How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the urban poor?

By Benigna Boza-Kiss, Shonali Pachauri, and Caroline Zimm from the IIASA Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group

Benigna Boza-Kiss, Shonali Pachauri, and Caroline Zimm explain how COVID-19 has impacted the poor in cities and what can be done to increase the future resilience of vulnerable populations.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a halt to life as we knew it. We have been restrained in our activities and freedoms, forced to stay indoors at home, to cancel travel plans, and to transfer meetings to an online space, where most of us have also celebrated birthdays and other important life events that should have been in person with our loved ones. These changes have impacted many aspects of our comfort, our social wellbeing, as well as our financial situations, but it has also brought existing inequalities and poverty into the spotlight.

The risks of the pandemic and restrictions following containment measures have been felt most acutely by the poor, the vulnerable, those in the informal sector, and those without savings and safety nets. The suffering of women in the health sector, school children in households without electricity and internet, workers in the informal sector that don’t have the option to telework, crowds living in slums – to name just a few examples of vulnerable groups – have become glaringly visible to all. These people have had to adapt to new rules and conditions when they were living on the edge even before the pandemic.

In a new perspective piece published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, we explored how aspects related to access to shelter/housing, modern energy, and digital services in cities have influenced the poor and what can be done to increase the future resilience of vulnerable populations.

We described three ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic and related containment measures have exacerbated urban inequalities, and identified how subsequent recovery measures and policy responses could redress these.

First, lockdowns amplified urban energy poverty. Staying at home has meant increased energy use at home. For the poor, who already struggle with utility costs, and typically live in low energy quality buildings, these services have become even more unaffordable. These populations also shoulder a higher burden of poor health, for example, higher incidence of respiratory problems, with poor or inadequate ventilation and insulation increasing their risk of infection even more.

Second, preexisting digital divides have surfaced, even within well-connected cities. Multiple barriers limit digital inclusion: access to digital technologies due to high costs (for devices, internet access, and electricity connections), and unreliable services (again both for electricity and internet), as well as low digital literacy and support. This lack of adequate digital service access is contributing to these populations falling further behind during lockdowns as they miss out on education and income.

Third, slum dwellers in the world’s cities have been particularly hard hit, because of precarious and overcrowded housing conditions, lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, and a high concentration of the socioeconomically disadvantaged, resulting in even more negative consequences of lockdown measures. With many slum inhabitants working in the informal sector, many have been left either without jobs and income, or have been compelled to work in precarious and unsafe conditions to survive. The loss of income has also had knock-on effects, making payments of regular expenditures for rent, water, electricity, and other utility services difficult. Women within these settlements have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, as they are over represented in the informal economy, and more likely to be engaged in invisible work, such as home-based or domestic and care work.

Recovery measures need to ensure immediate relief, but also point towards long-term solutions that contribute to the redistribution of wealth and new urban development, while also increasing resilience to the current and future pandemics or other disasters. There are tested measures that should be reemphasized.

Urban green recovery plans that include large-scale home renovation programs could ensure warm, healthy homes, and affordable energy bills for all. In the shorter-term, alleviation of payment defaults on the rents and utility bills of the energy poor should continue. In parallel, urban digital preparedness, more equal access to the virtual delivery of essential services, and provision of opportunities for virtual working and education for all in the future, need attention.

COVID-19 can be a wake up call to increase efforts to close the digital divide and push for structural change. The crisis has increased the urgency to redesign and improve informal settlements and provide adequate and efficient services that address the diverse needs of poor urban residents. This requires partnerships between urban municipalities, planners, and stakeholders, as well as strengthening local communities for inclusive planning strategies. More immediately, it is necessary to provide direct support to slum and informal settlement populations in terms of income support, adequate nutrition, energy, water, and other basic infrastructure and services.

All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “test of societies, of governments, of communities, and of individuals”. Digital technologies, home renovation, and slum rehabilitation are the means, rather than the end to improve conditions for all, but if specifically targeted to the poor and most deprived, such measures can reduce inequalities and increase resilience.

Reference:

Boza-Kiss, B., Pachauri, S., & Zimm, C. (2021). Deprivations and Inequities in Cities Viewed Through a Pandemic Lens. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities 3 e645914. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17121]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

A story of new beginnings

By Marie Franquin, External Relations Officer in the IIASA Communications and External Relations Department

Marie Franquin writes about her first six months as part of the IIASA Communications and External Relations team.

This year has certainly been a great challenge for all of us, migrating our lives online and our offices to the living-room. Last summer, I finished my PhD and was ecstatic to have found a job at IIASA that encompassed day-to-day work on my favorite skills: international stakeholder engagement, policy interface, and interacting with researchers, including early career ones!

All of these aspects were covered in the newly launched 2021-2030 IIASA Strategy that was published in the winter. My challenge remained to know how I could best apply my science to policy and research skills to contribute to these goals. How do I help a systems analysis research community move towards more impact and increasing stakeholder engagement?

It quickly became obvious that my position in the external relations team required multitasking and honing a series of skills. The first and top skill that I have kept developing for the past six months was interacting with international stakeholders from all over the world, which included not only our National Member Organization (NMO) representatives and researchers from these countries, but also IIASA researchers and alumni. Working at IIASA I have already gained experience in developing relationships with stakeholders of the research community all over the world.

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The IIASA stakeholder community also sheds new light on the value of the institute’s expertise in systems analysis for building international scientific partnerships, whether it be formal ones with my colleague Sergey Sizov and his science diplomacy expertise, or by facilitating research partnerships between our NMO countries and IIASA researchers.

With my colleague Monika Bauer, I am also learning about the future of stakeholder engagement and how to build virtual communities, like she’s doing with IIASA Connect:

“We are building the global systems analysis network on IIASA Connect. This tool allows colleagues, alumni, the institute’s regional communities, and collaborators to directly engage with each other and take advantage of the institute’s international and interdisciplinary network. It is something completely new for the organization,” she explains.

Our recent partnership with the Strategic Initiatives (SI) Program was aimed at better understanding the IIASA NMO countries and their individual research priorities for the next decades. I learned about local challenges and strengths and how countries have managed to move forward as a nation or by working hand in hand with their neighbors.

Coming from a research background, I am fascinated by the insights I am gaining working with IIASA communications colleagues on how to promote research and its impacts. I particularly enjoyed working with Ansa Heyl, helping IIASA experts build their policy brief submissions for the recent T20 Italy call for abstracts. As part of my skillset and center of interest, I aim to apply my science to policy skills here at IIASA to support the researchers and impacts of the amazing work done across the institute.

Having mostly worked with and for early career researchers for several years, I remain sensitive to their needs for career development opportunities. I am therefore excited to work with colleagues in the institute’s Capacity Development and Academic Training (CDAT) program to further define and support research excellence at IIASA, especially in the very promising next generation of systems scientists.

Few workplaces are so well connected and offer so many opportunities to develop such a broad range of skills as the IIASA Communications and External Relations team. As we are working towards fulfilling the IIASA Strategy’s aim of strengthening partnerships, I look forward to continuing to interact with IIASA researchers and supporting the institute’s goals of making sure the work done at IIASA positively impacts society. So come and chat with me!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How we count energy poverty is broken, requires new framework

By Shonali Pachauri, Research Group leader, Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions

Shonali Pachauri discusses a new framework developed at IIASA to more accurately identify the energy poor.

PowerForAll

Energy is a prerequisite for economic and social development. Today, it is widely believed that there are 840 million people still living without electricity in Africa and Asia, while many more are without access to reliable power. And because of COVID-19, this number is growing again.

But what if this data, which governments and donors rely on to allocate money and shape policy, are flawed? And what if we’re even further from eradicating energy poverty than we think? This is the conclusion of a new framework for counting energy access.

The United Nations uses a simple indicator of the share of population with electricity connections to measure energy access. But this grossly underestimates the number of energy poor, because it considers a household to have access even if they receive irregular quality and hours of electricity supply or are unable to afford anything beyond an electric light.

Recent efforts to improve how we measure energy poverty have made vast improvements but have now resulted in frameworks that are complicated and “data needy”, therefore difficult to scale up to a global level.

A new framework developed by IIASA builds on existing measurement frameworks, but simplifies and advances these to more accurately identify the energy poor. It has already been applied to actual data from Ethiopia, India, and Rwanda to test how well it captures energy poverty in comparison to the World Bank’s Multi-Tier Framework (MTF).

The framework distinguishes between two aspects of access: the quality of power supply and the circumstances of the end-user. This distinction is important to better direct policy efforts where they are most needed, that is, to energy suppliers and/or to households. It also reduces the number of dimensions and tiers to simplify the MTF.

Instead of correlating energy consumption with energy access, a key advancement of the new framework is using ownership of different types of appliances as a proxy for measuring household amenities and services derived from the use of these appliances to improve wellbeing. Electricity consumption is a misleading measure of energy service, because for those who use inefficient appliances, more consumption does not translate into more service. For instance, a household using six inefficient light bulbs is not better off than one that uses three efficient high luminosity light points and an efficient fan that provides comfort from the summer heat. The framework also improves on how affordability is measured to consider appliance purchase costs in addition to recurrent electricity expenditures in assessing the budget share spent on electric services.

When applied to real data, the framework suggests that the energy poor are more segmented than what is reflected by existing binary or MTF indicators. The categorization of households according to electricity consumption differs markedly from that according to energy services and using appliance ownership, revealing greater heterogeneity among the energy poor than what is reflected in the MTF’s consumption-based indicator.

In addition, the new framework shows that affordability is even more of a constraint to gaining access to modern electric services for households in Ethiopia, India, and Rwanda than reflected by the MTF. According to the MTF’s indicator of affordability, practically no one in Ethiopia or India would be considered unable to afford electricity access. However, if one includes the discounted cost of appliances needed to consume electricity in the indicator, about a third of the population in India and Ethiopia might be categorized as facing issues with affordability. In Rwanda, even without considering the discounted cost of appliances, most electricity consuming households are faced with affordability constraints to using basic electric services at home.

This evolution of measuring energy access is just a first step to more accurately counting the energy poor. This needs to go hand in hand with better data gathering, especially for countries and regions that face the biggest challenges in terms of extending access to modern energy services. Further refinements and applications of the framework can help improve how we identify the most vulnerable and design and target policies to achieve true energy access for all.

This blog post was first published on the PowerForAll Energy policy website. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Science communication for a humane world

By Shorouk Elkobros, IIASA Science Communications Fellow

Shorouk Elkobros shares her love for science communication and why she thinks it is pivotal for humanity.

Early 2020, I saw viral GIFs about social distancing and flattening the curve. I remember how useful and accessible it felt to have science communicated in such a fun and non-jargon way, especially during a global crisis.

In today’s post-truth world, misinformation campaigns travel fast. Hence, science communication’s role becomes pivotal to humanity. Anne Glover, the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, once said that “research not communicated is effectively research not done.”

What is science communication?

Science communication is the practice of educating and raising awareness of science-related topics. Science communicators, therefore, aspire to bridge the gap between science and the public and to inform decision makers.

But is it that easy?

You guessed it  ̶  it is not. However, it is a challenge one would love to take on. Science communication is a constant game of problem solving.

Meme from the American sitcom television series Parks and Recreation | awwmemes.com

It is never about dumbing down information but rather about making it concise and clear. It requires a decent amount of practice, careful attention to language, and a deep understanding of the audience.

Enticing readers with clickbait information and sensationalized or misleading facts has almost pushed the reputation of science communication under the bus. Examples include the COVID-19 conspiracy theories that emerged amid the pandemic or climate change deniers’ campaigns that share fake scientific news to mislead the public.

Why I love science communication?

I come from a science background and a love for visual storytelling. After earning my master’s degree in climate sciences, I chose to become a science communicator because it brings me joy to make science relatable and fun for the public. For me, science communication is a great way to mainstream climate action.

In 2019, I worked closely with the CLICCS B1 team at the University of Hamburg, Germany, where I investigated how our imaginations of possible and plausible climate futures are socially and culturally constituted and embedded in broader visions of the future and belief systems. One thing I learned was that the mainstream media either tones down the climate crises or spreads alarming and apocalyptic messages. It was an eye-opening experience to investigate how climate change is communicated in the media and to recommend amends. However, I always wanted to practice what I preached. I was lucky to volunteer as an editor on the Climate Matters blog and as a video editor in conferences such as Tropentag 2019. The sense of satisfaction that I felt every time I worked on an article or a video made me realize that I want to pursue a career in science communication.

IIASA Science communication

In 2020 I was looking for opportunities to embark on a science communication learning journey to become a better science writer and a better storyteller. Having the chance to do a Science Communication Fellowship at IIASA was an experience that I hold near and dear to my heart. This program is targeted towards early career science communicators who want to sharpen their science communication skills. It was the perfect opportunity for me to transition from academia to the practical field.

Working closely with researchers to produce content on blogs, videos, and news-in-brief articles in the Options magazine 2020 winter edition gave me an excellent perspective on environmental, economic, technological, and social change all around the globe. Knowing that my work can provide the needed information to policymakers is so rewarding because I know it can make a change in the years to come. Interviewing early career researchers and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumni, and listening to them discussing their work and future aspirations was awe-inspiring. I think my favorite project was producing a video on the biodiversity work done at IIASA because I was able to look beyond the research and highlight the researchers behind it. I figured one way people would relate to the science is if I put a human face to it.

Working as part of the IIASA communications team has been a blast. For this blog, I asked my team members why they love science communication, and here are some of my favorite replies:

Communicating research addressing issues such as food and water security, biodiversity, or climate change can boost regenerative economies and decentralized renewable energy systems. It then becomes pivotal for humanity to give a voice to young people, grassroots movements, and people of color. Historically, researchers involved in outreach gave science communication its modern shape. Today, I think we live in a golden age of science communication. There are more thought-provoking science stories than ever before. Scientists blogging about science, science communicators using social media to promote recent publications, and storytellers creating science-oriented videos or designs, are all doing magnificent work, and I am lucky to count myself as one of them.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

From pasture to plate: can beef be produced sustainably?

By Shorouk Elkobros, 2020 IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Being mindful of biodiversity loss and environmental impact can disrupt the beef industry globally, here’s how.

In his new polemical Netflix documentary, A life on our planet, Sir David Attenborough argues that, “We live on a finely tuned life support machine, one that relies on its biodiversity to run smoothly.”

The decline in biodiversity challenges the world’s capacity to produce food for a growing population. That is ironic when global food production itself is a contributing factor to biodiversity loss, especially beef production.

What’s wrong with the beef industry?

Here are a couple of the current challenges facing the beef industry: Cows are major culprits in climate change because they emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Beef production is the number one driver of deforestation and habitat loss in tropical forests. Grazing cattle also require a large amount of grass that requires using harsh nitrogen fertilizers. Hence, the beef production industry contributes heavily to biodiversity loss, which has dire consequences for the planet.

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There is no silver bullet to solve the challenges beef production poses to the environment. Research is going above and beyond to find diverse and integrated solutions that can go hand in hand to combat this challenge. Whether through ways to reduce methane emissions, such as creating an anti-burp vaccine for cows, designing lab-grown meat, or shifting diets to plant-based alternatives.

Katie Lee, an alumna of the 2020 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and PhD student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, is part of a broader project that focuses on redistributing where we produce beef to minimize its impact on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity, as well as on the cost of production.

“I am particularly interested in ways to enhance the types of beef production systems. With the challenges of its water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and the large areas of land it requires compared to any other food source, any small changes we propose can have a big impact,” she explains.

For Lee, solutions to global food security are crucial, and looking at the status of production systems is both a need and a must. The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. So, when thinking about ways to feed 10 Billion people by 2050, it becomes clear that it is not enough to simply look at beef alternatives without enhancing its current demand and supply chains. Lee thinks it is more efficient to pragmatically alter and improve the environmental impact of beef production than to convince people to stop eating beef.

It is understood that reducing beef consumption has health benefits. However, with a growing interest in alternative meat options, the question remains of which markets this appeals to, and how environmentally friendly and energy- and water intensive these alternatives are.

“While demand reduction on meat is important, sometimes it is not feasible in countries that do not have economic security or are still growing in terms of affluence, which leads to an increase in beef consumption. That is why we need to look at the producer side and the consumer side, as well as everything in between to have the biggest impact. I was particularly interested to conduct this research in cooperation with IIASA, mainly because the institute has a good history of looking at the impact of beef, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lee.

A win-win all-round solution

Using the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), Lee is assessing the impact on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity when shifting both the production and demand of beef. Preliminary results from her ongoing study show a reduction in impact on biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a reduction of the producer price when switching away from extensive grazing systems  ̶  a win-win situation all-round.

“Few studies explicitly address biodiversity loss compared to investigating ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I want to show stakeholders that beef production can be more efficient in terms of reducing its impact on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. I am hopeful that this study can help beef producers to be mindful of this when making choices. That will be a win for the environment if it goes together with a proactive reduction of meat consumption,” concludes Lee.

Similar to Lee’s study and using a set of large-scale economic models including GLOBIOM, the IIASA AnimalChange research project aims to assess the global scale adaptation and mitigation options of the livestock sector to ensure a sustainable livestock production sector by 2050.

Limiting global warming and protecting biodiversity should be a priority when designing food systems able to feed an increasing population. As a food producer, whether you raise cattle or design cell cultured meat, it is important to be conscious about livestock hoof prints on biodiversity. As a food consumer, it is necessary to be mindful of having a healthy and sustainable diet that does not put the planet in jeopardy. Sustainable beef production might not be the panacea to future biodiversity loss or food scarcity, yet it can offer a significant change.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

What did we learn from COVID-19 models?

By Sibel Eker, researcher in the IIASA Energy Program

IIASA researcher Sibel Eker explores the usefulness and reliability of COVID-19 models for informing decision making about the extent of the epidemic and the healthcare problem.

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when facts were uncertain, decisions were urgent, and stakes were very high, both the public and policymakers turned not to oracles, but to mathematical modelers to ask how many people could be infected and how the pandemic would evolve. The response was a plethora of hypothetical models shared on online platforms and numerous better calibrated scientific models published in online repositories. A few such models were announced to support governments’ decision-making processes in countries like Austria, the UK, and the US.

With this announcement, a heated debate began about the accuracy of model projections and their reliability. In the UK, for instance, the model developed by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London projected around 500,000 and 20,000 deaths without and with strict measures, respectively. These different policy scenarios were misinterpreted by the media as a drastic variation in the model assumptions, and hence a lack of reliability. In the US, projections of the model developed by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) changed as new data were fed into the model, sparking further debate about the accuracy thereof.

This discussion about the accuracy and reliability of COVID-19 models led me to rethink model validity and validation. In a previous study, my colleagues and I showed that, based on a vast scientific literature on model validation and practitioners’ views, validity often equates with how good a model represents the reality, which is often measured by how accurately the model replicates the observed data. However, representativeness does not always imply the usefulness of a model. A commentary following that study emphasized the tradeoff between representativeness and the propagation error caused by it, thereby cautioning against an exaggerated focus on extending model boundaries and creating a modeling hubris.

Following these previous studies, in my latest commentary in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, I briefly reviewed the COVID-19 models used in public policymaking in Austria, the UK, and the US in terms of how they capture the complexity of reality, how they report their validation, and how they communicate their assumptions and uncertainties. I concluded that the three models are undeniably useful for informing the public and policy debate about the extent of the epidemic and the healthcare problem. They serve the purpose of synthesizing the best available knowledge and data, and they provide a testbed for altering our assumptions and creating a variety of “what-if” scenarios. However, they cannot be seen as accurate prediction tools, not only because no model is able to do this, but also because these models lacked thorough formal validation according to their reports in late March. While it may be true that media misinterpretation triggered the debate about accuracy, there are expressions of overconfidence in the reporting of these models, even though the communication of uncertainties and assumptions are not fully clear.

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© Jaka Vukotič | Dreamstime.com

The uncertainty and urgency associated with pandemic decision-making is familiar to many policymaking situations from climate change mitigation to sustainable resource management. Therefore, the lessons learned from the use of COVID models can resonate in other disciplines. Post-crisis research can analyze the usefulness of these models in the discourse and decision making so that we can better prepare for the next outbreak and we can better utilize policy models in any situation. Until then, we should take the prediction claims of any model with caution, focus on the scenario analysis capability of models, and remind ourselves one more time that a model is a representation of reality, not the reality itself, like René Magritte notes that his perfectly curved and brightly polished pipe is not a pipe.

References

Eker S (2020). Validity and usefulness of COVID-19 models. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 7 (1) [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16614]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.