"There's a possibility of success"

The global temperature increase must be limited to a maximum of 2 °C within 80 years. Urgent action is required. The UN has convened a summit on climate issues. These are the premises under which a group of first-year students from EMM start to play the Climate Negotiation Game.

Tobias Wahlund, to the left, is a first-year student taking the master’s programme Energy – Environment – Management (EMM). Together with his fellow students, he took part in a role-playing game about climate negotiations at the UN.  Charlotte Perhammar

The UN general secretary opens the meeting with the words: “The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win. The best science tells us that any temperature rise above 1.5 °C will lead to major and irreversible damage to the ecosystems that support us. But science also tells us it is not too late.”

The delegates are informed that if we continue to act as we are today, we will see a temperature rise of 4.1 °C by 2100, with disastrous consequences. They see images of Westminster Bridge, outside the British Houses of Parliament, under water. Wall Street in New York is also under water.

Roleplay from MIT

Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarIt’s the middle of October and we are at LiU’s Campus Valla. The students are given the task of solving the climate challenge. They are divided into eight groups that represent different interests, such as industry and trade or an environmental pressure group. The groups are to suggest how we can reduce the increase in temperature, such as by increasing the price of fossil fuels, or investing large amounts in (yet to be invented) technology that does not emit greenhouse gases.

The game comes from the Climate Interactive initiative, a non-profit thinktank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The proposals from the players are fed into a model, which shows the outcome. The proposals can also counteract the effects of each other, and it becomes a sort of zero-sum game when different players want to approach the problem in different ways.

Not as expected

Tobias Wahlund is in a group with other students that represents industry and trade. They must make sure that energy prices are kept low, since higher prices reduce the demand for their goods or services. They campaign for transport, the heating of buildings, and industrial processes to use electricity from renewable sources, in contrast to today when most are powered by burning fossil fuels. The group wants to encourage change that reduces the emission of greenhouse gases without harming their industries, because even though they understand that climate change is serious, they have to keep their share prices high.

Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarAnd of course, these interests conflict with those of other actors: One of these is the environmental pressure group Climate Justice Hawks, which wants to achieve 100% renewable energy as soon as possible. They suggest that prices for fossil fuels should be raised, in direct conflict with the line taken by industry.

“I had expected that as soon as renewable energy became much cheaper than fossil fuels, use of the latter would essentially cease. But it turned out that fossil fuels remain a major part of electricity production. The only way to reach 100% renewable electricity production was to ban fossil fuels.”

You were working in the trade and industry group. What factors did you have to consider?

“We wanted to avoid closing down our industries. Since they rely to a large extent on fossil fuels, we couldn’t allow the conversion to renewable energy to proceed too quickly. This would have resulted in unacceptably large costs for us. But at the same time, we acknowledged that if climate change continues, our sector will also be hit, so we wanted to find a solution that didn’t cause too much economic damage to our sector.”

Did you learn a lot?

“I learnt about the interests that are involved. The more you are compelled to think about environmental challenges in a more pragmatic way, the better you understand the challenges we are facing. It’s not simply about developing a high-tech machine that solves all our problems: you have to deal with many people who have different things to worry about.”

Tobias is interested in science, and it was natural for him to take a master’s degree in engineering. His decision to take Energy – Environment – Management was quite simply because he can combine environmental challenges with technology.

“Climate change is the largest problem humanity has faced. It sounded like an amazing opportunity – to develop environmentally sensitive technology. It can be a case of renewable electricity production or eco-friendly consumer goods.”

How has the threat of climate change influenced your choice of education and future profession?

“I think I would have gone into engineering in any case, but the issue of the climate was decisive in choosing the EMM programme. It’s difficult to predict where I will choose to work when I graduate, but I hope that it will reflect my moral stand. Climate change is the greatest threat to people, and that’s why I want to work to combat it.”

So how did the Climate Negotiation Game end?

The goal was to limit the temperature increase to between 1.5 °C and 2 °C between now and 2100. The students kept the increase to 1.9 °C, and thus they succeeded. 

Have you thought about whether your suggestions are possible in real life?

“You become aware of the large role that money plays. It felt as if everyone had the same objective, but when it came to introducing taxes, which is actually most effective method to limit carbon dioxide emissions and release money to finance the necessary investments, well – that was much more difficult."

Your thoughts about the future?

“Climate change is the largest threat for most people on Earth. The problem will not be solved unless everyone starts to make sacrifices, such as paying more tax, giving up eating meat, completely changing their habits, and so on. I believe that the probability that we will solve the problem is extremely low. But as the teacher said at the end of the seminar, hope is not based on the probability of success: it’s based on the possibility of success.”

The game was part of the course in sustainable energy systems, given by the Division of Energy Systems in the Department of Management and Engineering.

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