Uncertainty in environmental services

Total uncertainty in greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions changes over time due to “learning” and the structural change in the GHG emitters. Understanding uncertainty over time is important to improve setting emission targets in the future and was key to the Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) Program's work in 2013.

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Using USA and China as examples, scientists showed how to combine diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty to take more educated (precautionary) decisions for reducing emissions toward an agreed temperature target and how to perceive combined diagnostic uncertainty– and prognostic uncertainty–related risk [1]. The lead author, Mathias Jonas, joined ASA in July 2013 from Ecosystems Services and Management (ESM). 

Another study [2] went beyond [1], translating one planetary boundary – global emissions – from the global and long-term to the regional and short-term. Using Brazil as a case study, the authors discuss domestic/local sustainability measures within the global-scale perspective and how to explore with the help of still-to-be-developed models the bottom-up/top-down linkage for multiple planetary boundaries (i.e., in addition to that of GHG emissions).

Scientists also analyzed historical changes in total uncertainty of CO2 emissions from stationary sources in the European Union and present examples of its changes due to structural changes in GHG emissions considering IIASA’s GAINS emissions scenarios consistent with the EU’s “20-20-20” targets [3]. This diagnostic exercise shows that increased knowledge of inventory processes in the past is a driving factor of changes in total uncertainty, which can be assumed to also hold in the future. 

Characterizing the global carbon budget and its uncertainties, scientists pointed out the increasing difficulty of closing carbon budgets at sub-global scales [4]. They argued that because uncertainties are enlarged by cross-border carbon flows (from emissions embodied in goods and services), a full global accounting is required to avoid treaty failure from displacement of emissions outside an otherwise functional monitoring framework. Basic principles for passing the burden of embodied emissions to the responsible parties are proposed, suggesting that any inventory system must be applied essentially globally if it is to succeed.

Researchers calculated energy-related carbon emissions from production and household consumption in Beijing based on data for 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2009 using the default IPCC carbon-emission coefficients [5]. The main factors causing changes in carbon emissions were examined with respect to impact emissions. Changes in economic activity, population size, and energy consumption per capita were found to stimulate emissions, whereas changes in energy intensity, the urban and rural population distribution structure, and the energy mix of the production and household sectors were found to decrease them. These results clearly indicate that under current practices, carbon emissions will increase as a result of rapid growth of the economy, population, and energy consumption per capita. In the future, the main routes to reducing carbon emissions will be to adjust the economic structure and energy mix, and to reduce the energy intensity of each sector.

ASA’s study on sustaining ecosystem services and overcoming the dilemma posed by local actions and planetary boundaries was initiated by the Brazilian NMO through the Land Use/Land-Use Change (LUC) Vision Workshop, held on 12-14 September 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil organized by Brazil's Center for Strategic Studies and Management (CGEE), together with Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and IIASA.


[1] Jonas M, Krey V, Wagner F, Marland G, Nahorski Z (accepted 2014). Uncertainty in an emissions-constrained world. Climatic Change.
[2] Jonas M, Ometto JP, Batistella M, Franklin O, Hall M, Lapola DM, Moran EF, Tramberend S, Lanza Queiroz B, Schaffartzik A, Shvidenko A, Nilsson SB, Nobre CA (under review, b). Sustaining ecosystem services: Overcoming the dilemma posed by local actions and planetary boundaries. Earth’s Future.
[3] Lesiv M, Bun A, Jonas M (under review). Analysis of change in relative uncertainty in GHG emissions from stationary sources for the EU 15. Climatic Change.
[4] Salk C, Jonas M, Marland G (2013). Strict accounting with flexible implementation: The first order of business in the next climate treaty. Carbon Management, 4(3), 253–256.
[5] Zhang J, Zhang Y, Yang Z, Fath BD, Li S (2013). Estimation of energy-related carbon emissions in Beijing and factor decomposition analysis. Ecological Modelling, 252, 258-265.


ASA’s study on emission future in Beijing is of relevance to the IIASA's Chinese National Member Organization.
ASA’s main collaborators in the field of Uncertainty in environmental services include M. Batistella, Director, EMBRAPA Satellite Monitoring, Brazil; R.Bun, Professor, Lviv Polytechnic National University, Ukraine; O. Franklin, Research Scholar, ESM Program, IIASA; M.Hall, Research Scholar, Lund University, Sweden; O.Hryniewicz, Professor, Systems Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland; D.M. Lapola, Professor, São Paulo State University, Brazil; G. Marland, Senior Research Scholar, Appalachian State University, USA; E.F. Moran, Professor, Michigan State University, USA; Z. Nahorski, Professor, Systems Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland; J.P. Ometto, Coordinator of INPE’s Science of Terrestrial Systems Postgraduate Program; and Science Officer of IGBP’s Regional Support Office in Brazil, National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazil; J.M.Pacyna, Research Director, Norwegian Institute for Air Research, Norway; B. Lanz Queiroz, Professor, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil; A. Shvidenko, Professor, ESM Program, IIASA; S. Tramberend, Research Scholar, WAT Program, IIASA; Y.Zhang, Research Scholar, School of the Environment, Beijing Normal University, China.

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Last edited: 21 May 2014


Matthias Jonas

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Advanced Systems Analysis

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