Writing Prompt: The Role of Modeling and Scenario Development in Long-term Strategies

Modeling and scenario development are central elements of many long-term strategies. While the general actions needed to achieve a given objective may be well understood (e.g. a shift to clean energy to achieve decarbonization), without quantitative projections, it may not be possible to develop a long-term strategy with sufficient detail.

We are soliciting expert perspectives on four related topics, which we detail below. Please note that you do not have to address all topics in your response.

  • The primary functions of modeling as part of long-term strategies
  • Limitations of modeling and quantitative projections in long-term strategies
  • Best practices in scenario building for long-term strategies
  • Process for considering scenarios/research undertaken by technical experts

Primary functions of modeling as part of long-term strategies

Models of energy, land and economic systems can serve various useful purposes as part of long-term strategies. They can help to reveal what and when specific actions are needed to achieve a given long-term target. Modeling is also useful in displaying the trade-offs among alternative pathways and estimating the associated implications to society. We are soliciting input on: what are the primary functions of sectoral and economy-wide modeling as part of long-term strategies? Specific issues on the role of modeling that experts may wish to address include:

  • Promoting internal consistency, for example, in ensuring that actions across sectors are sufficient to achieve economy-wide targets
  • Elucidating a deeper understanding of actions needed to achieve a target, given the complications of energy, land and economic systems, and the important interactions among these systems
  • Promoting greater transparency in targets, intended actions, and assumptions about the future that underlie targets 
  • Uncovering the implications of key uncertainties and important decision points that policy-makers will face along the long-run pathway
  • Estimating costs and/or benefits associated with achieving a long-term target

Limitations of Modeling and Quantitative Projections in Long-term Strategies 

No long-term strategies are based on modeling results alone. After all, all models are over-simplistic depictions of the real-world, and projections of these systems over decades into the future add to the difficulty of generating useful results. We are also soliciting input on: what are the key limitations of modeling as part of long-term strategies? Specific issues that experts may wish to address include:

  • Whether projections of energy, land and economic systems thirty years into the future can produce meaningful results
  • The risks of providing decision-makers with a false sense of certainty or precision about long-term pathways
  • The risk of confusing what is “model-able” with what is achievable, e.g., breakthrough technological advances
  • Whether modeling results are biased in ways that could lend unjustifiable support to certain pathways or levels of ambition
  • The limitations of long-term cost estimates (where costs can mean investment costs, overall policy costs, etc.)

Relatedly, we invite experts to provide input on how, given the advantages and limitations, modeling exercises can be framed most effectively in long-term strategies.

Best Practices in Scenario Building for Long-term Strategies

Developing numerous pathways through a scenario approach is one way to gain insights from long-term modeling while also recognizing the lack of precision of any single long-term projection. Scenarios can help to identify opportunities and challenges associated with numerous pathways for achieving a long-term target. While there is no correct way to develop a set of scenarios, we are soliciting expert input on: what are any “best practices” or general lessons learned from experience building scenarios for long-term strategies or related exercises? Specific issues that experts may wish to address include: 

  • Important factors to vary across scenarios (e.g. uncertain measurements, technologies, policy choices)
  • How many scenarios to develop and how many to publish, given potential trade-offs between simplicity and comprehensiveness
  • Whether scenarios should be centered around a single “central” pathway, and whether that approach risks an unwanted interpretation of a “most likely” or “preferred” pathway
  • The advantages and drawbacks of developing a baseline or business-as-usual scenarios to which the target-achieving scenarios can be compared
  • How to account for the potential role of technologies that may play an important role in future energy and land systems but have yet to be proven at scale (e.g. bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage)
  • An effective framing to describe the advantages and limitations of a scenario approach

Process for considering scenarios/research undertaken by technical experts

Finally, there may be different ways in which decision makers consider the scenarios/research undertaken by technical experts. For example, in some cases, it could be a collaborative effort between decision makers and experts, while in others, the experts could provide decision makers with the results and decision makers could independently decide how these results are used. As such, we are soliciting expert opinion on: how do you best make use of outputs from the research community in the decision-making process?