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Design and evaluation of sustainable socio-technical systems on the basis of physical accounting

Socio-scientific context

Faced with the need to reduce the environmental footprint of our companies, several non-exclusive strategies can be considered. The spectrum ranges from individual actions (more virtuous consumption) to state intervention and corporate accountability. A recent report by the firm Carbone 4 highlights that actions
The individual measures are indispensable but very insufficient to achieve the objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions [7]. This is explained by the fact that "each individual is limited by the socio-technical system, i.e. the social and technological environment on which he or she depends".
Most modelling and prospective approaches have so far focused on particular sectors, allowing a good level of description. This is for example the case, at the national level, of several scenarios of energy transition (negaWatt scenario, Ademe scenario) and of the agro-food system (Afterres and [2] scenarios). A shortcoming of these approaches is that they do not integrate the interdependent relationships between all sectors of the economy. In particular, based on the study of feedbacks between energy and raw materials, [11] shows that some transition scenarios, which aim to limit global warming to 2 ◦ C, cannot actually achieve their objectives.
It is on the basis of this observation that this thesis proposes to study the modalities of description, construction and evaluation of socio-technical alternatives, consistent with their objectives, by basing itself on the previous work of the host teams in the field of environmental assessment and operational research. It is based on the hypothesis that physical accounting is more apt than monetary accounting to take into account planetary limits and to guide the transition choices of societies.

Programme of work and expected results

The tools developed during this thesis will be integrated into a more global project: our long-term objective is to set up a participative platform allowing stakeholders of a given territory (a city, a community of municipalities, etc.) to carry out prospective reflections on the evolution of their territory, in the light of the enormous environmental and resource availability challenges that lie ahead. In this context, the thesis will be articulated around three axes:

  1. Cross-sectoral quantitative diagnosis of the real economy (input-output (IO) analysis in physical flows) and identification of modular components (typically, a production mode of a particular sector with its inputs and outputs). This can be seen as an inventory of what exists and will provide the basis for reflection.
  2. Development of a methodology and a tool to create coherent socio-technical alternatives for the territory, based on the previous components - these alternatives concern the modes of production (energy, food, etc.) but also the definition of the needs to be met (diet, heating, etc.).
  3. Multi-criteria evaluation of these alternatives.

Several scientific and technical issues are identified, as follows. Currently, the STEEP team's studies of economic sectors use constrained optimization to reconcile data (moving from incomplete and inconsistent data to data that respect constraints, in particular conservation laws [5], while correctly managing and propagating uncertainties). For large problems, such as those addressed in this thesis, conflicts between constraints inevitably arise in practice and part of the work will logically be directed towards the identification and semi-automatic resolution of these conflicts [4]. This work is fundamental for axes 1 and 2.
A second challenge is to design a multi-level geographical and sectoral tool that allows the user to work on a resolution that is relevant for him (for example, all plant crops rather than wheat detail/maı̈s/soja. . .). A third challenge concerns the evaluation of the proposed socio-technical systems: what "surpluses" do they allow to identify beyond the basic needs of the population (the question of the definition of the latter is the subject of other work, but to be defined in the context of a more detailed study).
Examples include food, housing, mobility, etc.)? To what extent do these systems fit within local and global environmental limits (pollution, climate, resources, etc.)?
in water/energy/wood/. . ., etc.)? What trade-offs between criteria do they highlight (e.g. between the resilience of a territory, equity between different territories and different forms of sustainability)? These complex questions will be addressed according to the progress of the thesis and the time available, and are also at the heart of research conducted in parallel within the STEEP team. It would thus be more a question of articulating the tool developed in this thesis with this other knowledge.
Concerning the state of the art, we will mobilize well known formalisms and tools in the field of environmental assessment (the challenge being to couple them in an optimal way): use/resource tables in physical units (energy and matter) that can be coupled with input-output analyses extended to the environment [9, 10], Markov chain analyses [6], material flow analyses [3] and life cycle analyses (LCA) allowing to complete some of the tools developed in this thesis.
missing information. Other approaches (e.g. Nexus studies [1], MuSIASEM [8]) will also be studied during a literature review phase.

Supervisors and collaborations

The doctoral student will be supervised by a researcher from Inria/LJK and one from G-SCOP, each with his or her own expertise on the subject, as well as a range of skills and partners accessible in his or her research environment.