In the intense atmosphere of international climate negotiations, it can be hard to keep track of countries’ shifting positions on greenhouse gas reductions, let alone what they will add up to after the emissions settle.
But a new climate model that can run on a laptop — and crunch complicated emissions numbers in less than a tenth of a second into a colorful, user-friendly display — could help diplomats understand how their decisions will play out.
“This is a tool that can be used in the middle of a conversation,” said Andrew Jones, program manager for the Sustainability Institute, one of the groups developing the model.
Creators of the model, known as C-ROADS, are dreaming big. They hope to convince negotiators to use the program at upcoming U.N. talks in Copenhagen this December, when the world will formulate the successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
Robert Corell, who participated in the Kyoto process in the 1990s as an official with the National Science Foundation, said his experiences then demonstrate the need for something like the new model.
“None of [the countries that signed the agreement] had done homework that analyzed what they finally agreed to,” said Corell, now vice-president for programs and policy at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.
“I’ve talked to heads of delegations around the world. They would tell you that if they’d had some better tools, and they could’ve — in real-time — assessed the implications of the decisions they were making, those decisions would have been very different.”
With that in mind, the Heinz Center has joined forces with the Sustainability Institute and the scientists who developed C-ROADS to shop the model to policymakers, business leaders and soon, the general public.
No need to be a ‘climate guru’
Corell and John Sterman, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped build the model, will bring it to Capitol Hill this week. They are scheduled to present the program Wednesday at a briefing sponsored by the American Meteorological Society, where Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) will give opening remarks.
Anthony Socci, director of the meteorological society’s public policy group, said he is intrigued by the model’s potential to allow non-scientists to “do some real-time analysis without being a climate guru, so to speak.”
But this week’s briefing isn’t C-ROADS’ first high-profile outing. Its developers recently demonstrated its use to 42 European environment ministers. And last August, the Center for a New American Security used the model during a climate “war game” in Washington, where participants — including President Obama’s climate and energy czar, Carol Browner, and State Department climate envoy Todd Stern — played the role of diplomats negotiating a new climate agreement among the United States, China, Russia and other nations.
Others who have participated in role-playing scenarios that use C-ROADS include city sustainability leaders in Atlanta, students at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and oil company executives.
The project has received financial support from the Morgan Family Foundation, Citigroup, Fidelity Investments, Active Philanthropy, and Zennström Philanthropies, among others. Next month, C-ROADS’ developers plan to release a version of the model on the Internet and make its underlying code available to others, so its interface can be translated into languages other than English.
A lean, mean climate machine
The key to C-ROADS’ speed and portability is judicious simplification.
It uses elements of the complicated climate models that provide data for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which run on supercomputers and require days to crunch their numbers. But this system isn’t designed to look at how climate change will affect different regions of the world. Instead, it gives an overall picture of how different levels of greenhouse gas emissions will reshape the Earth’s environment over the next century.
“We’ve sacrificed spatial resolution on impacts for processing speed and utility for policymakers,” Jones said.
Its display resembles a car’s dashboard, with a graph of greenhouse gas emissions on the left of the computer screen and a graph of the resulting environmental conditions on the right.
Below the graphs are rows of sliders that users can manipulate, setting emissions levels by choosing a baseline emissions level, a time period to analyze, and how much CO2 emissions will rise or fall during that time.
Users can choose an ultra-streamlined version, which divides the world’s nations into developed, developing and least developed groups, or manipulate a more complex world with countries divided in up to 15 separate blocs.
Once they have made their choices, C-ROADS does the math and spits out its projection for how the world will look in 2100, including the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, the global mean surface temperature and the amount of sea-level rise.
“Is this model a useful tool? The answer is clearly yes,” said Robert Watson, who headed the IPCC from 1997 to 2002. “It is a nice, simple model that is a good representation of the more complex models.”
Watson, now the chief scientific adviser to the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is one of several outside scientists who have reviewed the model. He and his colleagues, who include Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider and researchers at the London School of Economics and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, are finalizing a joint statement that supports C-ROADS’ “widespread use among policymakers and the general public.”
Already producing results
Months before negotiators sit down in Copenhagen, the model is already producing some surprising results.
Plugging in countries’ stated negotiating positions — like the Obama administration’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 or China’s plan to reduce its energy intensity — shows they would bring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere up to more than 700 parts per million by 2100.
That’s well above the 450 ppm target most scientists believe is necessary to stave off severe climate change.
“What we’ve done over the last two years is break out 15 different negotiating blocs so we can ask very specific questions — such as ‘What if the E.U. reduces emissions 80 percent by 2050, what if China’s GDP grows at 8 percent per year, and what if Canada reduces its emissions 20 percent by 2025?'” Jones said. “What we really wanted to know was, if everyone does what they’re publicly saying they’re going to do, what will it add up to? It seems like an obvious question, but it’s one that hadn’t been answered yet.”
Meanwhile, using the C-ROADS model in simulated negotiations has demonstrated that even an ultra-fast climate model can have trouble keeping up with the flow of negotiations, said Tom Fiddaman, a modeler whose MIT doctoral thesis is considered C-ROADS’ grandfather, of sorts.
“We learned a lot of things,” Fiddaman said of last summer’s CNAS climate “war game.” “One is that no matter how fast you make the model, people can talk faster, ask questions faster.”
Another is that once users begin playing with the model, they start asking how much the emissions cuts they’re plugging in will cost — something the program’s developers are trying to address.
They’re also working on including greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — like chlorofluorocarbons — in the model’s calculations. And at the urging of their scientific review team, they’re thinking about tweaking C-ROADS to give results that look at the effects of emissions cuts on a regional scale.
“The key message here,” Sterman said, “is that this model is not a toy.”
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ClimateWire is written and produced by the staff of E&E Publishing, LLC. It is designed to provide comprehensive, daily coverage of all aspects of climate change issues. From international agreements on carbon emissions to alternative energy technologies to state and federal GHG programs, ClimateWire plugs readers into the information they need to stay abreast of this sprawling, complex issue.
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