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Climate policy models need to get real about people ? here’s how

Climate policy models need to get real about people — here’s how

To predict how society and political systems might actually respond to warming, upgrade integrated assessment models.

Political support for decarbonizing the global economy is at an all-time high. The good news is that about two-thirds of carbon emissions come from countries that have committed to reach ‘net zero’ by mid-century — they aim to cut their greenhouse-gas outputs and capture as much as they emit1. The bad news? The computer models that analysts use to assess routes to achieve such goals are missing a crucial factor: politics.

These ‘integrated assessment models’ (IAMs) combine insights from climate science and economics to estimate how industrial and agricultural processes might be transformed to tackle global warming. They’re encoded with knowledge about technologies, such as pollution-free power plants and the cost of electric vehicles. Thus IAMs enable researchers to probe, for example, how a carbon tax might induce big cuts in emissions2, or how a drive to decarbonize the transport sector could shift investments towards greener fuels and electricity.

Yet the models are overly abstract. They don’t characterize the difficult trade-offs that politicians face when they must respond to constituencies, or corporate leaders who must woo investors. In France, for example, a proposed increase to the fuel tax in 2018 was among the triggers of large protests. These saw the government backtrack on a key element of its climate policy. Fearing electoral consequences, many politicians around the world now shy away from carbon taxes and other market-based strategies. They instead rely heavily on regulatory instruments — such as fuel-economy standards — that make the cost of such policies less visible to the public and give politicians more control over who foots the bill.

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