Modeling for insights not numbers: The long-term low-carbon transformation

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Thomas Schinko
Gabriel Bachner
Stefan Schleicher
Karl W. Steininger


Limiting global warming to prevent dangerous climate change requires drastically reducing global greenhouse gases emissions and a transformation towards a low-carbon society. Existing energy- and climate-economic modeling approaches that are informing policy and decision makers in shaping the future net-zero emissions society are increasingly seen with skepticism regarding their ability to forecast the long-term evolution of highly complex, nonlinear social-ecological systems. We present a structured review of state-of-the-art modeling approaches, focusing on their ability and limitations to develop and assess pathways towards a low-carbon society. We find that existing methodological approaches have some fundamental deficiencies that limit their potential to understand the subtleties of long-term low-carbon transformation processes. We suggest that a useful methodological framework has to move beyond current state of the art techniques and has to simultaneously fulfill the following requirements: (1) representation of an inherent dynamic analysis, describing and investigating explicitly the path between different states of system variables, (2) specification of details in the energy cascade, in particular the central role of functionalities and services that are provided by the interaction of energy flows and corresponding stock variables, (3) reliance on a clear distinction between structures of the sociotechnical energy system and socioeconomic mechanisms to develop it and (4) ability to evaluate pathways along societal criteria. To that end we propose the development of a versatile multi-purpose integrated modeling framework, building on the specific strengths of the various modeling approaches available while at the same time omitting their weaknesses. This paper identifies respective strengths and weaknesses to guide such development. 


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