Exploring the Future of Climate Change – Detlef van Vuuren’s Highly Cited Research

There are ways for people to limit climate change to less than 2 degrees.[i] Detlef van Vuuren and his team have been working to show how using so-called integrated assessment models, and this work has made him one of the most widely cited climate-change researchers in the world. The models van Vuuren is working with help to show connections between different factors causing climate change, including human development and lifestyle, as well as energy and land use.

van Vuuren is a professor of integrated assessment of global environmental change at the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, and senior researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. In his research, he covers socio-economic, technological, lifestyle, policy and other factors and their relationship to climate change. Combining these, he envisions possible futures to mitigate climate change, and helps policymakers in strategic decisions by showing the different consequences of pathways that aim to achieve these futures.[ii]

The integrated assessment models use past trends and historical behavior to make projections of future system behavior. These projections include how various changes will affect future climate and biodiversity. His most-cited work focuses specifically on reaching low greenhouse gas targets, using approaches like carbon dioxide removal technologies, bio-energy, carbon capture and storage, and afforestation.

“I think the truly interesting part of our work is that model-based scenarios can translate overall societal goals into researchable questions,” says van Vuuren. For instance, whether it possible to build up the renewable energy capacity of a technology-focused response strategy.


Modeling a Sustainable Future

In one important example of this work, van Vuuren used the IMAGE model, which he co-developed, to show a path to limit climate change to maximum warming of 2 degrees  (the RCP2.6 scenario) using a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, reduction of non-CO2 gases and land-based mitigation measures. The scenario formed the basis of many research papers, but contributed also to climate policy. Most notably, by forming a major component of the latest IPCC report, the RCP2.6 scenario has contributed to the Paris Climate Agreement.

In 2012, he used the same model to explore pathways to meeting a sustainable world in 2050 in terms of biodiversity loss, climate change and access to food and energy.  Since then, the research of van Vuuren’s team has centered more and more on how to achieve such sustainable development goals (SDGs), helping researchers and policymakers understand the connection between those goals and what’s needed to achieve them.

“At the moment, for many SDGs, there are no scenarios of how to achieve them — and certainly no scenarios of how to achieve all the SDGs at the same time,” he says.

This makes it harder for policymakers to either work or monitor progress toward a sustainable future. As they have done previously in supporting climate policy, researchers can help to shape sustainable development policy by generating scenarios that shed light on the SDGs and the connections between them. Such scenarios can show the role of technology solutions and lifestyle change in helping to maintain the health of the climate and environment.[iii]

Most of this work centers on long-term goals, but the team is also focusing increasingly on the short-term implications of those goals. This includes addressing what policymakers are willing and able to do in different political environments. Building those short-term solutions into long-term plans requires collaboration with policy and other social scientists that look at the role and interests of different actor groups. Scenarios that are better rooted into the social-science knowledge basis can help policymakers to orchestrate a smoother societal transition to sustainability.


Humans Can Make the Difference

van Vuuren says one of the biggest surprises he’s encountered in his research is that sometimes specific actions can have a noticeable difference in achieving a more sustainable future (including mitigating climate change) than he originally expected.  Actions like eating less meat — especially beef — can lessen climate change and protect biodiversity more than he expected, as can the emergence of renewable technologies.[iv]

“For instance, ensuring large-scale electrification of energy use in combination with large-scale penetration of renewable can really have a big impact,” he says. “The trends over the last few years in renewable technologies and batteries were much faster than we imagined.”

This makes him still optimistic that humans can help to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity. With this in mind, he says that a great place for beginning researchers to start is to find a research topic that’s relevant to the grant challenges society is currently facing. Often such topics involve interdisciplinary research, the process of filling knowledge gaps between specialty areas. This integrative research can also help solve more complex problems and guide policymaking better than traditional disciplinary research. Understanding how different sciences can work together, and how the system works as a whole, can provide greater value and impact to the results of a study. This is especially true when researchers hope to prompt policy changes.

“It helps to keep your eyes on the big picture and avoid investing time and money only to gain more and more detailed knowledge within a single discipline,” Van Vuuren says. “Especially now, while we are looking for policy responses, it is essential to see how different sciences can work together.”

[i] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-011-0148-z

[ii] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095937801630067X