Climatic Change

, Volume 82, Issue 3–4, pp 293–308 | Cite as

Communicating uncertainty in the IPCC’s greenhouse gas emissions scenarios

  • Niels J. Schenk
  • Sander M. Lensink
Open Access


The issue of climate change required the development of the Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES) by the IPCC. The complexity of the subject and the unique science-policy relation resulted in confusion and discussions appeared in popular media like The Economist. This paper reviews scenario literature and SRES, identifies the most vulnerable elements in the communication of SRES. In the communication of GHG emission scenarios through SRES, the weaknesses that have been identified by the authors of this paper are the normative character of climate change assessment, the plausibility of the scenarios, and the risk of simplification of complex messages. The causes of these communicative issues have been identified as the intrinsic difficulties of interdisciplinary science, the uniqueness of the science-policy relation, and the need for a high degree of transparency. This paper suggests improving future communication of complex messages from scientists to their audience by means of clear reasoning when communicating with non-scientists, explicitly normative emission scenarios, and increased stakeholder participation in scenario development.


Emission Scenario Purchasing Power Parity Complex Message Third Assessment Report High Growth Scenario 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Alcamo J, Bouwman A, Edmonds J, Grübler A, Morita T, Sugandhy A (1995) An evaluation of the IPCC IS92 emission scenarios. In: Houghton JT, Meira Filho LG, Bruce J, Lee H, Callander BA, Haites E, Harris N, Maskell K (eds) Radiative forcing of climate change and an evaluation of the IPCC IS92 emission scenarios. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp 233–304Google Scholar
  2. Allen M (2003) Possible or probable?. Nature 425:242 (18 SEPTEMBER)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bakkes J, Henrichs T, Kemp-Benedict E, Masui T, Nellemann C, Potting JMB, Rana A, Raskin P, and Rothman DS (2004) The GEO-3 scenarios 2002–2032: quantification and analysis of environmental impacts’. No. UNEP/DEWA/RS.03–4 and RIVM 402001022, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)/National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)Google Scholar
  4. Bhagwati J (2004) In defense of globalization. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Brinkhorst LJ (2004) Hoe meer groei, hoe beter voor het milieu (the more growth, the better for the environment). De Volkskrant (6 September)Google Scholar
  6. Carlsson-Kanyama A, Dreborg KH, Eenkorn BR, Engström R, Falkena HJ, Gatersleben B, Hendriksson G, Kok R, Moll HC, Padovan D, Rigoni F, Stø E, Throne-Holst H, Tite L, and Vittersø G (2003) Images of everyday life in the future sustainable city: experiences of back-casting with stakeholders in five European cities. No. 19, Forskningsgruppen för Miljöstrategiska Studier (FMS), Stockholm, SwedenGoogle Scholar
  7. Castles I, Henderson D (2003a) Economics, emissions scenarios and the work of the IPCC. Energy Environ 14(4):415–435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Castles I, Henderson D (2003b) The IPCC emission scenarios: an economic-statistical critique. Energy Environ 14(2&3):159–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chua S (1999) Economic growth, liberalization, and the environment: a review of the economic evidence. Annu Rev Energy Environ 24:391–430CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Craig PP, Gadgil A, Koomey JG (2002) What can history teach us? a retrospective examination of long-term energy forecasts for the United States. Annu Rev Energy Environ 27:83–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. de Vries HJM (2001) Objective science? The case of climate change models. In: Goujon P, Heriard Dubreuil B (eds) Technology and ethics, a European quest for responsible engineering. Peeters, Leuven, Belgium, pp 485–510Google Scholar
  12. de Vries B, Bollen J, Bouwman L, den Elzen M, Janssen M, Kreileman E (2000) Greenhouse gas emissions in an equity- , environment- and service-oriented world: an IMAGE-based scenario for the 21st century. Technol Forecast Soc Change 63(2–3):137–174CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. EEA (2004) Impacts of Europe’s changing climate – an indicator-based assessment. EEA Report, No. 2/2004, European Environmental Agency, Copenhagen, DenmarkGoogle Scholar
  14. Ehrlich PR, Holdren JP (1971) Impact of population growth. Science 171:1212–1217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25(7):739–755CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Greene R (1998) The 48 laws of power. Viking, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Grübler A, Nakicenovic N (2001) Identifying dangers in an uncertain climate. Nature 412(6842):15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Grübler A, Nakicenovic N, Alcamo J, Davis G, Fenhann J, Hare M, Mori S, Pepper B, Pitcher H, Riahi K, Rogner HH, La Rovere EL, Sankovski A, Schlesinger ME, Shukla P, Swart R, Victor DG, Jung TY (2004) Emission scenarios: a final response. Energy Environ 15(1):11–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hertz N (2004) I.O.U. : the debt threat and why we must defuse it. Harper Perennial, London, UKGoogle Scholar
  20. Hillman M (2004) How we can save the planet. Penguin, London, UKGoogle Scholar
  21. IPCC (2004) Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, Annex B. Glossary of Terms. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp365–388 On-line available:
  22. Kaiser J (2005) Climate change: scientist quits IPCC panel over comments. Science 307(5709):501bCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kaya Y (1990) Impact of carbon dioxide emission control on GNP growth: interpretation of proposed scenarios. Paper presented to the IPCC Energy and Industry Subgroup, Response Strategies Working Group, Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  24. Keepin B, Wynne B (1984) Technical analysis of IIASA energy scenarios. Nature 312:691–695CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kemp-Benedict E, Raskin P (2001) Global environmental scenarios: technical notes on use of PoleStar for the OECD Environmental Outlook (Background document for the OECD Environmental Outlook For Modelling and Assessments), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  26. Kram T, Morita T, Riahi K, Roehrl RA, Van Rooijen S, Sankovski A, de Vries B (2000) Global and regional greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Technol Forecast Soc Change 63(2–3):335–371CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kriegler E, Bruckner T (2004) Sensitivity analysis of emissions corridors for the 21st century. Clim Change 66(3):345–387CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lempert R, Nakicenovic N, Sarewitz D, Schlesinger ME (2004) Characterizing climate-change uncertainties for decision-makers: an editorial essay. Clim Change 65:1–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lomborg B (2001) The sceptical environmentalist – measuring the real state of the world. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UKGoogle Scholar
  30. Maddison A (2001) The world economy: a millennial perspective. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  31. Maddison A, 2004. The PPPrice is right. Economist 372(8383):14Google Scholar
  32. Manne A, Richels R, Edmonds J (2005) Market exchange rates or purchasing power parity: does the choice make a difference to the climate debate? Clim Change 71(1–2):1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mastrandrea MD, Schneider SH (2004) Probabilistic integrated assessment of dangerous climate change. Science 304(5670):571–575CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McKibbin WJ, Pearce D, Stegman A (2004a) Can the IPCC SRES be improved? Energy Environ 15(3):351–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McKibbin WJ, Pearce D, Stegman A (2004b) Long run projections for climate change scenarios. Brookings Discussion Papers in International Economics, No. 160, The Brookings Institution, Washington (DC). On-line available:
  36. Miketa A (2004) The use of purchasing power parities in long-term economic growth scenarios, presentation at IIASA. International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, AustriaGoogle Scholar
  37. Moll HC (1993) Energy counts and materials matter in models for sustainable development. Ph.D. Thesis: Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (IVEM), University of Groningen, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  38. Muskulus M, Jacob D (2005) Tracking cyclones in regional model data: the future of Mediterranean storms. Advances in Geosciences 2:13–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Nakicenovic N, Alcamo J, Davis G, de Vries HJM, Fenhann J, Gaffin S, Gregory K, Grübler A, Jung TY, Kram T, La Rovere EL, Michaelis L, Mori S, Morita T, Pepper W, Pitcher H, Price L, Riahi K, Roehrl A, Rogner HH, Sankovski A, Schlesinger ME, Shukla P, Smith S, Swart R, van Rooijen S, Victor N, Dadi Z (2000) Special report on emissions scenarios, international panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UKGoogle Scholar
  40. Nakicenovic N, Grübler A, Gaffin S, Jung TT, Kram T, Morita T, Pitcher H, Riahi K, Schlesinger ME, Shuka PR, van Vuuren DP, Davis G, Michaelis L, Swart R, Victor N (2003) The IPCC emission scenarios: a response. Energy Environ 14(2&3):187–214CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Noorman KJ (1995) Exploring futures from an energy perspective – a Natural Capital Accounting model study into the long-term economic development potential of The Netherlands. Ph.D. Thesis: Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (IVEM), University of Groningen, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  42. OECD (2001a) Environmental Strategy for the First Decade of the 21st Century. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  43. OECD (2001b) OECD environmental outlook. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  44. OECD (2005) Purchasing Power Parities (PPP), About, Statistics Directorate. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:,2337,en_2649_34357_1_1_1_1_1,00.html accessed on 11 October 2005
  45. Parikh JK (1992) IPCC strategies unfair to the south. Nature 360:507–508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Pittock AB (2002) What we know and don’t know about climate change: reflections on the IPCC TAR. Clim Change 53:393–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Pittock AB, Jones RN, Mitchell CD (2001) Probabilities will help us plan for climate change. Nature 413(6853):249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Reilly J, Stone PH, Forest CE, Webster MD, Jacoby HD, Prinn RG (2001) Climate change: uncertainty and climate change assessments. Science 293(5529):430a–4433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Riahi K, Roehrl RA (2000) Greenhouse gas emissions in a dynamics-as-usual scenario of economic and energy development. Technol Forecast Soc Change 63(2–3):175–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ringland G (1998) Scenario planning. Wiley, Chicester, EnglandGoogle Scholar
  51. RIVM (2004) Kwaliteit en toekomst: verkenning van duurzaamheid (Quality and future: sustainability outlook). Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM), Bilthoven. On-line available:
  52. Schenk NJ (2000) Modelling in the EOS Project, presentation for the Advisory Panel of the OECD Environmental Outlook and Strategy (EOS) Project. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Paris, FranceGoogle Scholar
  53. Schipper L, Unander F, Murtishaw S, Ting M (2001) Indicators of energy use and carbon emissions: explaining the energy economy link. Annu Rev Energy Environ 26:49–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Schneider SH (2001) What is ‘dangerous’ climate change? Nature 411(6833):17–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Schneider SH, Mastrandrea MD (2005). Probabilistic assessment of “dangerous” climate change and emissions pathways. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102(2):15728–15735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Schwartz P (1998) The art of the long view-planning for the future in an uncertain world. Wiley, West Sussex, EnglandGoogle Scholar
  57. Smil V (2000) Energy in the twentieth century: resources, conversions, costs, uses, and consequences. Annu Rev Energy Environ 25:21–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Smith SJ, Wigley TML, Edmonds J (2000) Climate: a new route toward limiting climate change? Science 290(5494):1109–1110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Swart RJ, Raskin P, Robinson J (2004) The problem of the future: sustainability science and scenario analysis. Glob Environ Change Part A 14(2):137–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. The Economist (2003a) A greener Bush. Economist 366(8311):12–13Google Scholar
  61. The Economist (2003b) Hot potato – the International Panel on Climate Change had better check its calculations. Economist 366(8311):72Google Scholar
  62. The Economist (2003c) Hot potato revisited. Economist 369(8349):76Google Scholar
  63. Trnka M, Dubrovský M, Semerádová D, Zcaronalud Z (2004) Projections of uncertainties in climate change scenarios into expected winter wheat yields. Theor Appl Climatol 77(3–4):229–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Tuinstra W, Hordijk L, Amann M (1999) Using computer models in international negotiations – the case of acidification in Europe. Environment 41(9):33–42Google Scholar
  65. Turkenburg WC (1993) Forecasting, toegepast op onze energievoorziening (Forecasting, applied to our energy supply). In: Ruiter Wd (ed), Dictaat energie en milieu (Syllabus energy and the environment). University of Utrecht, Utrecht, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  66. UNCED (1992) The Earth summit. United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  67. UNFCCC (1997) Kyoto protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. United Nations, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  68. van der Sluijs JP, Potting JMB, Risbey J, van Vuuren DP, de Vries HJM, Beusen A, Heuberger P, Quintana SC, Funtowicz S, Kloprogge P, Nuijten D, Petersen A, Ravetz J (2001) Uncertainty assessment of the IMAGE/TIMER B1 CO2 emissions scenario, using the NUSAP method’. No. 410 200 104, Dutch National Research Program on Climate ChangeGoogle Scholar
  69. van Vuuren DP, de Vries HJM (2001) Mitigation scenarios in a world oriented at sustainable development: the role of technology, efficiency and timing. Climate Policy 1(2):189–210CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Watson RT (2002) The future of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Climate Policy 2(4):269–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Webster MD, Forest CE, Reilly J, Babiker MH, Kicklighter D, Mayer M, Prinn RG, Sarofim M, Sokolov A, Stone PH, Wang C (2003) Uncertainty analysis of climate change and policy response. Clim Change 61:295–320CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies (IVEM)University of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations