Beyond averages and aggregates

By Shonali Pachauri, Senior Researcher in the IIASA Energy Program

Shonali Pachauri explains why data, indicators, and monitoring at finer scales are important to ensure that everyone benefits from policies and efforts aimed at achieving national and global development goals.

A world where no one is left behind by 2030, is the promise nations have made by adopting the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development. But how does one ensure that no one is left behind? It requires designing inclusive policies and programs that target the most vulnerable and marginalized regions and populations. Sound data and indicators underpin our current understanding of the status of development and are an important part of periodic reviews to determine the direction and pace of progress towards achieving agreed goals. These form the basis of informed decisions and evidence-based policymaking. While an exhaustive list of indicators has been prescribed to monitor progress towards the globally agreed goals, these have been largely defined at a national scale. These goals rely overwhelmingly on simple averages and aggregates that mask underlying variations and distributions.

Indian woman walking home with fire wood © Devy |

Recent work I’ve been involved in makes the pitfalls of working with averages and aggregates alone abundantly clear. They can obscure uneven patterns of changes and impacts across regions and groups within the same nation. The overall conclusion of this work is that, even if the globally agreed goals are met by 2030, this is no guarantee that everyone will benefit from their achievement.

A recent Nature Energy – News & Views piece I was invited to write reports on a study that assessed the impacts of China’s recent coal to electricity program across villages in the Beijing municipal region. The program subsidizes electricity and electric heat pumps and has been rolling out a ban on coal use for household heating. The study found that the benefits of the program to home comfort, air quality, and wellbeing varied significantly across rich and poor districts. In poor districts, the study found that the ban was not effective as poor households were still unable to afford the more expensive electric heating and were continuing to rely on coal. Studies such as this one that help us understand how and why benefits of a program may vary across regions or population groups can aid policy- and decision makers in formulating more fair and inclusive policies.

In other recent research carried out with colleagues in the IIASA Energy Program, the Future Energy Program at the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) in Italy, and the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria, Canada, we developed a detailed satellite nightlights derived dataset to track progress with providing electricity access at a sub-national level in Africa. We found that while progress with electrification between 2014 and 2018 varied across nations, at a sub-national provincial level, disparities were even more pronounced. Even more surprising, while electricity access is generally higher and easier to extend in urban areas, we found urban pockets where access has stagnated or even worsened. This correlated with areas where in-migration of populations had been high. These areas likely include urban slums or peri-urban regions where expanding electricity access continues to be challenging. Furthermore, our analysis shows that even where access has been extended, there are regions where electricity use remains extremely low, which means that people are not really benefitting from the services electricity can provide.

In a final example, of research carried out with collaborators from the University of British Columbia and the Stockholm Environment Institute, we evaluated a large nationwide program to promote cooking with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Indian households to induce a shift away from the use of polluting solid fuels. While this program specifically targets poor and deprived, largely rural households, our assessment found that although there has been an unprecedented increase in enrollments of new LPG customers under the program, this has not been matched by an equal increase in LPG sales. In fact, we found consumption of LPG by program beneficiaries was about half that of the average rural consumer. Moreover, when we examined how purchases were distributed across all new consumers, we found that about 35% of program beneficiaries purchased no refills during the first year and only 7% bought enough to substitute half or more of their total cooking energy needs with LPG. Clearly, the health and welfare benefits of a transition to cleaner cooking are still to be realized for most people covered by this program.

Analyses, such as the examples I’ve discussed here, clearly highlight that we need data, indicators, and monitoring at much finer scales to really assess if all regions and populations are benefitting from policies and efforts to achieve national and globally agreed development goals. Relying on aggregates and averages alone may paint a picture that hides more than it reveals. Thus, without such finer-scale analysis and an understanding of the distributional impacts of policies and programs, we may end up worsening inequalities and leaving many behind.


[1] Pachauri S (2019). Varying impacts of China’s coal ban. Nature Energy 4: 356-357. []

[2] Falchetta G, Pachauri S, Parkinson S, & Byers E (2019). A high-resolution gridded dataset to assess electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. Scientific Data 6 (1): art. 110. []

[3] Kar A, Pachauri S, Bailis R, & Zerriffi H (2019). Using sales data to assess cooking gas adoption and the impact of India’s Ujjwala program in rural Karnataka. Nature Energy []

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.

The Earth is our spaceship: Perspectives from space

Rachel Potter, IIASA communications officer, interviews retired NASA Astronaut and Principal of AstroPlanetview LLC, Sandra H Magnus on insights about our world she has gained from her time living on the International Space Station.

©NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your specific areas of research as a scientist? 

A: My PhD was on a new material system being investigated for thermionic cathodes, which are used as electron sources for satellite communication systems. My research was an effort to look at the system methodically and from a science viewpoint to understand physically what was going on in order to inform the design of more robust devices. If you can operate the cathode at a lower temperature, that means a longer life for it, which is a good thing for satellites! Post-PhD I was however admitted to the Astronaut Office and that, quite frankly, pretty much put an end to my career as a researcher, or at least as a principal investigator (PI). The work I did on the International Space Station was at the direction of other PIs who had proposed, and been granted, experiments in space.

Q: Your career has spanned a wide range of settings from the NASA Astronaut Corps to your current role as Principal of AstroPlanetview LLC – what is the common thread or focus that has run through your work? 

A: Following my curiosity and looking for challenges. I always want to be challenged and feel that I am learning new things. If I feel that I have become stagnant, I start looking for how to change that situation.

Q: What have been the personal highlights of your career? 

A: Clearly flying in space! I feel very fortunate, however, to have been in the Astronaut Office during the era of the space station. I enjoyed very much working in a collaborative, multicultural, international environment where we had a big team of people from around the world working on something that benefits the planet.

Q: What are the greatest lessons you have learned from seeing the Earth from space?

A: I was so excited to FINALLY be going into space after hoping to do just that for over 20 years. The Earth is our spaceship – a closed system in which everything on the planet affects, and is connected to everything else on the planet. An action somewhere means a reaction somewhere else, even if it is not always first order (and usually it is not). Also, the planet looks incredibly beautiful and very fragile – we have to take care of it!

© NASA STS-126 Shuttle Mission full crew photo (5 March 2008), Sandra H Magnus far left.

Q: What do you see as key to solving the complex problems the Earth faces in terms of sustainability? 

A: Having the will to do it as a community. If you have the will, commitment and a clear, agreed-to, articulation of the common goal, we can pretty much accomplish anything we want to.

Q: How do you see IIASA being able to build bridges between countries across political divides? 

A: Well, when we want to solve problems, it really is all about relationships at the end of the day. It is easy to demonize or keep your distance from abstract ideas or the ubiquitous “They” but when you meet people, understand them as individuals and the context of their backgrounds that lead them to have different views and approaches to life and solving problems, it is much easier to visualize how you can work together to tackle issues. The relationships are the bridges.

Q: What advice would you give to young women researchers wanting to make it into Aeronautics? 

A: To young women (and young men, too, really) I would say, “If you have a dream to go do something, then you owe it to yourself to go for it and try it!” Never let anyone else define who you are or tell you what you can or cannot do – believe in yourself and give it a try. Maybe you will make it, maybe you will not, but it will be on your own terms, with you pushing yourself and regardless of the outcome you will have a deeper understanding of yourself, and that is always a good thing.

Sandra H Magnus visited IIASA on 21 June 2019 in cooperation with the US  Embassy Vienna, to give a lecture entitled “Perspectives from Space”  to IIASA staff and this year’s participants of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program. IIASA has a worldwide network of collaborators who contribute to research by collecting, processing, and evaluating local and regional data that are integrated into IIASA models. The institute has 819 research partner institutions in member countries and works with research funders, academic institutions, policymakers, and individual researchers in national member organizations.

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

5 years of Vietnam membership at IIASA

Tran Thi Vo-Quyen, IIASA guest research scholar from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), talks to Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam, about achievements and challenges that Vietnam has faced in the last 5 years, and how IIASA research will help Vietnam and VAST in the future.

Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam

What have been the highlights of Vietnam-IIASA membership until now?

In 2017, IIASA and VAST researchers started working on a joint project to support air pollution management in the Hanoi region which ultimately led to the successful development of the IIASA Greenhouse Gas – Air  Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model for the Hanoi region. The success of the project will contribute to a system for forecasting the changing trend of air pollution and will help local policy makers develop cost effective policy and management plans for improving air quality, in particular, in Hanoi and more widely in Vietnam.

IIASA capacity building programs have also been successful for Vietnam, with a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) becoming a key coordinator of the GAINS project. VAST has also benefited from two members of its International Cooperation Department visiting the IIASA External Relations Department for a period of 3 months in 2018 and 2019, to learn about how IIASA deals with its National Member Organizations (NMOs) and to assist IIASA in developing its activities with Vietnam.

What do you think will be the key scientific challenges to face Vietnam in the next few years? And how do you envision IIASA helping Vietnam to tackle these? 

In the global context Vietnam is facing many challenges relating to climate change, energy issues and environmental pollution, which will continue in the coming years. IIASA can help key members of Vietnam’s scientific community to build specific scenarios, access in-depth knowledge and obtain global data that will help them advise Vietnamese government officials on how best they can overcome the negative impact of these issues.

As Director General of the International Cooperation Department, can you explain your role in VAST and as representative to IIASA in a little more detail?

In leading the International Cooperation Department at VAST, I coordinate all collaborative science and technology activities between VAST and more than 50 international partner institutions that collaborate with VAST.

As the IIASA council representative for Vietnam, I participate in the biannual meeting for the IIASA council, I was also a member of the recent task force developed to implement the recommendations of a recent independent review of the institute. I was involved in consulting on the future strategies, organizational structure, NMO value proposition and need to improve the management system of IIASA.

In Vietnam, I advised on the establishment of a Vietnam network for joining IIASA and I implement IIASA-Vietnam activities, coordinating with other IIASA NMOs to ensure Vietnam is well represented in their countries.

You mentioned the development of the Vietnam-IIASA GAINS Model. Can you explain why this was so important to Vietnam and how it is helping to improve air quality and shape Vietnamese policy around air pollution? 

Air pollution levels in Vietnam in the last years has had an adverse effect on public health and has caused significant environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, undermining the potential for sustainable socioeconomic development of the country and impacting the poor. It was important for Vietnam to use IIASA researchers’ expertise and models to help them improve the current situation, and to help Vietnam in developing the scientific infrastructure for a long-lasting science-policy interface for air quality management.

The project is helping Vietnamese researchers in a number of ways, including helping us to develop a multi-disciplinary research community in Vietnam on integrated air quality management, and in providing local decision makers with the capacity to develop cost-effective management plans for the Hanoi metropolitan area and surrounding regions and, in the longer-term, the whole of Vietnam.

About VAST and Ninh Khac Ban

VAST was established in 1975 by the Vietnamese government to carry out basic research in natural sciences and to provide objective grounds for science and technology management, for shaping policies, strategies and plans for socio-economic development in Vietnam. Ninh Khac Ban obtained his PhD in Biology from VAST’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in 2001. He has managed several large research projects as a principal advisor, including several multinational joint research projects. His successful academic career has led to the publication of more than 34 international articles with a high ranking, and more than 60 national articles, and 2 registered patents. He has supervised 5 master’s and 9 PhD level students successfully to graduation and has contributed to pedagogical texts for postgraduate training in his field of expertise. 

More information on IIASA and Vietnam collaborations. This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Rescuing the world from drowning

By Julian Hunt, IIASA postdoc

Possible location where the barriers could be installed © Anna Krivitskaia |

Sea level rise is one of the most challenging impacts of climate change. The continued rise in sea levels, partially caused by the melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, will result in large scale impacts in coastal areas as they are submerged by the sea. Locations not able to bear the costs of implementing protection and adaptation measures will have to be abandoned, resulting in social, economic and environmental losses.

The most important mitigation goal for sea level rise is to reduce or possibly revert carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Given the time lag between emission reductions and the impacts of climate change, new adaptation measures to reduce sea level rise should be proposed, developed and if possible, implemented.

A proposal that I developed during my D.Phil degree ten years ago, which resulted in a paper on the Mitigation and Adaptation to Global Change Journal1, shows that submerged barriers in front of ice sheets and glaciers would contribute to reducing the ice melt in Greenland. Edward Byers and I propose the construction of ten barriers at key glaciers in Greenland to stop the flow of warm salty ocean water reaching glaciers in Greenland and Atlantic, which are the main contributors to ice melting. This could reduce sea level rise by up to 5.3 meters at a levelized cost of US$275 million a year. The cost of the barriers is only a fraction of the estimated costs of adaptation measures to sea level rise around the world estimated to be US$1.4 trillion a year by 21002.

The barrier consists of several plain sheet modules of marine grade steel around 200 mm thick connected to cylindrical steel tubes with air inside to keep the barrier floating. The depth of the barriers varies from 30 – 500 meters and the required length to stop the sea water from entering the fjords, where the glaciers are located. As no such barrier has been developed before, we propose three main steps for the construction of the barrier:

  1. The barrier components should be transported to the designated location during the summer, when there is no ocean ice cover and the access to the location of the barrier is less challenging. Also during the summer, mooring structures should be added.
  2. During the winter, the barrier is assembled over the frozen ice cover.
  3. During the next summer, the ice cover will melt again and the barrier will float above the place where it is should be fixed. The mooring chains attached to the barrier will pull the barrier into place, using the mooring structures in the ground.

The concept of reducing the contact of seawater and glaciers to reduce ice sheet melting was first published by Moore in Nature3, and Wolovick in The Cryosphere4 with the construction of submerged dams. A graphic representation of the concept is presented in Figure 1. As you can see the barriers should be positioned just after the glacier cavity, where the depth required for the barrier would be the smallest. Our cost analysis shows that using submerged barriers would have one or two orders of magnitude lower costs when compared to submerged dams. Additionally, submerged barriers could be easily removed, if the need arise.

Figure 1. (a) Proposed location of the submerged barrier or dam, (b) submerged barrier characterizes, (c) submerged dam characterizes.

There are several issues involving the implementation of these barriers that should be considered before they are built. The reduction of ice melt in Greenland glaciers will contribute to an increase in seawater temperature and salinity of the Arctic Ocean, which will have a direct impact on the region’s biosphere, climate and ocean currents. The superficial ice cover in the Arctic will be considerably reduced. This would allow a new maritime route for ships to cross the Arctic Ocean, increase the absorption of CO2 by the Arctic Ocean, due to the increase in the ice free surface area and the cold seawater temperature, and the increase in radiation heat from the Arctic Ocean into space. Ice is a strong thermal insulator. Without the Arctic Ocean ice cover the temperature of the region and the heat radiated from the Earth to space will considerably increase, which could have a higher impact in cooling the Earth than the ice cover’s albedo effect. Thus, the reduction of the Arctic Ocean ice cover could contribute to reducing the overall CO2 concentration of the atmosphere and reducing the Earth’s temperature.

This solution, however, should not be used as an excuse to reduce focus on cutting CO2 emission. If the world continues to warm, not even submerged barriers in front of glaciers would be able to stop ice sheets melting and sea level rise.


  1. Hunt J, Byers E (2018) Reducing sea level rise with submerged barriers and dams in Greenland. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change DOI: 10.1007/s11027-018-9831-y.   []
  2. Jevrejeva JS, Jackson LP, Grinsted A, Lincke D, and Marzeion B (2018) Flood damage costs under the sea level rise with warming of 1.5 ◦C and 2 ◦C. Environmental Research Letters DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aacc76
  3. Moore J, Gladstone R, Zwinger T, and Wolovick M (2018) Geoengineer polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise. Nature:
  4. Wolovick M, Moore J (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere DOI: 10.5194/tc-12-2955-2018

Identifying hotspots of land use cover change in Mexico

By Alma Mendoza, Colosio Fellow with the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Changes in land use cover can have a crucial impact on the environment in terms of biodiversity and the benefits that ecosystems provide to people. Assessing, quantifying, and identifying where these changes are the most drastic is especially important in countries that have high biodiversity along with high rates of natural vegetation loss. Socioeconomic pressures often drive land use change and the impacts are expected to increase due to population growth and climate change.

To better understand the possible impacts of land use change in Mexico over the short, medium, and long term, my colleagues and I used the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways–a set of pathways that span a wide range of feasible future developments in areas such as agriculture, population, and the economy–together with a set of climatic scenarios known as the Representative Concentration Pathways. We focused on Mexico, because the country is large enough to encompass different ecosystems, socioeconomic characteristics, and climates. In addition, Mexico is characterized by high deforestation rates, huge biodiversity, and a large number of communities with contrasting land management practices. Incorporating all these features, allowed us to take the complexity of socioecological systems into account.

We designed a model to test how socioeconomic and biophysical drivers, like slope or altitude, may unfold under different scenarios and affect land use. Our model includes 13 categories of which eight represent the most important ecosystems in Mexico (temperate forests, cloud forests, mangroves, scrublands, tropical evergreen and -dry forests, natural grasslands, and other vegetation such as desert ecosystems or natural palms), four represent anthropogenic uses (pasture, rainfed and irrigated agriculture, and human settlements), and one constitutes barren lands. We set two plausible scenarios: “Business as usual” and an optimistic scenario called the “green scenario”. We projected the “business as usual” scenario using medium rates of vegetation loss based on historical trends and combined it with a medium population and economic growth with medium increases in climatic conditions. For the “green scenario”, we projected the lowest rates of native vegetation loss and the highest rates of native vegetation recovery with a low population and medium economic growth in a future with low climatic changes.

Skyline of Mexico City © Shane Adams |

Our results show that natural vegetation will undergo significant reductions in Mexico and that different types of vegetation will be affected differently. Tropical dry and evergreen forests, followed by ‘other’ vegetation and cloud forests are the most vulnerable ecosystems in the country. For example, according to the “business as usual” scenario, tropical dry forests might decrease in extent by 47% by the end of the century. This is extremely important considering that the most recent rates, for the period 2007 to 2011, were even higher than the medium rates we used in this scenario. In contrast, the “green scenario” allowed us to see that, with feasible changes of rate, this ecosystem could increase their distribution. However, even 80 years of regeneration would not be enough to reach the extent these forests had in 1985, when they accounted for around 12% of land cover in Mexico. Moreover, the expansion of anthropogenic land cover (such as agriculture, pastures, and human settlements) might reach 37% of land cover in the country by 2050 and 43% by 2100 under the same scenario. In terms of CO2 emissions due to land use cover change we found that Mexico was responsible for 1-2% of global emissions that are the result of land use cover change, but by 2100 it could account for as much as 5%.

Our findings show that conservation policies have not been effective enough to avoid land use cover change, especially in tropical evergreen forests and drier ecosystems such as tropical dry forests, natural grasslands, and other vegetation. Cloud forests have also been badly affected. As a biologically and culturally rich country, Mexico is responsible for maintaining its diversity by implementing a sustainable and intelligent management of its territory.

Our study identified hotspots of land use change that can help to prioritize areas for improving environmental performance. Our project is currently linking the hotspots of change with the most threatened and endemic species of Mexican terrestrial vertebrates (mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds) to provide useful results that can help prioritize ecosystems, species, or municipalities in Mexico.


Mendoza Ponce A, Corona-Núñez R, Kraxner F, Leduc S, & Patrizio P (2018). Identifying effects of land use cover changes and climate change on terrestrial ecosystems and carbon stocks in Mexico. Global Environmental Change 53: 12-23. []

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.