In September 2020, 126 graduate and professional students at Stanford University used Climate Interactive’s En-ROADS simulator to confront a monumental challenge. Their mission: to recommend a realistic set of global policies, investments, and actions that limit global warming to less than 2°C while also preserving and creating a healthy economy, promoting equity and a just transition, and protecting the environment.
Stanford first ran a similar competition back in 2012. Since then the climate change solutions simulator En-ROADS that they used has progressed substantially and is now freely available. En-ROADS has been developed by our team here at Climate Interactive, along with the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and Ventana Systems, and is used by thousands worldwide.
The En-ROADS competition was a highlight of the weeklong Energy@Stanford & SLAC conference. Students were divided into 26 mixed teams drawing from departments across the university, including the Graduate School of Business, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Modern Thought and Literature, Chemistry, Geophysics, Comparative Medicine, and Energy Resources Engineering. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many teams were dispersed across the world, with students participating from Italy, Pakistan, Israel, China, and across the U.S.
Each team had three days to design their scenario and submit a video presentation. The Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy staff selected the finalists. Each of the finalist teams had the opportunity to present their scenarios, answer questions from the judging panel, and discuss them with the cohort. Climate Interactive Co-Director Andrew Jones; Professor Sally Benson, Co-Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy; and all the participants voted to select the winners.
The 26 teams had diverse approaches to the assignment. Some teams laid out multi-phase plans for carbon reduction with different near- and long-term goals. Other groups used case studies from their research to illustrate the effects of fostering investment in their scenario. Some teams prioritized reducing the overall cost of energy, while others focused on preventing temperature overshoot. In their presentations, teams also identified some of the challenges for implementing their proposals, and how these challenges might be addressed.
The winning team, “Phased Carbon Reduction & Renewables Advancement” (Christina Baladis, Diego Kaulen, Josh Neutel, Makenna Pennel, and Kun Qian), presented a detailed scenario with a staggered phase out of carbon sources, with a moderate carbon tax initially followed by a staged termination of fossil fuel plant construction. Their proposal also included various policy mandates, such as incentivizing electrification of vehicles and regulation of methane, N2O, and F-gases. The team identified the main barriers to meeting these goals, such as insufficient resources for developing countries to transition to a green economy, and proposed solutions and mitigation actions for each of these barriers. Explore their final policy proposal here:
Students reported that using the En-ROADS simulator generated some surprises and insights. Some said that they were surprised that carbon capture was not as effective as they would have expected, and that buildings and industry consume enormous amounts of energy, regardless of energy policy. Many of the teams spoke about their feelings of hope, despite the scale of the problem, and the personal actions they plan to take.
Interested in facilitating a similar competition? The En-ROADS Guided Assignment is a thoughtful exercise for students and climate leaders and can be paired with the En-ROADS Climate Workshop or Climate Action Simulation game.
The Energy@Stanford & SLAC conference was co-sponsored by Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the Vice Provost Office for Graduate Education at Stanford. Special thanks are due to Kate Gibson and Arpita Kalra of the Precourt Institute for Energy for their leadership in coordinating the Energy@Stanford & SLAC week and the En-ROADS Challenge.