Scenarios are among the most frequently encountered types of foresight studies used in policy analysis. Scenarios seek to identify what may plausibly happen under certain conditions or as a consequence of certain decisions, without attaching a probability to any specific event. They are based on the view that the future is something which mankind constructs. As a consequence, scenarios cannot (unlike forecasts) be falsified by actual events. Scenarios remain plausible whether future reality has any resemblance to a scenario or not. Moreover, whilst the time horizon of rigorous forecasts seldom goes beyond several months or even years, scenarios may cover up to several decades.

In a policy context, scenarios are particularly important because policy measures are often bundles of different actions with different time horizons and gestation periods rather than singular items. And these bundles may be designed to address objectives which are in turn multi-dimensional. As a consequence, policy measures may lead to conflicts between different objectives or different stakeholders because one objective is achieved at the cost of another, or because costs and benefits are not shared equally among different groups in society. Hence a comprehensive and multidimensional analysis is necessary which also covers aspects that largely defy attempts at quantification, including unforeseen events.

Beyond these general objectives of scenario building, there are three specific purposes that are of particular relevance from the perspective of sustainability assessments. The first relates to the assessment of the vulnerability of ecological systems with respect to plausible futures and resilience to possible shocks or adverse developments more generally. The second is to explore the effects of policy choices on the development of possible futures relative to the baseline scenario (quite often the status quo), in particular if the baseline scenario involves the violation of one or several of the aforementioned thresholds. The last purpose seeks to identify possible pathways for reaching policy goals or objectives (backcasting). Thus, instead of taking policy choices as given with a view to exploring their consequences, a backcasting approach takes the policy objectives as given, for instance a set of parameter values which purports to characterise a sustainable society, and then seeks to identify the policy choices necessary to achieve these objectives.

Work Conducted

JRC H.08 is currently working on the development of sustainability scenarios which seek to explore different policy settings with a view to assessing the extent to which these policy settings are conducive to designing and implementing ambitious sustainability policies in the European Union. Using a large-scale econometric model of the macroeconomic environment of the European Union and neighbouring countries, the aim is to simulate the effects of different policy packages against a background of plausible assumptions about key variables such a demographic trends or energy and raw material prices, with a view to gauging the implications of these policy packages on key socio-economic and environmental variables.
In addition, and using the same macroeconomic-environment model, the scenario building project works on backcasting scenarios which aim to identify policy options that can be expected to help the European Union achieve suitable environmental sustainability targets by 2050 without compromising other relevant socio-economic priorities and objectives. As opposed to conventional scenario-building exercises, policies are no longer taken as given in backcasting, but become endogenous to the exercise.


Contribution to this Raw Materials Information System

Scenario building as detailed above can provide important information to the RMIS about possible

  • pathways for RM-use and efficiency
  • effects of changing framework conditions including prices on RM-use and efficiency
  • effects of RM-related policies on key environmental indicators and variables
  • effects of RM-related policies on other sectors and repercussions thereof for RM-use and efficiency

In addition, scenario building through backcasting can also inform the policies that are likely to be necessary in order to achieve specific targets with respect to efficiency or overall use of raw materials and about the second-order effects such policies arguably have.

This section draws on ROSENBAUM, E. F., et al. (2012): “Development of Sustainability Scenarios” Ispra: Joint Research Centre.

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