Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

Scenarios have long been used as fundamental tools to explore alternative future trajectories for the evolution of GHG emissions and atmospheric concentrations. Their development and application have spanned both quantitative and qualitative efforts to anticipate likely carbon futures, capture uncertainty in long-term carbon pathways, and establish alternative visions for the future. For example, over the past 25 years, the research community has developed and used the following as important research tools: 1) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) IS92 scenarios (IPCC 1990; Leggett et al., 1992); 2) the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES; IPCC 2000); and 3) most recently, Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs; Moss et al., 2010). Such scenarios played an important role in carbon cycle and global change research through their use as forcings for Earth System Models to estimate future changes in the physical climate system. As such, they have tended to have limited representation of the underlying socioeconomic conditions that generate the physical forcings. For example, the IS92 scenarios and RCPs are limited to concentration and atmospheric forcings of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs. The scenarios from SRES, however, were associated with broader qualitative storylines regarding future global development, although the quantitative elements were limited to population and gross domestic product (GDP). Furthermore, the global nature of the storylines limited national, regional, or local articulation of development trajectories (Absar and Preston 2015).

In addition to their use in global change research, scenarios and scenario planning are frequently used within the private sector to explore the implications of alternative future energy, policy, and socioeconomic conditions. Shell is considered a pioneer in scenario planning for energy and climate. In 2013, Shell published New Lens Scenarios, which outlined technology and economic pathways to net zero carbon emissions by the end of this century (Shell 2013). More recently, Shell published Shell Scenarios: Sky, describing a pathway for delivering on the goals of the Paris Agreement (Shell 2018). Similar scenarios have been developed by other energy companies and trade associations (ConocoPhillips 2012; IPIECA 2016; BP 2018). Similarly, relevant energy and climate scenarios from national and international energy agencies include the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s Annual Energy Outlook (EIA 2018) and the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook (IEA 2017).

Recent developments in global change research have recognized the importance of having a richer set of socioeconomic scenarios to better understand the alternative pathways by which societal development can lead to different emissions outcomes (van Ruijven et al., 2014), as well as how development can enable or constrain responses to manage risk inclusive of GHG mitigation, climate adaptation, and sustainable development. To this end, a scenario process complementary to RCPs is represented by the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs; O’Neill et al., 2017). The SSPs consist of a set of five narratives that represent different combinations of challenges to mitigation and adaptation as well as quantitative scenarios at the national level for demography, GDP, and urbanization. Together, the RCPs and the SSPs represent the “parallel scenario process” (Moss et al., 2010), which was designed to reduce the time needed to develop scenarios for research and assessment. The RCPs enabled the climate modeling community to proceed with new simulations without waiting for bottom-up development of underlying socioeconomic conditions.

An ongoing process for the global change research community is to further elaborate and extend the SSPs to make them more useful for a broader range of social, economic, and policy research (Absar and Preston 2015; van Ruijven et al., 2014). This has included efforts to develop nested storylines for more regional analyses (Absar and Preston 2015) and to extend scenarios to address public health (Ebi 2013), as well as developing additional quantitative scenarios of other indicators (van Ruijven et al., 2014) such as poverty (Hallegatte et al., 2016). Additional effort is being invested in exploring how the SSP framework can be aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations 2015).

A key SSP goal is to provide a flexible socioeconomic scenario framework that can be used by the global change community for diverse investigation and applications across multiple spatial and temporal scales. In particular, by integrating SSPs with RCPs, researchers can explore the development pathways that are consistent with alternative GHG concentrations, the climate implications of those concentrations, and the socioeconomic consequences of climate change, as well as mitigation, adaptation, and development policies (Kriegler et al., 2012; van Vuuren et al., 2014). In addition, opportunities exist to broaden the use of scenarios in global change research to include consideration for normative questions such as, “What are the futures that various people want?” and “How can they be achieved?”


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