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Simulating a World Without Climate Change

A new tool could help cities test whether (and how much) specific energy policies can slow global warming.

A group of students run through the simulation.
On a warm, sunny April afternoon in a classroom on the campus of George Washington University in the nation’s capital, about 25 professors, students, and community and environmental leaders got an inkling of what it will take to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, between now and the year 2100.

That’s the goal 196 countries agreed to work toward late last year under the landmark climate change pact known as the Paris Agreement. Each nation has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases in an effort to slow global warming. But preventing an increase in the Earth’s temperature -- even by 2 degrees -- is no small task. 

At least that’s what the group in Washington, D.C., learned. They had gathered to take part in the demonstration of a new climate simulation tool from the research group Climate Interactive. Called En-ROADS, the tool is designed to help participants learn how energy policies can be changed to slow global warming. Specifically, it focuses on how changes in global GDP, energy efficiency, carbon price, fuel mix and other factors will affect carbon emissions and temperature rise. 

On that day in April, participants in the demonstration were organized in groups of three and assigned to represent one of seven sectors: agriculture and land, climate hawks, climate pricing, energy efficiency, fossil fuel, population and consumption, and renewable energy. Working toward the 2 degrees goal, each group developed a set of proposals. For example, the energy efficiency sector put together a plan that would result in a 6 percent per year increase in the efficiency of buildings. Under the proposal, these increases would be achieved through benchmarking programs, the installation of LED lighting, tax incentives for weatherizing, and financing research and development. 

Once each group had a plan in place, they then negotiated with other sectors in an effort to create a balanced energy proposal. That proposal was put into the climate tool to see how close the group got to their goal. The tool works by running assumptions against scientific models.

Despite aggressive energy efficiency standards and other requirements, the group was not able to prevent temperature rise. Afterward, participants went over the proposal, testing out several different numbers and scenarios to see what it would take to prevent the temperature increase. Steve Kaagan, who ran the simulation and is a senior associate at Climate Interactive, says participants are often surprised at the amount of work required to reach the goal. “There’s no silver bullet,” he says. “To affect climate change, you need a portfolio of proposals.”

Up until now, the simulation has mainly been used in classrooms. But Kaagan thinks it would be especially useful for state and local leaders. He says it would give them the ability to test the effect of different policies. “It has value for state and local leaders because it has the ability to focus efforts toward specific solutions,” he says. “It could get them to think about carbon markets, care about emissions from major employers and force planners to think more about resilience planning.”

Indeed, in a spring characterized by floods in Houston and wildfires in Virginia, cities worry that climate change, which has raised the average U.S. temperature by 1.5 degrees since 1895, will only make storms worse. So more and more leaders are planning for major infrastructure improvements to give their cities resilience in the face of global warming and natural disasters. The benefit of the tool is that it helps leaders think beyond physical fixes.

“In public policy, it is risky to experiment,” says Peter Linquiti, director of the Environmental Resource Policy Program at George Washington University. “Modeling is an opportunity to safely experiment with different policy proposals.”

Perhaps most important, En-ROADS helps identify partners, and it creates a sense of urgency. “Politically, it’s hard to focus on the year 2100,” says David Andersen, a professor at SUNY Albany. “This tool helps make the case for long-term climate change planning.”

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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