Visualizing policy

In my sustainability communication work, I’m always interested in the new and innovative methods that are being developed to teach people about climate change science and policy. Recently the Canadian Energy Policy Solutions Simulator came across my desk. This simulator, developed by the Pembina Institute, allows the user to see the emissions savings of different policy instruments that the government could introduce, and how close these different policies may or may not help Canada get to our emissions reduction targets.

A screen capture of the Pembina Institute Energy Policy Solutions landing page
A screen capture of the Pembina Institute Energy Policy Solutions landing page. The image shows the Canadian Parliament buildings at night

Simulators like this are generally thought to be good for communicating about complex topics like climate change (and for that matter, policy). They help to make an issue concrete, and they provide the person receiving the information with  feedback that allows them to assess the validity of different ideas. This simulator allows a person to see the impact of policy on various outputs, like emissions, energy use, and transport, and also allows a person to segment the data outputs by sector, source type, or pollutant. It contains a wide variety of over 50 different policy instruments that can be manipulated to impact emissions over time, and it allows people to compare our current policies and their resulting emissions with ones proposed by the Pan-Canadian Framework. From the visualizations a person produces, they are able to download the data, and they can save and compare multiple graphs. Overall it’s a pretty robust tool.

An example of the graph produced by the Pembina Energy Policy solutions simulator.
An example of the graph produced by the Pembina Energy Policy solutions simulator.

 

What does the Energy Policy Solutions Simulator do well? I think it takes the weird and wacky world of policy and makes it more understandable for people. It shows how directives like “increasing passenger and freight electric vehicle sales by 30%” can actually have a real impact on measured (projected) emissions, which can help achieve a target we said we’d meet in the Paris agreement. Normally, these ideas are very abstract, and the connection between something like an electric vehicle rebate and emissions reduction seems very far removed. Here in this simulator, you can see an automatic reduction in projected emissions, when a policy encouraging the sale of electric vehicles is enacted. This can help concretize different policy decisions for people who aren’t involved in the policy process generally.

Where can the Energy Policy Solutions Simulator improve? A graph-based visualization may still be a little abstract for many people. It doesn’t put people on the ground in the policy making process, and it doesn’t illustrate the many other concerns (economic, ideological, political) that get in the way of shaping policy. It also may still be too technical to really resonate with most ordinary Canadian citizens. I can see its use in a classroom of grade 12 high school students or University students, but a busy Canadian family of 4 may not have the time nor the mental energy to really engage with it.

Over all, I think we need to think about innovative and interactive ways to communicate complex information. This is a good start. We need to also consider how to make the information as accessible as possible. How and where we apply tools like this is part of the equation. Using something like this in a civics class to educate people on the role of policy in a variety of different decisions may be a good way to start. But I think a simulator like this, as good as it is, cannot stand alone, and needs to be part of a suite of accessible science policy communication tools.

Visualizing policy

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