Policymakers and planners trying to solve the complex problems often resort to modelling software - programs that attempt to predict and even simulate the likely results of policy initiatives. While such software has been around for years, it tends to be sector-specific, focused for example on climate science, energy economics or agriculture. To date, providing useful modelling based on data from multiple areas of environmental activity has remained limited.
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The European Union (EU)-funded project ERMITAGE has developed precisely this capability. Led by United Kingdom's Open University, the ERMITAGE team has come up with a series of interlinked modelling programs that show the interactions between climate change and land use, energy markets, rising temperatures and more. In addition, the team has demonstrated how results can be generated in near real-time.
“It is clear that we need to connect the modelling systems for atmospheric change, energy economics, ecosystems, land-use and other areas of activity if we are to come up with realistic predictions of climate change,” says project coordinator Neil Edwards of the Open University, United Kingdom. “Policymakers want to see the likely results of their initiatives, and realistic prediction of results needs an integrated view that takes in information from a variety of environmental variables,” he adds.
The work of the ERMITAGE team offers real promise. The researchers have come up with a series of complex modelling systems that successfully bridge the gaps between different modelling areas of activity. To date, the team has coupled together six advanced models to link areas such as climate-change, land use, energy-market trends and economic development, using novel software that enables these different parameters to interact in near real-time.
For example, the potential of biofuels together with Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) to mitigate global warming is well understood, but the ERMITAGE project can add much greater subtlety to likely climate-prediction scenarios. Integrating climate, ecosystems, crops, land-use and economic systems (energy prices, markets, international trade etc.) gives much greater detail, e.g. how limiting biofuels can lead to a 2.5 times increase in the production and use of hydrogen fuel for transport, or an increase in the contribution of electricity to the final energy mix from 1/2 to 2/3. So that modelling results include not only how crops will grow in a changed climate, but also how international trade and technological change can affect bioenergy prices.
A parallel objective of the project team was to ensure that the results of such linking should be easily accessible. To this end, the team has implemented an enhancement to the UK research community's CIAS (Community Integrated Assessment System) network, which links many disparate numerical models and climate-related datasets into a common resource infrastructure. CIAS-Live is an extension to the system that produces the responses to queries almost instantaneously in graphic form, rather than forcing researchers to wait months for a result.
The ERMITAGE team has also included new, recently-discovered information into the modelling process. “Groundwater, for instance, is an important resource around the world,” explains Edwards. “Much of it is fossil groundwater – it could have been there for ten thousand years. How fast is it being recharged? Are we using it up faster than we can replenish it? This resource has not been included in any complex model predictions to date.” The team has added this groundwater data to its modelling capabilities, linking modelling of crop-use dynamics, for example, to economic models of crop production.
The project partners have also tried to ensure the widest possible dissemination of ERMITAGE results. Making use of some of the Open University's own principles on communication resources, the team has produced a series of videos to explain the project and what it has achieved, and uploaded them to YouTube as well as to the project website.
“Our stakeholders in policymaking circles are already showing interest in how the results can be applied,” says Edwards. The results from ERMITAGE are expected to underpin much more joined-up thinking about future climate and environmental change, as well as the implications for societal change, energy use, agro-planning and more.