What if we could move beyond politicized and polarizing sound bites about climate change to explore feasible climate solutions? What if citizens could learn which combination of mitigation strategies has the greatest potential to meet elusive international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the global level?

With financial support from Energy Efficiency Alberta, the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS), a research centre of the King’s University, Edmonton, has now released just such a tool for free global use. The interactive electronic Design Our Climate simulation (DOCs) equips users to explore how their energy choices and other mitigation strategies can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The semi-quantitative simulation shows the current trajectory towards the global increase in greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalents per year), as the “business-as-usual” scenario – the increasing emission path in Figure 1. That increase in greenhouse gases is projected to have widespread global impacts by 2100, which will go well beyond increases in average temperature. The effects anticipated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change include widespread changes in drought and precipitation patterns, leading to food insecurity and spread of disease, economic disruption; increased ocean acidification; loss of biodiversity; and mass migration due to the impact of rising sea levels on the highly populated coastal regions of the world.

The international community has committed to keeping average global temperature increases below 1.5°C this century, which is most likely if emissions peak soon and decrease to net zero by 2050, as shown by the target on the graph, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Comparison of our current emission path, which indicates nearly triple the amount of GHG emissions by 2100, versus reducing yearly GHG emission to 0 Gt of CO2 equivalents per year by 2050.

The difference between these two trajectories in Figure 1 appears overwhelming, and strategies to get from where we are to where we need to be may seem insurmountable.  So as to point the way toward accessible and hopeful solutions, the DOC simulation is inspired by a 15-year-old approach from Princeton University, of tackling a grand challenge by breaking it down into smaller, achievable challenges, called emission reduction wedges.

Illustrated in Figure 2, DOCs provides 20 bite-size wedges, challenging users to explore how global anthropogenic climate change can be mitigated with a combination of technologies that exist today. Users learn that there is no magic or easy solution — neither carbon capture and storage, or single strategies such as moving from coal-fired electricity to solar and wind, will successfully get us where we need to be.  There are no silver bullets, but the simulation suggests that humans can find silver buck shot. A hopeful mosaic of strategies points the way toward achievable solutions to address the grand challenge of climate change.  

Figure 2: Breaking down the grand challenge of moving from our current trajectory to the 1.5 °C increase path, into 20 smaller wedges.  

DOCs equips us with a peer-reviewed, semi-quantitative tool to imagine the future we want to live in, by modeling and visualizing different ways of reducing carbon emissions from five sectors important to everyday life: electricity, transportation, land use & agriculture, buildings, and material (see Figure 3).

Users can start to see how application of existing technologies in each sector can impact GHG emissions. Also, built into the simulation is a “Reality Check” feature, which gives live feedback to users about the limits to each mitigation strategy, based on clearly stated assumptions. The mitigation technologies of today can help to realize the life we desire for tomorrow.

Figure 3: The five different sectors for implementing GHG mitigation strategies.

DOCs was developed by the team of undergraduate students and faculty at the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science, an interdisciplinary centre of the King’s University in Edmonton that provides free interactive digital learning resources used by some 500,000 students, educators and others in more 100 countries each year. The simulation is being released on the web as a free tool for the global public, and will be used in Alberta with project partner organizations (listed below) who have provided important input into the development of the simulation. Twenty-five external experts from around the world with expertise in the sector areas of the simulation have provided peer review, and their comments and suggestions have been incorporated in the version that has been released.

KCVS has been working on climate change education for over a decade. A very early version of DOCs was a key part of the explainingclimatechange.com visualization site, a legacy item of the 2011 International Year of Chemistry (IYC) that focused on the role for chemistry in achieving sustainability. KCVS director Peter Mahaffy was chair of IUPAC’s Committee on Chemistry Education during IYC, and a member of the IYC global management committee. The first eight lessons build knowledge about climate change, with an emphasis on the underlying chemistry, and Lesson 9 introduces DOCs as a hopeful way of moving forward with concrete actions to mitigate climate change.  

KCVS and partnering organizations will use DOCs in both formal and informal educational settings to help a wide range of audiences explore feasible and hopeful solutions to climate change. Many of those solutions also build strongly on fundamental understanding of chemistry!

Amanda Ciezki, Peter Mahaffy, Melanie Hoffman, and Robert MacDonald are members of the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS), a research centre of the King’s University, Edmonton.

DOCs is the result of a productive partnership with Energy Futures Lab, the Alberta Council for Environmental Education, Student Energy, and People for Energy and Environmental Literacy.

KCVS is very grateful for financial support from Energy Efficiency Alberta and the King’s University to create DOCs. Professor Brian Martin, along with the following members of the student research team at KCVS made substantial contributions to the development of DOCs: Mckenzie Tilstra, Ashley Elgersma, Kalley Lasola, Shawn Ritter, Luke Vanderwekken, Danny Krol, Mckenzie Oliver, Tyler DeBoon, Anna Schwalfenberg, and Darren Eymundson.