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30 January 2015

Global Calculator: Launch of online forecasting tool highlights potential for sustainable development

It is possible to provide European living standards for the world’s growing population while still meeting international climate change targets. This was the message at the Royal Society, London, on 28 January, where an online global forecasting model was launched by the Department for Energy & Climate Change (DECC), Climate-KIC and Mott MacDonald.

The Global Calculator draws on input from more than 150 international experts and brings together data on land, energy, food and climate systems to allow users to predict the effects that worldwide production and consumption have on global temperature rises. It has been designed so that anyone – public, businesses and governments – can examine the likely consequences of different actions, helping to inform their decision-making and planning with the aim of mitigating climate change.

Edward Davey, secretary of state for energy & climate change, highlighted the potential problems of leaving climate change unchecked, ranging from food shortages to conflict over resources, but added that limiting global warming could go hand in hand with economic development.

“We have to be very ambitious on our deployment of low carbon technology and fuels, and the way we use our land, to achieve both our development and climate goals,” he said, adding that “choosing between these goals is a false dilemma” as there was opportunity for low-carbon growth to drive jobs and investment.

Although the tool allows users to map different ways to achieving climate change targets, including improving appliance efficiency and modifying land use, cutting the use of fossil fuels was one of the crucial factors.

Sir Mark Walport, government chief scientific advisor, said: “Substitution away from fossil fuels is critical. Fossil fuel use must fall from 82% of our primary energy supply today to around 40% by 2050.”

He added: “This means that we need to keep about 35-50% of current oil reserves, 50% of current gas reserves and 80-85% of current coal reserves in the ground by 2050.”

Maria Van der Hoven, executive director of the International Energy Association agreed, and said: “With the sharp drop in oil prices, we hear voices saying that investment into renewables will falter, that nobody will buy hybrid or electric cars, or that climate negotiations are sure to fail. This is not only inaccurate, but it is also short sighted. Climate change and economic growth require patience, vision and a long term perspective.”

The Global Calculator includes 24 ‘pathways’ which show possible routes to achieving climate change targets which limit global warming to 2oC by 2100 while allowing for acceptable global living standards.

Four of these pathways were designed by DECC, based on varying estimates of consumer activism or action on deforestation, while the others were provided by organisations such as the International Energy Association and Mott MacDonald.

Simon Harrison, group strategic development manager at Mott MacDonald and part of the team which devised the company’s pathway said: “Our pathway focused on efficient use of resources. It shows that a significant carbon reduction can be achieved by delivering supply-side efficiencies, but at a potentially high cost. Minimising energy consumption will be essential to cutting carbon affordably, and that involves behavioural change as well as technological innovation.”

Mott MacDonald’s pathway also highlighted that mitigating climate change is not all about cutting energy and resource use. “It was a surprise to us how big an effect might be achieved by focusing efforts on diet and land use, especially the effect of red meat consumption,” Harrison said.

Tom Bain, Global Calculator lead modeller at DECC, said that the tool was designed be a platform for debate rather than one which provides definitive answers, and will be developed according to feedback from users.

A number of academic institutions and non-governmental bodies have committed to exploring their own scenarios to achieving climate change targets. These will be made publicly accessible via the Global Calculator in the coming months.

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