Social Responsibility and Sustainability

Impact modelling: data for decision makers

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are involved in developing one of the few existing climate impact models in the world.

This unique approach attempts to understand the complex interactions between climate change and a wide range of socio-economic sectors, and helps to inform policy makers by supporting the construction of response strategies.

What are impact models?

Many people are familiar with climate models, which try to predict how the climate will change in the future. However, to make this information more useful, we then need to know what impact this will have on society. Impact models do just that – model the impact of climate change on not only on the natural world, but also on a range of economic sectors.

They work by taking the outputs from climate models (i.e. predicted changes in temperature, rainfall, sea level rise etc.) and then explore how these environmental changes will have an impact on various sectors (i.e. agriculture, forestry, water resources etc.).

Due to the sheer complexity involved and the expertise needed when creating impact models that incorporate interactions between a wide range of sectors, only a few currently exist in the world. However, Professor Mark Rounsevell, from the Geography and the Lived Environment Research Institute, is involved in one of the existing few - a pan European impact modelling project, which involves over 20 international research organisations from varying fields. CLIMSAVE is a collaborative project that attempts to understand the complex interactions between environmental change as a result of climate change, and the impacts this will have on both the natural world and a wide range of socio-economic sectors.

A unique approach cross-sectoral approach

The impact modelling projects that Professor Rounsevell is involved in, explore the cross-sectoral interactions between these varying economic sectors and also incorporate the effects off climate change on wider social sectors such as health. The aim is to understand how all of these sectors will interact with one another and with climate change and then ultimately, try to understand what effect these interactions will have on societies and individual people.

It is these cross-sectoral interactions between multiple drivers that are really significant. ‘Traditional’ impact models only focus on single sectors (i.e. how increased temperature and changing rainfall patterns will affect crop production in the future) and therefore fail to encapsulate the complex interdependencies present in human and environmental systems.

As a result, single sector models will generally produce results that inadequately represent these complexities, leading to serious over or under estimations of the effects of climate change. This was highlighted in a recent study published in Nature, where the CLIMSAVE model was used to look at climate change impacts across Europe. When attempting to model future climate change impact scenarios, it is therefore essential to consider multiple drivers and the interactions between these drivers.

Speaking about his work, Professor Rounsevell, who is the Kinloch Michie Chair of Rural Economy and Environmental Sustainability, talks of the importance of impact modelling. “Impact modelling is really important in exploring the consequences of climate change, clearly we have to understand how the climate system will change in the future [done through climate modelling], but changes in the climate system are only a part of the whole story. If we are going to deal with the problem of climate change then we need to know what effects a changing climate will have on human activities, fundamentally on the economy and the social welfare of individual people”

Interactions with decisions markers and informing policy

“Integrated modelling can be really useful in supporting decision makers… but it is not as simple as giving decisions makers the outputs from impact models” says Professor Rounsevell, “we have to design with the models, a whole process of participation with stakeholders…it’s a two way process”.

Professor Rounsevell and his colleagues help to inform policy makers about the future consequences of climate change, and those policy makers in turn help to inform the socio-economic scenarios that are built into the impact models. 

“We work with a wide range of people who require knowledge on what would be the real consequences of climate change in the future… [however] we also need to know as academics and researchers, how the future of [for example] Scotland is going to change in terms of drivers of other socio-economic change. Understanding how changes will impact on the economy and the social welfare of individuals and society is really important in terms of informing the response strategies to the effects of climate change.”

Additional on-going projects

IMPRESSIONS – A project investigating the possible impacts of ‘high end’ climate change (warming above 2°c). Though global targets are aiming to prevent warming from going over 2°c, it is looking increasingly likely that ‘high end’ warming could happen. We don’t currently understand the complexity of interactions within this warming period, as a warming of above 2°c would lead to very abrupt and significant climate change. IMPRESSIONS is attempting to model future scenarios, which include further complexities such as tipping points.

LUC4C - A project researching into the impacts of land use and land cover change on the climate. Whilst climate change will have a significant impact on land cover, how we use land will also have a significant impact on our future climate. Despite 1/3 of all past climate change being contributed to land use and land cover change, there is currently there is a lack of research existing in the area on the biophysical effects of such land use/land cover change.