Climate Interactive Thu, 27 Jul 2017 15:21:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Modeling Soil Carbon and Agriculture Mon, 17 Jul 2017 11:20:43 +0000 Sometimes the very early stages of modeling can reveal important lessons. Validation and data are important for building a policy-relevant model, but setting up the basic physics of a problem and exploring its dynamics are important building blocks. From this process, we have learned some interesting lessons about agriculture and soil carbon sequestration.

As part of our partnership with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P), we are continuing to develop our Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator. We have learned important lessons about building a sustainable food system, but are adding further capabilities to the model to make it more useful.

One such capability is a deeper understanding of soil carbon. As part of our modeling process, we’ve built simple submodels to test and understand their behavior before adding them to the main model.

Basics of the Soil Carbon Model

The soil carbon and biomass submodel looks at deforestation, afforestation, and changes to the carbon content of managed soils. It contains several simplifying assumptions. For one, only two categories of land use are modeled – forest and farmland. Also, the carbon content of soils and biomass is treated as having the same dynamics, and do not depend on the rest of the carbon cycle. The complete system is more complex than this model, but we are still able to capture important dynamics.

For example, we have captured that forests have much higher carbon content than farmland, and that farms using conservation techniques contain more carbon than those using conventional practice. Farmers can adopt or abandon conservation techniques, and it takes time for their practices to change. It also takes time for carbon to build up or decay. Deforestation and afforestation change the land usage between forest and farmland at an adjustable percentage per year. When the land changes use, some of its carbon is lost to the atmosphere through burning and decay, and some of it stays in the soil. With these elements we can explore emissions and sequestration in response to various changes.

Modeling Changes to Farming Practices

First, let us look at changes to one farming practice, the no-till technique. We assume that this technique could increase carbon in farm soils by a factor of 5. However, the time needed to diffuse the no-till practice and build up the soil creates lags. The graphs below show the percent of no-till adoption by farmers in red and soil carbon concentration in blue, over time. On the left, half of all farms adopt the practice over 5 years, and it takes 5 years for carbon to reach its equilibrium value. On the right, each of these processes takes 20 years. As you can see, we should expect no-till farming to take a long time to get results under any realistic assumptions.

The amount of carbon sequestered in these two scenarios is the same – and it is a discrete, limited amount. There is a certain amount of land that has a certain change in carbon per hectare. The only difference is shown in the graph below: whether the flow rate of CO2 into the soils is a high peak of short duration or a lower and longer one.

These scenarios assume that once farmers adopt the no-till practice, they never give it up and the carbon stays locked in the soils forever. If this isn’t true, eventually more carbon will escape than is being sequestered – even if farmers maintain the practice for a long time. The graphs below show the potential  carbon emissions versus sequestration if farmers adopt the no-till practice rapidly but only keep it for 50 years. One might think that the sequestration would be good for 50 years, but the graph below shows there are net emissions after about 15 years. New farmers would have to be found to adopt no-till if the gains are to be maintained.

Next we can look at soil carbon conditions under deforestation. If there is a constant percentage of forest being converted to farmland every year, the carbon content of farmland is higher than it otherwise would be, because the newly deforested farmland raises the average carbon content of farmland. The carbon content then declines for two reasons – there is less forest becoming farm and more farmland over which to average the gains. There are also very high emissions from deforestation and also some emissions from soils as the new farmland is degraded.

We can explore combinations of events as well. Below are the graphs for a scenario in which deforestation is completely halted, and then the diffusion of no-till practice starts 5 years later. Farmland soil carbon is much higher using no-till than the amount gained from converting forest, but the total amount sequestered that way is small compared to all that is lost through deforestation.


We can use this simple model to explore other actions and dynamics – combinations of deforestation, afforestation, and adopting and abandoning different farming practices. But some basic truths will always hold:

  • Sequestration takes time, both for the diffusion of innovative new farming techniques (human system time) and also the movement of carbon into the soil (natural system time).
  • Sequestration is finite. There is a carrying capacity for carbon in soils, forests, and anywhere else. We should not expect a constant and continuous rate of indefinite sequestration.
  • These results will hold for any negative emissions technology. A similar structure of equations with different details will have the same overall behavior, with different capacities and time scales.

At Climate Interactive we often use the analogy of carbon in the atmosphere being like water in a bathtub, where the inflow is emissions from fossil fuels instead of water. By extension, then, negative emission technologies are not so much creating a bigger drain to get rid of the water, but rather filling buckets from the tub and then balancing them on the rim. You can lower the water level in the tub that way – though you better hope the buckets don’t tip over – but the real solution has to include turning off the tap.

For questions about this and our other Climate and Agriculture work, contact Travis Franck.

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The Power of Social Movements and a Carbon Fee Thu, 13 Jul 2017 13:46:34 +0000 Last week, Climate Interactive co-founder Andrew Jones spoke at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby monthly meeting. In the talk, he told listeners his top ten reasons for climate hope and praised their efforts to apply a carbon fee and dividend – a high-leverage policy that will lead to greater energy efficiency, more renewable energy, and reduced carbon emissions.

Drew said: “We can do it. This is eminently doable. And what is the most powerful way to do it? A citizen’s movement for a carbon fee and dividend. This is why I think you all should leave this room and work ever more powerfully toward the mission that you’re already lined up on.”

Read more about the meeting or watch the video below (starts around 5:00):

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Insights from the Climate-Smart Agriculture Policy Simulator Wed, 12 Jul 2017 14:12:53 +0000 A new tool created for Climate Interactive’s Climate-Smart Agriculture project has shown some of the ways agriculture will have to transform in the face of climate change. We have found that agriculture can be a part of the solution for development as well as for climate mitigation and adaptation – as long as agricultural policies follow certain principles. Countries will need to heed the following insights to bring about a sustainable food system that produces a valuable and secure supply of food, on healthy land, with lower greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Stop growth: Counter the long-term growth of farmland and livestock
  • Do more with less: Foster efficiency and improve yields using fewer inputs
  • Emit less: Reduce emissions intensity of farmland and livestock
  • Control demand: Stabilize population size and living standards in the long run

For Africa in particular, policymakers need to apply these principles to agricultural policies as they develop their economies and improve food availability. The policy needs are real: Africa will be more food insecure because of impending climatic changes. Policymakers need to see and understand the trade-offs between different solutions as they respond to these challenges.

Learning from the Agriculture Policy Simulator

Working with our partners at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P), Climate Interactive created the Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator, a national-level model designed to explore how combinations of agricultural policies and practices could contribute to solving food security and climate problems.

Our first major version of the Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator is calibrated to Ethiopia and examines their Climate Resilient Green Economy Plan (CRGE, Ethiopia 2011). Historical data are obtained from the FAO (FAOSTAT 2017) or Ethiopia’s National Communication to the UNFCCC (Ethiopia 2015b). The policies the user can adopt are based on proposals found in Ethiopia’s strategic documents (Ethiopia 2011, 2015a, 2016).

The choice of Ethiopia was not meant to endorse or critique their policies in particular. We set out to learn lessons from the expertise and mental models embodied in these proposals, rather than to evaluate the policy per se.

The pictures below show some of the output screens from the simulation, showing the reference or business-as-usual case. Each view has two graphs plus a selection of input controls. All graphs show the year along the horizontal axis and one or more important variables vertically.

The first two views show how the simulation reproduces historical data. Each graph shows model output in bold overlaid with data. The output in terms of food production and greenhouse gas emissions (top) are the result of trends in land use (bottom) and other factors. Were these trends to continue, the results would be as shown below. The food available grows in excess of both basic needs and demand (top) but at the cost of missing other goals. We can see that emissions trends have already made progress compared to what Ethiopia predicted would be their business-as-usual, but their emissions would still be far in excess of their goals, and land use trends would result in ever-shrinking areas of forest and other lands.

These trends are not sustainable and not in line with the desires Ethiopia has expressed. However, Ethiopia has put forward policies to change the trends. The results of successful implementation of those policies are shown below.

Here, the growth in agricultural land and livestock – and the resulting deforestation – halts by 2025. Improvements in crop and livestock practices raise yield enough food to compensate, along with improvements to the value chain which reduce losses. Further improvements such as tillage, erosion, and manure management also lower emissions. The result is that available food grows more quickly in the short term, and remains well above needs and desires. Emissions change more slowly than the goal, but are below the target by 2030.

Lessons Learned

In order to reach this outcome we had to simulate a successful transformation throughout the agricultural system. Our trials taught us several key lessons:

  1. It is vital to address the long-term growth trends in the scale of agriculture. It is not enough to have a temporary pause or reversal of growth if the base trend returns afterwards. All successful scenarios have permanent stabilization in the number of livestock and area of cropland.
  2. The environmental impact of any activity equals the volume of the activity times the activity’s intensity – and both are important. In agriculture, volume is the number of livestock and the hectares of cropland; intensity is the emissions per head of livestock or hectare of land. The highest leverage interventions include reducing both. There is no way to keep lowering emissions while land in agriculture keeps increasing, but lowering emissions factors as much as possible allows sufficient land to remain in use.
  3. Increases to efficiency and yield allow a country to meet its food needs with less land and livestock. The amount of food available equals the crop area or livestock number, times yield, minus losses. Yield improvements, especially if they can be done with low environmental impact, are the key to slowing growth so that other goals can be met. It will be important to assure that gains in yield lead to slower growth rather than ever-increasing surplus and consumption.
  4. If demand grows indefinitely it will overcome any gains. There are probably upper limits to yield, or at least the rate at which yield can improve. There is definitely a lower limit at zero losses – and a non-zero amount of emissions per hectare farmed. After all possible improvements have been made, we still have to get control of growing demand.

The scenario we simulated may best be described as ‘good enough’ through midcentury – emissions start to increase again after 2040. This outcome is a good base to build upon, but there will need to be other strategies later on.

These lessons show that there is reason for grounded hope. It is possible for farmer well-being to improve without development as usual, and for developing countries to leapfrog the path taken by developed ones. Food security is not at odds with environmental quality. There are solutions that are worth the effort, although they may not be easy.

Model development and further details will improve our understanding of what it really takes to achieve success. If you have any questions regarding this work or helping with further refinements to the simulator, contact Travis Franck.


Ethiopia 2011. Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economy Strategy (Brochure).

Ethiopia 2015a. Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy Climate Resilience Strategy: Agriculture and Forestry.

Ethiopia 2015b. Ethiopia’s Second National Communication to the United Nations Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Ethiopia 2016. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

FAOSTAT 2017. Food and Agriculture Data (online database) Accessed Jan 2017.

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Climate Interactive Named Top US Energy and Environment Think Tank Tue, 11 Jul 2017 14:00:54 +0000 Climate Interactive was named as the top energy and environment think tank in the US at Prospect Magazine’s 17th Annual Think Tank Awards this week.

The award was announced by saying:

“Its top notch work, the judges said, showed clear evidence of both convening power and media impact. The innovative interactive tools make it easier than ever before to show where the climate may be headed, so it naturally proved to be influential to policymakers who have ears to listen and eyes to see.”

According to the website, “The winner this year was Climate Interactive. Their innovative use of interactive tools to model the effects of climate change has been influential within government.”

Our tools have been used by thousands worldwide from the highest levels of government to school classrooms the world over. Our analysis has been published in thousands of media articles. And yet we are a small team of fewer than a dozen. However, it is thanks to our many partners, funders, and people who champion our work and share our tools that we can have the impact we do. We are honored to receive this award and extend our gratitude and appreciation to our wider community who make our work possible.

Prospect is a monthly British magazine specializing in politics, economics, and current affairs. Their Think Tank Awards aim to recognize the most original, influential, and rigorous work on the most pressing challenges facing people, governments, and businesses today.

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Analysis: US Cities and States Take Action to Meet Paris Climate Goals Thu, 06 Jul 2017 20:11:55 +0000 In the wake of President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, hundreds of cities, states, tribes, counties, and universities have committed themselves to reducing CO2 emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit climate change.

Overall, more than half of the US population lives in an area that has committed to the Paris climate goals, representing about 36% of United States carbon emissions.

If these cities, states, and counties, that have stepped forward to adopt the Paris goals are successful, they could deliver 20% to 36% of the emissions reductions in 2025 that the US initially pledged under the Paris Agreement.



Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, Co-Director of Climate Interactive, said of this result, “It is encouraging that cities and states have already stepped forward to offer around a third of the emissions reductions that were anticipated under the Paris Agreement. But more is needed, both from those yet to adopt Paris goals, and in terms of federal policy that can help enable the success of those cities and states who have stepped forward.”


Implications and observations

  1. The mobilization of commitments was rapid and strong. In less than two weeks, decision makers representing about half of the US population aligned themselves with climate protection and the transition to a low-carbon economy. From very small towns like Bayfield, WI (pop 530) to New York City and Los Angeles, the communities stepping forward are very diverse, but are now connected in a common pursuit. These ties will be important in the work and shared learning that will be required to meet Paris goals.
  2. More is needed. Climate Interactive analysis showed that, even when the US was a committed participant in the Paris Agreement, the collective ambition of countries wasn’t yet enough to meet the Paris goal of limiting temperature increase to well below 2°C. While the jurisdictions currently pledging to uphold US action is significant, more will be needed.
  3. Momentum is possible. The reasons to align with Paris goals extend beyond protecting the global climate. The drivers include improving public health, seizing economic opportunity, and creating more equitable communities.


If you have questions about this analysis, don’t hesitate to contact us at

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Big Updates to Our Climate Simulator Thu, 06 Jul 2017 13:45:55 +0000 Climate Interactive has released a huge new update to C-ROADS World Climate, our climate change policy simulator. Version 1.1 now includes 3 times as many graphs and 3 times as many languages as the previous version. Updated with new data and the ability to connect with audiences in their language of choice, we’re proud to release this free tool to the global climate community.

Use C-ROADS World Climate in Japanese!


People frequently use C-ROADS World Climate to support the World Climate role-play exercise. This new version will be even more useful during the role-play because you can now show new graphs that might speak to your audience better.  Need to show Population? Check. How about Net Forestry Removals by Country? We’ve got you covered. Explore the new menu to see the 30+ new graphs.

C-ROADS World Climate now supports English, French, Spanish, Turkish, Japanese, and German. We’re very grateful for all the hard work our volunteer translators put into the effort — thank you! Everyone on the team is excited that the simulator can speak to new audiences.

Another big feature that we’ve added is the ability to interactively explore the “Assumption and Sensitivities” settings. We allowed users to change the values before, but now they are sliders that can be shown while the graphs are fully visible. This change, along with a lot of additional tweaks and changes under the hood, should make the app more useful.

Version 1.1 of C-ROADS World Climate can be downloaded and run on Mac OS and Windows. There is also a version hosted on the web. If you’ve previously downloaded the Mac and Windows version, the new version will automatically download and update in the background. Please launch the application, leave it running for about five minutes (depending on your Internet connection), and then restart the application. The new version will automatically load after it has downloaded in the background.

A big thanks to Todd, Phil, and all our international translators for their hard work on this release.

As usual, the app is free — so go use it!

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Changing the Conversation on Sustainable Development in Canada Wed, 05 Jul 2017 15:21:09 +0000 Changing the Conversation is an organization in Canada that provides “a civil, open source inter-generational space where Canadians can come together to join or start a conversation around issues that matter to them and their communities.” They hold dialogues on issues such as energy, food security, waste, and rural revitalization. They also provide tools for communities and policymakers on sustainable development and the co-benefits of climate action.

This post is part of a series on on organizations and leaders who engage in ​multisolving, or climate-smart policies that simultaneously work to mitigate climate change while providing co-benefits such as the ones described above.

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This Mobile App Lets You Change the Fate of the Climate Wed, 28 Jun 2017 13:34:10 +0000 How deep does the world need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize the Earth’s temperature?

Have you ever wanted to see what level of global climate action is required to stay below 2°C of warming?

Do you want to hold the fate of the world’s climate in the palm of your hand?

Our Climate Pathways iOS app will help you answer these questions. Watch a quick demo:

Climate Pathways helps policymakers, students, and the public understand the speed and timing of emissions reductions that are required to stay below 2°C of warming. The app answers two important questions:

  1. How much do greenhouse gas emissions have to fall to stabilize the earth’s temperature?
  2. What are the implications of waiting to start reducing emissions?
Climate Pathways iPhone Screenshot
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Climate Pathways is the first-ever application to simulate global temperature change on a mobile device. We’re excited to release an update that modernizes the app and provides the latest climate science. The app works on every screen size and resolution, and will continue working in iOS 11 and beyond.

If you’ve been using Climate Pathways in your classes or on the bus, then you already have the update waiting for you in the App Store.

If you haven’t tried Climate Pathways yet, what you waiting for?

We’d love to have your feedback about the simple yet rigorous app.

Do you have a burning question that would benefit from having an interactive simulator? Let us know. We’re interested in making more small, useful applications that can help answer the important questions on climate change action.

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Milestone: Land Use in the Climate and Agriculture Model Mon, 26 Jun 2017 13:21:33 +0000 Climate Interactive, working with our partners at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P) in Morocco, has completed the first major version of our Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator. Building on the demonstration version discussed last fall, this system dynamics decision support tool helps policymakers see what could work in agriculture.

Increasing the agricultural production in Africa is vital to the well-being of a growing population. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land-use change is vital to meeting our climate goals. Climate change is likely to expose Africa’s already vulnerable population to additional food security risk. Policymakers need to see and understand the trade-offs between different solutions as they respond to these challenges.

The Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator

Our Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator is a national-level model designed to explore how combinations of agricultural policies and practices could contribute to solving food security and climate problems.

The Climate and Agriculture Policy Simulator evaluates policy impacts on the interlinked agricultural system in real-time. Importantly, the simulator’s user (e.g. a policymaker, analyst, or NGO) is central to the feedback loop, making the choices as to how to meet their agricultural and climate goals (see the grey “Policy Choices” box in figure above). Feedback endogenous to the model enforces physical constraints and delays. The Causal Loop Diagram above shows the underlying logic of the simulator. As population and living standards grow, choices must be made to ensure available food grows as needed to meet demand. A business-as-usual path, in blue, would simply increase the land used for crops, the livestock population, and the amount of fertilizer. Each of these, unfortunately, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The premise of Climate Smart Agriculture is that there are some practices that can lower emissions, raise yields, and improve efficiency so that the country can meet both its food needs and its climate goals.

Updates to the Model

One improvement in the model compared to last year is the explicit inclusion of land and land use categories. The total amount of land is physically conserved. The land used for agriculture can only increase so far before it begins to crowd out forest, grassland and other categories; if there are goals for reducing deforestation, there has to be a reduction in demand growth for agricultural land. Agricultural production is therefore based on realistic limits on land.

We base demand growth on population and gross domestic product projections by the UN, World Bank and others – and allow the users to select different scenarios. Food harvested depends on land, livestock and yield. Food available also includes the effect of imports, exports, and losses along the value chain. Greenhouse gas emissions are calculated from the amount of cropland and livestock and the emission factors specific to the agriculture sector. All of these depend on practices: either business-as-usual trends or choices the user makes. The trends are calibrated using data from trusted sources.

This version of the simulator is calibrated to Ethiopian agriculture, because the published documents are useful for this purpose. Historical data are obtained from the FAO (FAOSTAT 2017) and Ethiopia’s National Communication to the UNFCCC (Ethiopia 2015b). The policies the user can adopt are based on proposals found in Ethiopia’s strategic documents (Ethiopia 2011, 2015a, 2016).

Next week we will discuss the insights we gained from experimenting with the simulator. If you have any questions regarding this work or helping with further refinements to the simulator, contact Travis Franck.

Click here to read about our latest insights from the simulator.


Ethiopia 2011. Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economy Strategy (Brochure).

Ethiopia 2015a. Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy Climate Resilience Strategy: Agriculture and Forestry.

Ethiopia 2015b. Ethiopia’s Second National Communication to the United Nations Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Ethiopia 2016. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

FAOSTAT 2017. Food and Agriculture Data (online database) Accessed Jan 2017.

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Public Radio Highlights the Power of Climate Simulations Thu, 22 Jun 2017 16:55:39 +0000 Earlier this week, NPR’s Heather Goldstone interviewed Climate Interactive partner and MIT Sloan professor John Sterman. The interview discusses Climate Interactive’s World Climate Simulation, a role playing group exercise of the UN climate negotiations that has served as an educational tool for students and CEOs alike. The game was recently updated to reflect President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, with a new delegation added to represent the alliance of US states that have pledged to uphold the Paris Agreement. The interview closes with a systems thinking perspective on addressing climate change and the benefits that can accrue to everyone when we take action.

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