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Climate change scenario framework: Achievements and needs for better future research

An EU-funded study looked into the scenario framework’s successes so far and the issues that need to be tackled, providing recommendations on how to address them.

Climate Change and Environment icon Climate Change and Environment

We’re already seeing the impact of global warming on nature and society. However, its broader consequences still lie in the future. Although what awaits can’t be predicted, over the last four decades climate change scenarios have allowed scientists to explore likely desirable and undesirable outcomes and the actions that could bring them about or prevent them. More recently, in the last 10 years, climate change researchers have developed a scenario framework that combines different possible futures for climate and society. The aim of the climate change scenario framework has been to facilitate integrated research and consistent assessment for informing policy. Researchers supported by the EU-funded ENGAGE, CD-LINKS AND CASCADES projects have now conducted a study to assess how well this framework is working and what challenges it faces. Their findings have been published in the journal ‘Nature Climate Change’. The scenario framework consists of Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), which are considered together with Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). SSPs are a set of scenarios that describe alternative futures of socio-economic development, while RCPs illustrate different climate futures that are dependent on the volume of greenhouse gases emitted in the coming years. The study synthesised insights from relevant literature, community discussions and assessments. The conclusion reached was that the framework has been widely adopted by researchers and is for the most part meeting current needs. As stated in the paper, “[t]he SSPs have been employed in more than 1,370 analyses related to climate change drivers, risks and response options … Within impacts-related research, applications to agriculture, water … and health predominate, but smaller numbers of studies address topics as diverse as poverty, tourism, conflict, ecological impacts and economic growth. More than 70 of these studies address multiple topics equally.” “The scenarios framework allows scientists to use similar scenarios across many different studies. Individual research projects don’t need to develop their own scenario storylines and quantifications but can build on the work of others,” remarked study co-author Bas van Ruijven of ENGAGE and CD-LINKS project coordinator International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in a news item posted on the ‘Science Daily’ website. “Once many studies use comparable scenarios, it becomes more straightforward to assess the literature for insights that emerge across these studies.”

Identifying needed improvements for future studies

The researchers also highlighted some important issues that should be addressed to increase the framework’s relevance and usefulness. They also made recommendations on how to address each issue. A few of the issues identified as requiring improvement were the integration of societal and climate conditions, regional and local applicability, relevance beyond climate research, use in policy research, and coverage of relevant perspectives and uncertainties. “By identifying the weaknesses of the existing framework, we improve the utility of the framework for future studies. Also, by combining socioeconomic and climate change scenarios with other societal objectives …, we can … systematically explore how to avoid climate change and how to cope with its impacts,” stated co-author Keywan Riahi of the IIASA in the same news item. The CD-LINKS (Linking Climate and Development Policies - Leveraging International Networks and Knowledge Sharing) project ended in 2019. ENGAGE (Exploring National and Global Actions to reduce Greenhouse gas Emissions) and CASCADES (CAScading Climate risks: towards ADaptive and resilient European Societies) will be concluded in 2023. For more information, please see: ENGAGE project website CD-LINKS project website CASCADES project website


ENGAGE, CD-LINKS, CASCADES, climate change, scenario framework, scenario

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