Civilized computer models provide ways to stop global warming

Electricians inspect solar panels at a photovoltaic power plant in Hayan, East China’s Jiangsu Province.

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STR / AFP via Getty Images

Electricians inspect solar panels at a photovoltaic power plant in Hayan, East China’s Jiangsu Province.

STR / AFP via Getty Images

While the world’s top climate scientists issued a warning report this week, they strongly argued that the world still has the potential to avoid the devastating effects of climate change.

Co-Barrett, vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said: “Most of the negative effects can still be prevented, but they really need unprecedented change.” The idea that there is still a way forward is, I think, a point that should give us some hope.

That promising way to make dangerous changes in the world Climate is eventually the result of huge computer simulations of the world economy. They are called integrated review models. There are half a dozen major versions of them – four in Europe, one in Japan, and one in the United States, in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Much of what we do is explore what is needed to achieve the goals of Paris. According to Detlef van Voron, of the Netherlands Environmental Evaluation Agency, which developed one of the models.

How to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero in 40 years

World leaders agree in Paris to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Compared to pre-industrial standards, the planet is already 1 degree Celsius.

Achieving this goal would mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero in 40 years. Requires profound changes; Deep down, it is not immediately clear that it is possible.

That’s why Van Vorne and his colleagues turned to their computer models for help. “How do you go about zero emissions?” Says. That is for transportation, housing, electricity.

Each of these models starts with information about current greenhouse emission sources. They include cars and buses, automatic rickshaws, airplanes, generators, stoves and rice paddies. The models also include estimates of global trade, prices, and new technologies.

Scientists then introduce restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, forcing them to change the course of their imaginary worlds. They try to meet the model in a very cost-effective way, as long as it is technologically feasible and does not violate restrictions such as land supply or other natural resources.

The good news is that the models have found a way to achieve that goal, at least in the context in which the governments of the world will work together to fulfill their Parisian commitments. In fact, according to Kiwan Riyahi of the Institute for International Implementation in Austria, they have found many ways to zero carbon.

“The models first tell us that there may be alternatives, the decision maker has options,” he said.

Different models, using different assumptions, reach opposite perspectives on the future world. But they are all very different today.

Some models show people responding to high energy prices or government regulations by changing their lifestyle. They move to more energy-efficient homes, and donate their cars in support of new and better public transportation. In addition to traditional bus routes, private vehicles respond like Uber – they take people wherever they want.

Riyadh loves this version. “I am convinced that restructuring the basic needs will also lead to a better quality of life,” he said.

Other sources make it clear that people are still consuming a lot of energy, which requires a significant increase in clean energy production. It means 10 or 20 times more land covered by solar and wind farms than it is now, and more power plants are equipped with wood or other biofuels to capture and store the released carbon dioxide.

Politics and individual choice can undermine the models

Rihi is quick to point out that what happens in the models may not be real. They do not count for political obstacles, such as human elections. Even when the models say the choice is not economically reasonable, people may want to drive an expensive car instead of taking public transportation.

But the models can also be very frustrating about technology innovation. Ten years ago, according to Van Vorne, they never expected cheap solar power. Over the past decade, we have been fortunate to see the rapid decline in the price of renewable goods. This has made carbon emissions much easier.

For all their shortcomings, though, these models remain the main way for scientists and policymakers to identify options for the future. They measure invisible transactions and consequences. If countries want to convert trees or crops into fossil fuels, for example, it is less land for food production or natural forests. At the same time, the models make it clear that international cooperation is needed to help rich countries reduce their emissions.

The results of computer modeling are like blurred maps, pointing to ways to save the world.

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