Energy & Climate Change

The Energy & Climate Change research area focuses on the interactions between energy production, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, climate change, and the promotion of technology innovations.

International stage

The Paris climate summit in 2015 was hailed as a historic turning point, with the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C discussed seriously for the first time. IIASA, which has long been at the center of climate research, made crucial contributions to the process.

In the only study which had explicitly investigated the 1.5°C target before the summit, IIASA Energy Program (ENE) researchers showed that limiting temperature rise to less than 1.5°C by 2100 is feasible; but we must do more.

At present, the commitments that countries are willing to make to combat climate change — the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) — are not sufficient to reach even the 2°C target. The UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap report, and analysis by the Modelling and Informing Low Emission Strategies Project, which both had substantial input from IIASA researchers, have shown that the INDCs in their current form would only limit global warming to approximately 3°C by 2100, with temperatures continuing to rise afterwards.

ENE research, conducted under the EU project AMPERE (Assessment of Climate Change Mitigation Pathways and Evaluation of the Robustness of Mitigation Cost Estimates), also contributed to the synthesis report of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, released before Paris. This explored the potential of the INDCs, and how to kick-start long-term global action.

Making up for the past

Ratcheting up emissions reductions as fast as possible is the first priority in tacking climate change; but what about the mistakes we have already made, the greenhouse gases already warming the Earth?

Actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere, using so-called negative emissions technologies, can be achieved in many different ways, from growing more trees to burning plants and then capturing and storing the CO2 underground. Research has indicated that even with vigorous mitigation efforts, there is a still a chance of overshooting the 2°C climate target, and negative emissions could help stabilize the climate in that case. However, there are numerous uncertainties surrounding the different technologies used for these processes, and their potential to be scaled up.

The first interdisciplinary assessment of these technologies — a collaboration between the Global Carbon Project and the IIASA Transitions to New Technologies, Energy, and Ecosystems Services and Management Programs —  concluded that negative emissions should not be regarded as a “silver bullet” in responding to the challenge of drastic emission reductions.

Firstly, the lack of a consistent price for carbon emissions, which is likely to be the case under the current fragmented national policy framework, could prevent widespread uptake of these technologies. Secondly, the detrimental environmental effects of some negative emissions technologies — such as high demand for energy, water, or land — needs to be taken into account.

Tackling the invisible killer

Microscopic particles in the air have been linked to serious health problems — from cancer to cardiovascular diseases — and efforts to reduce their levels have been stepped up around the world. However, while governments have often focused on the direct sources of this fine particulate matter (PM2.5), such as cars, research by the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program has shown that to really tackle this insidious form of pollution agricultural ammonia emissions must also be dealt with.

Between 30 and 50% of PM2.5 is formed in the atmosphere from nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions, which react with ammonia to form the solid particles. In many situations, this formation is dependent on the availability of ammonia, which comes mainly from agricultural sources, such as livestock farming and fertilizer application.

Effective strategies to reduce fine particle air pollution will therefore need to include the control of ammonia emissions, otherwise efforts to reduce other PM2.5 precursor emissions will not deliver the expected return, the IIASA study warns.

This important finding was taken up by the recent EU air quality policy proposal, and used by the World Bank to inform lending. IIASA was also able to provide guidance on how reductions could be achieved in the most cost-efficient manner, showing that in the EU about 80% of ammonia emissions originate from only the largest 5% of farms. Targeting these big industrial farms makes implementation both technically and economically easier.

Climate justice

The Global South will bear the brunt of climate change, with the costs spiraling very high for some countries. But who should pay for this, given that it is the Global North that has been responsible for the bulk of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions?

While this direct question is still mired in controversy, world leaders do agree that there should be a system in place to help the most vulnerable countries. The Warsaw Loss and Damage Mechanism, agreed in 2013, is intended to address climate change‑related loss and damage in the developing countries that are the most severely affected.

Work by the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program (RISK) has also helped to move this contentious debate forward. Research into the costs of supporting vulnerable nations, and the options for setting up a global fund to absorb risk has substantially informed these discussions.

The crucial role of risk management in climate adaptation and mitigation was emphasized by a study published in a special issue in the journal Climatic Change, which was also coedited by specialists at IIASA. The research gave clear guidelines for workable policies, showing in particular how financial instruments can be used to improve the ability of developing countries to bounce back after climate-related disasters.

To further help the world cope with the uneven effects of climate change, RISK has set up a broad scientific network to support work under the Loss and Damage Mechanism, with rigorous research focused on climate justice and risk management.

Setting the right targets

National climate pledges — Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) — play a vital role in the fight to tackle global warming. However, these targets must be based on sound evidence, with a clear plan for how they might be achieved.

The IIASA Tropical Futures Initiative helped produce emission reduction goals for Brazil that are feasible, transparent, and verifiable. Local modelers were trained to use the IIASA land-use model GLOBIOM, enabling them to assess deforestation, forest regrowth, crop production, and emissions from land use, forests, and agriculture from 2020 to 2050.

Deforestation, agriculture, and land-use change are all major sources of emissions in the country. The work — led by the IIASA Ecosytems Services and Management Program — found that targeting these areas with policies aimed at ending illegal logging, spurring reforestation, and increasing livestock productivity can provide a significant contribution.

Along with many rounds of consultation with government officers, this research allowed the scientists to produce realistic scenarios for the future. These formed the basis of Brazil’s INDC, which proposes to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 37% below 2005 levels by 2025 and 43% by 2030. With this step Brazil is the first major country to commit to absolute emissions reductions, as opposed to reductions per unit of GDP.