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INSIDER: How to Plan New Emission Pathways for a Low-Carbon Future

The Paris Agreement gave climate action advocates a measure of certainty, but it also raised numerous questions: Are countries aiming high enough in their new climate targets? By how much do national climate action plans – or nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) – reduce emissions? Which pathways can countries take to achieve their NDCs? And how does climate action align with sustainable development?

Many groups have developed models to tackle questions like these. They allow us to explore possible scenarios for countries aiming to meet their Paris Agreement goals. It should be noted that scenarios are different to forecasting or making projections. Whereas a forecast or projection is trying to predict the future state of a system, like the economy or a country's energy mix, a scenario within one of these models is a consistent set of assumptions and model outputs. Often models produce a baseline or "business-as-usual" scenario, which is more like a forecast or projection based on current trends, only to compare other scenarios against it. This allows us to do a "what-if" kind of analysis by looking at, for example, how a carbon price would change the energy mix compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

There can be many different scenarios depending on which targets you want to reach, ranging from a low carbon transition to a fossil-fuel intensive one. These scenarios can inform the pathways that countries can take to implement their NDCs and reach their development goals. However, the great variety of models and scenarios can make it difficult to understand the underlying collection of assumptions on the driving forces of change, and thus, obscure what actions are needed to reach that country's climate and sustainable development goals.

This is why World Resources Institute and Google built the Climate Watch Pathways tool, making it easier to visualize, compare and draw insights into different scenarios in order to understand what countries would need to do to make these stories a reality. It is the first comprehensive tool that helps you navigate through the results of multiple models and visualize scenarios for countries, regions, and sectors with the assumptions that go into these models.

In the examples below, we dive into some of the different ways we can derive insights from the tool, navigating through models' results, indicators, and assumptions.

How Will India's Emissions Change?

India's current per capita emissions are far lower than those of industrialized Western countries. This is in part because the country doesn't use as much electricity as those others. As India's economy grows, that will change. Different scenarios from the Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM) model in Pathways all show an increase in total generation to about 26 exajoules per year in 2050, up from 3.5 exajoules per year in 2010.

But the kind of power that is added to the generation mix varies widely in these scenarios. That determines the trajectory of their emissions. In observing the different GCAM scenarios, we can see that the "Paris-increased ambition" emissions projections are about half as much as the "Paris-continued ambition" projections by 2100.

Climate Watch's Pathways tool can help us see how they might achieve this difference. The "increased ambition" comes with a substantial decrease in reliance on coal, and increased generation from clean energy in solar, wind and biomass—particularly after 2030.

What Major Shifts Do We Need Globally?

Some of the models also offer global insights on climate change impacts and the scale of the transformation needed globally to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Global Calculator scenarios, for example, shows us that almost all scenarios that lead to about a 50 percent chance of reaching the 2 degrees Celsius target assume carbon removal to be realized through a significant increase in bio-energy coupled with the use of carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Realizing this amount of carbon removal through BECCs could be challenging given significant concerns about the supply of sustainable bioenergy to bring BECCS to scale. For example, BECCs at scale could displace forests and food production to make way for bioenergy production.

At this point in time, carbon capture and storage technology is not yet proven to work at the scale required for this transformation. And no single carbon removal approach will provide the scale of removals necessary for limiting dangerous warming, and therefore, a portfolio of approaches is necessary. The pathways module shows clearly what assumptions, such as these, are being relied upon by the models. This is helpful because it shows what technologies, policy and behavioral shifts are being counted upon to achieve long-term transformation. And if these are not available, what other shifts may be necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of reaching the 2 degree or even 1.5 degree Celsius target.

Pathways Can Create a Common Vision for How to Get There

Many countries are in the midst of identifying the policies and approaches that can deliver their NDCs and development targets in mutually reinforcing ways. A critical challenge in this regard is to bring together relevant ministries, the private sector and other stakeholders around a shared vision of what is needed.

This tool will help inform assessments and dialogues on the pathways available to countries or sectors for significantly reducing GHG emissions, while also addressing developmental opportunities and challenges. Another core purpose of the module will be to enable direct dialogue between stakeholders and scenario providers to support a clear understanding of the policy insights that can be derived from scenarios as well as inform the development of updated scenarios with relevant and actionable information for decision-makers.

Pathways is an open data tool on Climate Watch that supports a transparent and accountable climate regime – one that will allow us to easily navigate the variety of complex models and their future scenarios to help inform a phase-out of emissions over time and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. We invite you to try the tool out for yourself and to explore more countries and scenarios.

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