Uncertainty in an emissions-constrained world

By Matthias Jonas, IIASA, and  Gregg Marland, Appalachian State University

Greenhouse gas emissions are seldom measured directly. They must be estimated from data such as on energy use and changes in land use. That means that estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from human sources are inherently uncertain.

This image of Central and Eastern Europe at night was taken from the NASA, International Space Station in 2011. Image Credit: NASA

Uncertainty around emissions may mean that reaching temperature targets would require greater cuts than previously thought. Central and Eastern Europe at night, taken from the NASA, International Space Station in 2011. Image Credit: NASA

In a new study with colleagues at IIASA and the Polish Academy of Sciences, we asked how uncertainty over time will affect short-term GHG emission commitments and long-term efforts to meet global temperature targets for 2050 and beyond. The new study addresses a fundamental problem: how to combine uncertainty about current and historic emissions (diagnostic uncertainty) with uncertainty about projected future emissions (prognostic uncertainty).

The paper introduces a concept we call the Emissions, Temperature, Uncertainty (ETU) framework.The ETU framework allows any country to understand its national and near-term mitigation and adaptation efforts in a more realistic context, where uncertainty is taken into account.

The ETU assumes that cumulative emissions can be constrained over time by international agreements that are binding, but that emissions can be estimated only imprecisely, and whether or not they will achieve an agreed temperature target  is also uncertain. The ETU framework allows policymakers to understand diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty so that they can make more educated (precautionary) decisions for reducing emissions given an agreed future temperature target.

Diagnostic uncertainty refers to the uncertainty contained in current inventoried emission estimates and relates to the risk that true greenhouse gas emissions are greater than inventoried emission estimates. Prognostic uncertainty refers to cumulative emissions between a start year and a future target year and the global average temperature increase they would generate. It relates to the risk that an agreed temperature target is exceeded. In a nutshell, the ETU framework can be used to monitor a country’s performance – that is, past achievements as well as projected achievements – in complying with a future warming target in a quantified uncertainty-risk context.

While our study addresses whether or not the future increase in global temperature can be kept below 2, 3, or 4ºC targets, its primary aim is to use those targets to demonstrate the relevance of both diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty.   The paper shows:

  • Uncertainty is important in emissions: Both diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty need to be considered to facilitate better decisions on reducing emissions, given an agreed future temperature target.
  • What these risks mean for emissions targets: We find, for example, that to nullify the diagnostic uncertainty-related risk, and to maintain a similar level of risk for exceeding a 2o target, the universally valid per-capita emissions target for 2050 resulting from the underlying cumulative emissions constraint needs to be shifted downward by nearly 10%.
  • Risk and uncertainty are interdependent: This interdependence poses a challenge for decision-makers because they have to deal with uncertainty and risk simultaneously.
  • Including land-use change is tricky: Determining cumulative emissions from land use and land-use change in this emission-temperature setting is difficult, because an achievable future state of sustainability for the terrestrial biosphere has not yet been defined.

Matthias Jonas, Gregg Marland, Volker Krey, Fabian Wagner, Zbigniew Nahorski (2014).  Uncertainty in an emissions-constrained world. Climatic Change. April 2014. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-014-1103-6

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

REDD+: Cutting emissions, not trees, in the Congo Basin

By Aline Mosnier, IIASA Research Scholar

Aline Mosnier

Aline Mosnier

Deforestation and forest degradation contribute substantially to greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in developing countries. The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus forest conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (REDD+) Initiative, launched in 2008 by the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), aims to help developing countries prevent such deforestation and degradation. It creates a mechanism that would provide financial compensation to developing countries that make efforts to address these problems. Some funding has started to flow to build REDD+ readiness plans and forest monitoring capacity. However, many methodological issues stand in the way of reaching agreements and attracting enough funding for the initiative to succeed.

One of the core ideas of REDD+ is that payments should be based on results. But particularly in Congo Basin countries, where I recently spent three weeks meeting with stakeholders and policymakers on REDD+ plans and goals, determining results is not an easy task.

How do we measure performance? First, we must agree on a benchmark to which the future efforts can be compared. The simplest benchmark is perhaps just to compare current efforts to the past: using past data has the advantage of being based on facts and consequently less prone to inflation. But for this to work, one has to believe that the past is the best predictor of the future.

The Congo Basin countries have a problem: they have high forest cover and low historical deforestation rates… but fast-growing needs.

Yaounde, Cameron. Photo credit:  Aline Mosnier.

Yaounde, Cameron. Photo credit: Aline Mosnier.

The low historical deforestation rates in the Congo Basin countries result from several factors. Some argue that conflicts, unfavorable investment climate, lack of infrastructure, and low levels of economic development have led to a “passive protection” of the forests. But the context is changing. Presidents of the Congo Basin countries have big plans–they want to become emerging countries within the next two decades–and they are looking for new opportunities. Foreign investment projects in mining, oil, agro-industrial plantations, and large-scale agriculture are now flourishing in the Congo Basin, and protected areas are under threat. Local communities could be threatened by expropriation and pollution from large scale projects, but at the same time these communities are also eager to see new employment opportunities.

What does this situation tell us about REDD for the Congo Basin? First, payments for living forests are necessary to avoid deforestation because this is the only way to convince developing countries that forests are valuable. These payments have to benefit both local communities who are living next to the forest, and governments who are making the decisions about large-scale conversion of forests.

Second, if payments are conditional to reduction compared to past deforestation, we can’t expect much from REDD in the Congo Basin countries. If payments are delivered based on lower future deforestation rates and are not underestimated compared to what could be foreseen according to countries development needs, the international community has a chance to make a change.

But this needs trust. Trying to quantify future emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is challenging and undoubtedly involves large uncertainties. However, by engaging with stakeholders to understand the local context while having independent funding, by building the models under the necessary scrutiny and scientific rigor, and by clearly communicating the results to the international community, scientists could play an important role in finding a fair deal to fight against future deforestation.

At IIASA, we are contributing to this objective under our REDD-PAC project by combining land use and systems analysis tools from IIASA, regional expertise of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in Brazil and the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC) in the Congo Basin, and the experience of UNEP-WCMC on the multiple benefits of REDD+.

Aline Mosnier contributed to work that will be presented at a special session organized by UNEP-WCMC and IIASA at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) at the COP 19th in Warsaw, highlighting the role of land use change models in supporting landscape-scale planning. She recently returned from travels through the Congo Basin, where she met with stakeholders and policymakers.

Recharge.green: What’s a forest worth?

This post was originally published on the recharge.green blog. IIASA is a partner in the new project, which focuses on the potential for renewable energy in the Alps.

mountain biker in forest ©dreamstime.comWhen I think of an alpine forest, I think of the towering cedar trees that blanket the Cascade mountains near my native Seattle, with trunks so broad you can’t reach your arms around them. I think of the shadowy quiet that envelops me as I wander through a mountain forest in my new home in Austria. I think of the scent of pine needles and the bounce of my feet on a trail softened by forest litter. The value of a mature forest to people like me who love the outdoors—its recreational value—is impossible to put into numbers.

We can, however, calculate the effects of different styles of forest management on more quantifiable criteria. We can determine how much carbon dioxide is taken up from the atmosphere and stored by long-growing forests. And we can estimate how much bioenergy we can sustainably produce by managing forests for biomass harvesting.

This is exactly what IIASA scientists have done for their first efforts in the recharge.green project. IIASA’s role in the project is to use our modeling expertise to explore the various possibilities for renewable energy expansion in the Alps. We are also looking at the tradeoffs and benefits of the different possible scenarios and ecosystem services (ESS). As a first step, researchers Florian KraxnerSylvain Leduc , Sabine Fuss (now with MCC Berlin), Nicklas Forsell, and Georg Kindermann used the IIASA BeWhere and Global Forest (G4M) models look at the tradeoffs between bioenergy production or carbon storage in alpine forests.

These graphs show the first results for recharge.green from IIASA’s BeWhere and G4M models, optimizing the location of bioenergy plants to maximize either carbon sequestration (top) or bioenergy production (bottom). The gradiant of green colors shows the amount of carbon storage over the landscape, while the red boxes (and according gradient in red) show the harvesting intensity in different harvesting areas.

These graphs show the first results for recharge.green from IIASA’s BeWhere and G4M models, optimizing the location of bioenergy plants to maximize either carbon sequestration (top) or bioenergy production (bottom). The gradiant of green colors shows the amount of carbon storage over the landscape, while the red boxes (and according gradient in red) show the harvesting intensity in different harvesting areas.

“Managing forests optimally for bioenergy requires more intensive management,” says Kraxner. That means shorter rotations where trees are cut more often. Such a forest is made up of smaller trees that may look more like “close-to-nature plantations” than an old-growth forest. In contrast, managing forests for carbon storage means letting the trees grow older, also good for biodiversity and environmental preservation.

In their analysis, Kraxner and the team compared two management strategies: restricting bioenergy production to a small land area, and managing it intensively, or spreading bioenergy over a large land area but managing less intensively over the whole area. They found that the same amount of bioenergy could be produced by managing a small amount of land area intensively for bioenergy production. This more intensive management on a small area of land would free up a larger land area for preservation and protection or other special dedication to ecosystem services.

“Both methods are sustainable,” says Kraxner, “but the optics are different. Intensification can be a good solution to provide renewable energy and at the same time preserve biodiversity and the more intangible values of mature forests.”

What do you think? What should our priorities be in managing Alpine forests?

What does the IPCC report mean for climate policy?

By Anthony Patt, ETH Zurich and IIASA (From ETH-Klimablog)

SONY DSCThe first of three working group reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was made public last Friday. Previous reports served as guidepost for climate policy development. And yet some policies were clearly more effective than others.

Over the next several months, the IPCC will release a series of three volumes, one from each of its three working groups, together constituting its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The Working Group  (WG) 1 report, on the science of climate change, was just published, while reports from WGs 2 and 3, covering climate impacts and adaptation, and the challenge of reducing or stopping climate change, respectively, appear in March and April of 2014.

Established by the United Nations in 1988, the role of the IPCC is to assess the state of the science, communicating it in a manner that is useful to policy-makers. Three of the previous four assessment reports have come at critical times in climate policy development. The first two supported negotiations of the current global treaty and its first major revision. The Nobel Peace Prize winning Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was released in 2007, intended to guide the negotiations to the successor to Kyoto.

The AR4 delivered a convincing two part message: that to avoid dangerous climate change the world must embark on a pathway completely eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from industry and land use change by the second half of this century, and that such a pathway is both technically and economically feasible. Many expected this message to lead to a successful negotiation process to be completed in Copenhagen in 2009.

International climate negotiations have made little progress.

International climate negotiations have made little progress, but the IPCC still has value, argues Patt.

But negotiators failed to reach an agreement in Copenhagen, and have made remarkably little progress in the four years since. Moreover, both the recently published AR5 WG1 report and early drafts of the WG2 report on climate impacts and adaptation suggest that their findings will strengthen those from AR4, but will not add anything dramatically new. Some say that the IPCC is no longer of any value. I disagree, for two reasons.

First, the most ambitious policy developments are now happening at the national level, with countries like Germany, Switzerland, and even the United States planning exactly the kind of transition away from fossil fuels and high emissions pathways that the AR4 suggested was both necessary and possible.1 There is reason to believe that the actions of this smaller number of countries will deliver the technological progress to make a global transition possible. Without the AR4, it is easy to imagine such countries having behaved differently, while the AR5 WGs 1 and 2 reports ought to provide added justification.

Second, deep differences of opinion have emerged concerning the best policies to achieve national decarbonization goals. Ten years ago, almost all analysts were convinced that carbon markets, i.e. trading in CO2 emissions certificates, represented the ideal policy instrument. But these have worked poorly, while portfolios of other instruments, including subsidies and regulations, have exceeded expectations. Researchers have studied these outcomes.e.g. 2 They have found, for example, that the more successful policy instruments are those that work to minimize the risks that investors in new technologies face.

The AR5 makes clear that an energy system transition remains necessary, and indeed now appears even more urgent than it did a few years ago. It is now possible for the IPCC, in its WG3 report, to provide a critical appraisal of alternative strategies. This is badly needed.

This post was originally published on the ETH Zurich Klimablog (in German).

1.         Lilliestam, J. et al. An alternative to a global climate deal may be unfolding before our eyes. Clim. Dev. 4, 1–4 (2012).
2.         Peters, M., Schneider, M., Griesshaber, T. & Hoffmann, V. H. The impact of technology-push and demand-pull policies on technical change – Does the locus of policies matter? Res. Policy 41, 1296–1308 (2012).

About the author
Anthony Patt is Professor at ETH Zurich, and a Guest Research Scholar in IIASA’s Program on Risk, Policy and Vulnerability, where he serves as head of the  Decisions and Governance Research Group. His research is on the effectiveness of policies at addressing risks and uncertainties in the area of climate change, considering both the restructuring of energy systems and adapting to climate impacts and vulnerabilities. Read more>>

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


Interview: REDD+ in Cambodia

 Pheakkdey Nguon, participant in IIASA’s 2012 Young Scientists Summer Program, and IIASA Annual Fund recipient,  has won an IPCC reserach fellowship to fund his research on REDD+  in Cambodia. In this interview he discusses his research plans, the award, and his experience at IIASA.

Pheakkdey Nguon at the awards ceremony for the IPCC research fellowship.

Pheakkdey Nguon at the awards ceremony for the IPCC research fellowship on 30 September, 2013.

Nexus: Please tell us about the research that you will be working on under this grant: What is the major question that you’re studying?
Pheakkdey Nguon: The main objective of my dissertation research is to better understand how governance systems organize and distribute knowledge on the UN’s REDD+ Program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) across different groups of stakeholders with conflicting interests, and the resulting impacts of such systems on forests and people in Cambodia. I am basically asking to what extent the different groups of stakeholders in Cambodia have considered REDD+ as salient, credible and/or legitimate for addressing deforestation, forest degradation and sustainable livelihood development.

How will you address this question?
Theoretically, I am drawing from sustainability science  and political economy of institutions and decisions  literature to reveal ways in which perceptions, institutional locations, and contextual differences affect patterns of stakeholders’ engagement in REDD+, a complex environmental governance project that spans multiple levels of implementation and involve various groups of stakeholders. Methodologically, I am using qualitative methods such as key informant interviews (up to 150 interviews), observations of REDD+ policy processes (up to 70 observations), and extended archival research (e.g. government reports, newspapers, policy briefs, feasibility studies) to answer my question.

The interviews offer a first-hand account of the criteria that different group of stakeholders use and their justifications for using those criteria to assess REDD+ projects within their project areas and in Cambodia. Observations of REDD+ policy processes (e.g. meetings, workshops, consultations) provide information on the participation and engagement of different groups of stakeholders in the production, examination and dissemination of knowledge on REDD+ within the three project sites and in Cambodia. Finally, archival research is conducted for two main reasons: (1) to validate, compare, and contextualize information gathered through interviews and policy observations; and (2) to add to the study information that would not be appropriate or feasible to collect through interviews or observations, either because of the political sensitivities of the topics or time constraints.

Why are you interested in this area?
Academic and policy-oriented literature on REDD+ has been prolific within the last decade. Its central focus has been on addressing the technical issues – defined largely by the scientific and policy communities – that will improve the design and implementation of REDD+ so that its outcomes achieve the goals of effectiveness, efficiency and equity (the so-called “3Es” criteria). Whether these “3Es” criteria – or the underlying logic of REDD+ in general – are as relevant for the different groups of stakeholders in developing countries as they are for the international policy community has, however, been insufficiently substantiated in the literature. Therefore, my justification for exploring the abovementioned question departs from my assumption that the preferences and perceptions of stakeholders cannot be presumed to coincide with aspirations of scientists and/ or policy-makers who have been working on REDD+. Understanding how stakeholders interpret, experience and assess REDD+ is central to understanding the appropriateness of REDD+ as an initiative aiming at addressing deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

How does it relate to the work you did at IIASA?
I classify myself as a sustainability science geographer, and so I came to IIASA already very inspired because people who have had tremendous intellectual influence on me have at certain points been affiliated with IIASA, for example Robert Kates and William Clark. The main activity that I was doing during my YSSP participation was trying to translate literature from these intellectuals into testable hypotheses that will help me understand the question(s) I am asking in my dissertation research. This was not an easy process. It involved a lot of conversations between me, my advisor at Clark (Dr. Anthony Bebbington) and my advisor at IIASA (Dr. Hannes Böttcher). I would also like to acknowledge the very engaging and informative conversations that I had with Dr. Anthony Patt, Dr. Joanne Linnerooth-Bayer, Dr. Michael Thompson, and fellow YSSPers on this matter. They were very generous with their time.

How did the YSSP help you to get this grant?
I came to the YSSP with the main intention of finalizing the questions that I will pursue for my dissertation research. My goal was to have a defensible dissertation research proposal by the time I return to my PhD program at Clark University. I was also hoping that I would be able to build on this proposal to apply for research grants to pursue my empirical fieldwork in Cambodia. During the YSSP, I was very fortunate to be able to work very closely with Dr. Hannes Böttcher, from the Ecosystem Services and Management Program. Similar to other PhD students, I had so many questions that were floating in my head, some of which did not make any sense now that I am reflecting on them. Therefore, I very much admired Dr. Böttcher for his patience, supports and willingness to engage with all the ideas that I was coming up with. Through these many conversations, I did finish my dissertation research proposal that I defended at Clark. And this is the very same proposal that helped me get the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research award. Additionally, I was also able to get one of my dissertation papers accepted for publication at Environmental Science and Policy (DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.04.011) during my time at IIASA.

Why is this research important?
I hope that my research will have some impact in the academy and in the realm of forest governance and climate change debates based in a developing country context. In academe, my research engages with politically broader discussions on the science-policy interface, market-based approaches to forest governance in developing countries, stakeholders’ assessments of policies on climate change, and national sovereignty issues. Beyond the academy, this research is relevant to the ongoing debate on how scientific knowledge is being received, perceived and reconfigured in environmental governance policy that spans multiple scales of implementation and involves various groups of stakeholders. Finally, significant for the national and international policy negotiations on REDD+, this study should contribute to the debate on why certain groups of stakeholders have been supportive, while others have been critical, of the implementation of REDD+ projects in developing countries.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.