow the analysis of relevant attributes to characterise the performance of proposed solutions with numbers. Fractal geometry [2] flags the problem faced with this solution when dealing with issues requiring a multi-scale analysis. Let’s imagine that we want to use indicators to select a passenger tour around the coast of UK that minimises the consumption of fuels and the number of overnight stops. Detailed maps and reliable information about fuel consumption and the speed of the means of transport will not enable the identification of a solution that can be used by different operators using both boats and buses. By boat (keeping a safe distance from the shore), the UK coastline is approx. 2800 km. By bus, using coastal roads, the distance is 3400 km. Fractal geometry [2] explains that the length of the UK coastline “changes” not because of lack of accuracy in its representation, but because of a different understanding of what can or should be measured. When different perceptions of the external world co-exist because of different concerns and different purposes, the need to adopt different scales and dimensions of analysis makes the use of quantitative indicators and targets treacherous. Indicators for poverty (SDG 1), justice (SDG 10) and biodiversity (SDG 15 & 16) will always be contested.


The identification of policies linked to the SDGs should be based on: (i) definition of priorities over concerns (for which justification narratives should be used on a case by case basis); and (ii) decision of how to deliberate on the existence of “incommensurable trade-offs” across scales and dimensions. Normative narratives should be selected, again, on a case by case basis. When dealing with the implementation of the SDGs, the issue of how to prioritise concerns and who should be involved (and how) in decision-making is a paramount political issue. This explains why, as illustrated by the experience of the climate COP, getting results through globalised political processes is not easy. However, the current solution through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is even worse. Given the unavoidable existence of trade-offs and uncertainty, SDG targets and indicators should only be considered after a political discussion of the proposed normative narratives in a specific context.  In specific situations none of the 232 approved SDGs indicators can be used as evidence of an “improvement” outside of a process of unpleasant political discussions about priorities and losers.

A fuller discussion about the use of scientific evidence for governance in complexity is available here.




[1] Giampietro M. and Funtowicz S.O. (2020), From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy, Environmental Science and Policy 100: 64-72 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.04.012

[2] Mandelbrot, B. (1967), How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension, Science 156 (3775): 636–638. doi:10.1126/science.156.3775.636


The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

Thomas Völker and colleagues

In a recent publication by the MAGIC project, Völker and colleagues investigate the changes that are emerging in governance with regard to the nexus. Recognizing the interconnections between water, energy and food, means also acknowledging how water policies, energy policies and food policies interact with each other – sometimes by reinforcing each other, and sometimes by supporting contradictory goals. In order to make these synergies and trade-offs visible, policy makers in the European Union are relying more and more on indicators. The paper asks, are indicators a good means of raising awareness about complexity of governing for sustainability and challenging existing governance structures or are they a way of reducing the complexity to a technical problem, that can be measured and managed through existing institutional arrangements?

Quantification requires considerable work and relies on technical and administrative infrastructures that allow for data collection and processing. Once such “accounting machineries” are put in place, they become not only quite stable and “sticky”. The creation of new metrics on the nexus have, therefore, the potential of creating new paths of accountability. For example, nexus indicators can expand accountability of agricultural policies outside of the agricultural realm and including water governance, energy governance and other sustainability goals, such as climate and biodiversity. But indicator production may also suffer from the stickiness of the current “managerial” system of governance.

The analysis builds on 28 interviews with 32 actors from different European Commission DGs, members of European Parliament and its Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) as well as from the European Environment Agency (EEA). Our primary focus was on the views and experiences of the staff within the Commission. The Commission is the administration for the European Parliament and Council of Europe, and is responsible for making, implementing, evaluating and enforcing cross-European policies that are mandatory for the 28 member states in the current European Union. The Commission is organized into 33 Directorate-Generals (DGs -departments), each with a separate, specific and self-contained policy area, giving rise to the idea of “policy silos”.

Our data indicate that there are institutional logics and mechanisms that might hinder an implementation of nexus governance. Interviewees stressed that there is little room to think about what people are doing when one is busy and focused on immediate priorities. Metrics on the nexus are welcome as eye-opening evidence that may help overcome policy made in “silos” – within DGs, and without regard for how policies affect each other. New data may challenge taken for granted ways of thinking and doing things within European policy making. The water-energy-food nexus is framed as a problem of institutional arrangements and working culture. For challenging this status quo, however, our interviewees ask for novel forms of quantified knowledge and in doing so reinforce the mode of governance that relies on the “managerial” approach to metrics, which leads to a process of de-politicizing difficult political decisions about the trade-offs of sustainability through the notion of the nexus as measurable interconnections.



Völker, T., Blackstock, K., Kovacic, Z., Sindt, J., Strand, R. and Waylen, K. (2019). The role of metrics in the governance of the water-energy-food nexus within the European Commission. Journal of Rural Studieshttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.08.001