Sustainability assessments of energy scenarios: citizens’ preferences for and assessments of sustainability indicators.

Schmidt-Scheele, R., Hauser, W., Scheel, O., Minn, F., Becker, L., Buchgeister, J., Hottenroth, H., Junne, T., Lehr, U., Naegler, T., Simon, S., Sutardhio, C., Tietze, I., Ulrich, P., Viere, T. & Weidlich, A. (2022): Sustainability assessments of energy scenarios: citizens’ preferences for and assessments of sustainability indicators. Energy, Sustainability and Society 12(41), DOI: 10.1186/s13705-022-00366-0.


Given the multitude of scenarios on the future of our energy systems, multi-criteria assessments are increasingly called for to analyze and assess desired and undesired effects of possible pathways with regard to their environmental, economic and social sustainability. Existing studies apply elaborate lists of sustainability indicators, yet these indicators are defined and selected by experts and the relative importance of each indicator for the overall sustainability assessments is either determined by experts or is computed using mathematical functions. Target group-specific empirical data regarding citizens’ preferences for sustainability indicators as well as their reasoning behind their choices are not included in existing assessments.

We argue that citizens’ preferences and values need to be more systematically analyzed. Next to valid and reliable data regarding diverse sets of indicators, reflections and deliberations are needed regarding what different societal actors, including citizens, consider as justified and legitimate interventions in nature and society, and what considerations they include in their own assessments. For this purpose, we present results from a discrete choice experiment. The method originated in marketing and is currently becoming a popular means to systematically analyze individuals’ preference structures for energy technology assessments. As we show in our paper, it can be fruitfully applied to study citizens’ values and weightings with regard to sustainability issues. Additionally, we present findings from six focus groups that unveil the reasons behind citizens’ preferences and choices.

Our combined empirical methods provide main insights with strong implications for the future development and assessment of energy pathways: while environmental and climate-related effects significantly influenced citizens’ preferences for or against certain energy pathways, total systems and production costs were of far less importance to citizens than the public discourse suggests. Many scenario studies seek to optimize pathways according to total systems costs. In contrast, our findings show that the role of fairness and distributional justice in transition processes featured as a dominant theme for citizens. This adds central dimensions for future multi-criteria assessments that, so far, have been neglected by current energy systems models.


Sustainability assessment, Sustainability indicators, Sustainability trade-offs, 
Social sustainability, Transition pathways, Energy systems, Multi-criteria assessments, Discrete choice experiment, Focus groups, Distributional justice, Costs of energy transitions