Quantifying Decarbonization Policy Impacts and Considerations for the Use of Gross Domestic Product in Sustainable Development Goals

Zajec, Sofia, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Clarens, Andres, EN-CEE, University of Virginia
Shobe, William, PV-WCC-Weldon Cooper Center, University of Virginia

My technical work and sociotechnical research are connected thematically as they both relate to strategies for developing a sustainable future and more concretely by their incorporation of gross domestic product (GDP) as a metric. In the technical portion, my group investigated the socioeconomic impacts of decarbonization policy via two models: a computable general equilibrium (CGE) and an integrated assessment model (IAM). The latter model utilizes GDP as a key driver in economic modeling. Sociotechnically, I analyzed the extent to which GDP’s use in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is representative of the overarching goal of sustainable development given the intrinsic capabilities of the metric. Both technical and sociotechnical portions of this work involve examining sustainable policy, with the sociotechnical findings on the rise of GDP into the role it plays today providing additional context for interpreting results of economic models such as those used in my technical report. The goal of my technical topic was to create a tool for understanding the economic and technological impacts of decarbonization plans at the state level as part of a larger plan to determine how net-zero emission plans will impact regional economies and environmental quality. To do this, we first built upon an existing CGE model for China and recalibrated it to represent the United States. For both the CGE and GCAM models, we conducted experiments implementing carbon taxes at no, low, and high prices and soft linked the results of the two models focusing on the energy sector. This process and results represent significant progress toward more regional analyses of decarbonization policy which historically have lacked due to the gap of economic information at subnational levels. My sociotechnical work is more pointedly focused on GDP and uses the UN SDGs as a case study. In this research, I explore how GDP exhibits characteristics of technological momentum, a theory created by Thomas Hughes to describe the lifecycle of a technology as it gains increasing influence over the society in which it was created. I argue the use of GDP as an indicator, particularly in SGD 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth is a product of the technological momentum it has and, consequently, its use must be reevaluated to confirm it represents modern economic goals. Working on my technical and sociotechnical research simultaneously helped me understand each in a more nuanced way. Through the technical work, I grew to understand the value of using a universally recorded and standardized metric such as GDP in research. Understanding the metric as imperfect but valuable drew my sociotechnical research away from a criticism of GDP and rather toward a suggestion of how to interpret its use more thoughtfully. The contextualization of GDP in my sociotechnical research allowed me to better understand the limitations of models like those used in my technical research. Similarly, I have come to understand that an imperfect model can still be a valuable one. Overall, these two research projects complemented each other and led to valuable insights into sustainable policy, GDP, and modeling generally.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
decarbonization, sustainable, GDP
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: