CarbonBrief explains how new scenarios outline a number of possible futures for global warming. These different pathways show a number of possibilities – from how the world will warm with no climate policy, to the less extreme warming that will occur with significant cuts to carbon emissions.
Over the past few years, an international team of climate scientists, economists and energy systems modellers have built a range of new “pathways” that examine how global society, demographics and economics might change over the next century. They are collectively known as the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” (SSPs).
These SSPs are now being used as important inputs for the latest climate models, feeding into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report due to be published in 2020-21. They are also being used to explore how societal choices will affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, how the climate goals of the Paris Agreement could be met.
The new SSPs offer five pathways that the world could take. Compared to previous scenarios, these offer a broader view of a “business as usual” world without future climate policy, with global warming in 2100 ranging from a low of 3.1C to a high of 5.1C above pre-industrial levels.
They show that it would be much easier to mitigate and adapt to climate change in some versions of the future than in others. They suggest, for example, that a future with “resurgent nationalism” and a fragmentation of the international order could make the “well below 2C” Paris target impossible.
Narratives of the future
The SSPs are based on five narratives describing broad socioeconomic trends that could shape future society. These are intended to span the range of plausible futures.
They include: a world of sustainability-focused growth and equality (SSP1); a “middle of the road” world where trends broadly follow their historical patterns (SSP2); a fragmented world of “resurgent nationalism” (SSP3); a world of ever-increasing inequality (SSP4); and a world of rapid and unconstrained growth in economic output and energy use (SSP5).
The figure below shows the different emissions trajectories broken out by Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP), as well as indicating the level of adaptation and mitigation challenges associated with each. In general, SSP1 (bottom left box) has faster emission reductions and less negative emissions required later in the century under deeper mitigation scenarios, compared to other SSPs.
The narrative for each is described in detail below:
|SSP1||Sustainability – Taking the Green Road (Low challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
The world shifts gradually, but pervasively, toward a more sustainable path, emphasizing more inclusive development that respects perceived environmental boundaries. Management of the global commons slowly improves, educational and health investments accelerate the demographic transition, and the emphasis on economic growth shifts toward a broader emphasis on human well-being. Driven by an increasing commitment to achieving development goals, inequality is reduced both across and within countries. Consumption is oriented toward low material growth and lower resource and energy intensity.
|SSP2||Middle of the Road (Medium challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
The world follows a path in which social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns. Development and income growth proceeds unevenly, with some countries making relatively good progress while others fall short of expectations. Global and national institutions work toward but make slow progress in achieving sustainable development goals. Environmental systems experience degradation, although there are some improvements and overall the intensity of resource and energy use declines. Global population growth is moderate and levels off in the second half of the century. Income inequality persists or improves only slowly and challenges to reducing vulnerability to societal and environmental changes remain.
|SSP3||Regional Rivalry – A Rocky Road (High challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
A resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts push countries to increasingly focus on domestic or, at most, regional issues. Policies shift over time to become increasingly oriented toward national and regional security issues. Countries focus on achieving energy and food security goals within their own regions at the expense of broader-based development. Investments in education and technological development decline. Economic development is slow, consumption is material-intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen over time. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries. A low international priority for addressing environmental concerns leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions.
|SSP4||Inequality – A Road Divided (Low challenges to mitigation, high challenges to adaptation)
Highly unequal investments in human capital, combined with increasing disparities in economic opportunity and political power, lead to increasing inequalities and stratification both across and within countries. Over time, a gap widens between an internationally-connected society that contributes to knowledge- and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and a fragmented collection of lower-income, poorly educated societies that work in a labor intensive, low-tech economy. Social cohesion degrades and conflict and unrest become increasingly common. Technology development is high in the high-tech economy and sectors. The globally connected energy sector diversifies, with investments in both carbon-intensive fuels like coal and unconventional oil, but also low-carbon energy sources. Environmental policies focus on local issues around middle and high income areas.
|SSP5||Fossil-fueled Development – Taking the Highway (High challenges to mitigation, low challenges to adaptation)
This world places increasing faith in competitive markets, innovation and participatory societies to produce rapid technological progress and development of human capital as the path to sustainable development. Global markets are increasingly integrated. There are also strong investments in health, education, and institutions to enhance human and social capital. At the same time, the push for economic and social development is coupled with the exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world. All these factors lead to rapid growth of the global economy, while global population peaks and declines in the 21st century. Local environmental problems like air pollution are successfully managed. There is faith in the ability to effectively manage social and ecological systems, including by geo-engineering if necessary.
Narratives for each Shared Socioeconomic Pathway, from Riahi et al 2017.
Credit: Crabon brief (link to the full article here)