Dec 3, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Choose your own climate and energy adventure

Illustration of a hand holding the globe, with two arrows going in different directions

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new simulator out today empowers readers to choose their own adventure when it comes to tackling climate change.

Why it matters: The tool, created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and think tank Climate Interactive, underscores the grand challenge of employing technologies and policies to tackle climate change.

What’s new: This simulator is the first of its kind designed for politicians and others who care about climate change and energy, but aren’t researchers accustomed to arcane models.

  • From this simulator, which is still quite detailed, we curated an even more simplified interactive (see below) presenting nine questions on everything from carbon dioxide prices to land management.
  • At the end, it shows how your choices affect annual greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature rise and energy costs over the next 80 years.

The intrigue: Think of it as choose your own adventure, climate and energy style. It’s like the books you may have read as children — but less fun and more complicated.

Data: MIT and Climate Interactive; Interactive: Naema Ahmed and Sarah Grillo/Axios
Data: MIT and Climate Interactive; Interactive: Naema Ahmed and Sarah Grillo/Axios

How it works: Let’s choose one “adventure,” the most aggressive where you choose to subsidize all clean energy technologies, pursue the most climate-friendly policies and enact a global carbon price over $200 a ton.

  • The results are an aggressive and gradual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a temperature rise of 3.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • That would keep the rise to lower than 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius), which is a benchmark most scientists say Earth should stay below to limit the worst impacts of a warming world.

But, but, but: In this aggressive adventure, global energy costs rise sharply through the 2020s and then gradually decrease by 2100 to be lower than business as usual.

  • Energy costs include gasoline and electricity prices, but the modeling doesn’t offer more local costs for, say, the price of gasoline Americans would pay in 2029.
  • The metric used is gigajoule, an internationally recognized unit of energy (on a massive scale).
  • Many outcomes that drastically reduce emissions increase energy costs between 20-30% over the first decade, according to Andrew Jones, co-founder of Climate Interactive. In this most aggressive adventure, costs more than double initially.

The bottom line: The biggest upshot of the simulator shows that cutting emissions needs to be first about reducing the world’s use of fossil fuels, instead of merely ramping up cleaner forms of energy. Global energy demand keeps increasing, so wind and solar are being added on top of fossil fuels in most places around the world.

“It takes a long time for clean energy to displace the coal, oil and gas that is being planned. We need policies that more directly keep those fuels in the ground."
— Andrew Jones, co-founder, Climate Interactive

Go deeper: Why clean energy isn’t enough to tackle climate change

Editor's note: The interactive and content in this story was corrected to show the energy unit is a gigajoule (not an exajoule).

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