Tuesday, February 21, 2017

MEDEAS: The Next Step after the Paris Climate Agreement

Jordi Solé, coordinator of the MEDEAS project speaks in Brno (Czekia) on Feb 15th, 2017. The European project MEDEAS has the ambitious goal of providing the tools necessary to put into practice the 2015 Paris agreement on climate

Let me start with something to dispel the confusion about what models are for. When you deal with complex, adaptive systems, models are NOT meant to predict the future. As John Gall said in his book on complex systems, "systems always kick back" - to which I may add, "and sometimes they kick back with a vengeance". (another way to express this concept is "forecasting always fails.")

But if dynamic models cannot predict the future, what are they good for? Simple, they are about being prepared for the future. Think of the Paris climate treaty of 2015. It was the result of millions of runs of various climate models, none of which claimed to predict "the" future. But these models are tools to prepare for the future; they tell you what may happen, depending on what you do. They are tools to shape political decisions. Out of all those runs, a goal was extracted, a setpoint, a number: "we don't want temperatures to rise of more than  2 °C and, for that purpose, there is a limit to the amounts of fossil fuels we can burn." It was a political decision that took into account not just what the models say, but what could be concretely achieved in the real world.  No model would give you that number as an output.The Paris agreement was a masterpiece of diplomacy and of communication strategy because it concentrated so much noise into a simple, stark, number: a goal to reach.

And there we stand: with Paris, we set the goal, but how do we get there? This section of policy planning was poor in Paris, where the best that could be done was to line up the INDCs, the intended nationally determined contribution; that is how single countries think they could reduce emissions. That's not planning, it is a first stab at the problem; it shows the good will to do something, but no more. As they stand, the INDCs won't get us far enough.

So, we are again at the task of getting prepared for the future. We know that we need to reduce carbon emissions, but how fast? Besides, it is not just a question of reduction, it is a question of substitution. We need to maintain the essential energy services to the world's population: surely, as a society, we can shed a lot of fat and keep going, but without a minimum of energy input, the system collapses. At the same time, we need to maintain the current input without exceeding the emissions limits. A difficult challenge, although not an impossible one.

Here, we need models, again. No model can tell you exactly how to get there, but models will tell you what is likely to happen given some choices and some decisions. And out of the models, you have to extract a concrete, politically feasible goal: how to invest the remaining resources into attaining the Paris objectives? In other words, what fraction of the world's GDP need to be invested in the transition to a renewable economy?

Giving an answer to this question is the ambitious task of the MEDEAS project which has now reached a full year of work and set up the basis for an extensive modeling effort. MEDEAS takes an approach mainly based on system dynamics, similar to the one of the well-known "The Limits to Growth" approach. It is not the only ongoing project in this area, others projects take different lines of approach. But in al cases the idea is to build up knowledge on what is needed for the transition. Some data are already available that tell us we need a major effort to replace fossil fuels fast enough. The transition that won't come by itself, pushed by purely economic forces. But we need to explore the issue more in depth before these considerations can be turned into a number that can be agreed upon by the interested parties. We need to take into account both what's needed and what is politically feasible. Then, we will have a goal to reach.

If you want to know more about MEDEAS, you can see the MEDEAS website. There is also a MEDAS newsletter, still in a preliminary phase. And, if you would like to be involved, contact me (ugo.bardi(strangething)unifi.it)

Below: an intense discussion held in Brno about the project with the coordinator, Jordi Solé from Barcelona and two Italian researchers from Florence, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. 


  1. A thought on models and their use, humbly offered.

    In a foretaste of enlightened military procurement, Galileo Galilei developed a way to partially model beams, to assist in the design of naval vessels for the Papal Navy (“Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche Intorno a Due Nuove Scienze”). The line of thinking about beams was largely finalized by Bernoulli & Euler in the bending beam differential equation so familiar to all who have taken an introductory course in the field ineptly named (by Galileo, no less) of Strength of Materials.

    In no way does any stage of the development of this Model tell us how to design a naval vessel, or even how to design a beam. But it is ever so useful in guiding the design, even if only in part.

    When one reviews the assumptions involved in the development of the differential equation for beams, and then considers the boundary conditions assumed in its applications in the design process, one can readily comprehend that precision is not a prerequisite for utility. It is never wise to let precision be the enemy of accuracy.

  2. Are there any scientists doing research on how we can survive on a planet +10C above current AGT? This would seem to me to be a better research project.


    1. This claim is backed up by this project:

  3. I like the flow of thoughts expressed in this piece, and i like especially the expression "shed some fat".
    My feeling is, that the system does not necessarily collapse whith exergy use going below a certain limit, when - and this is a big when - the transition is slow enough. Now, what exactly is "slow enough"? This would be exactly the kind of question to be answered by undertakings like MEDEAS, i guess.

  4. Which software is used for modelling, Stella, Vensim? Will you release the model once it is finished (e.g. as a part of publication)? It could be interesting to compare the results with the model I am currently working on (Solow Swan model of economic growth with added energy sector to capture influence of declining EROEI on a future economic development)



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017