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En-ROADS: A Powerful Simulator to Explore Solutions to Climate Change

Roberta Tevlin (retired physics teacher)

Climate change is an incredibly complex and serious problem. Many people avoid thinking about it because it seems so hopeless. This article is an introduction to something that will help you and your students see a way out of the mess. En-ROADS is a simulator of climate solutions from MIT. It is powered by over 20,000 simultaneous equations. It is a tool designed for business and government policy makers — but it can be used with grade-9 students. It is free and updated every couple of months.

Do yourself a favour and go to https://www.climateinteractive.org/ and select EN-ROADS, the first large button available. Play around with the simulator for a bit and then come back to this article to learn how you can use it.

En-ROADS contains a huge wealth of information and it is worth taking the time to explore it in depth. However, teachers are very busy. I will break this article into three parts, starting with how you can use this in your classroom with almost no extra preparation and then going into the resource deeper and then even deeper.

Part 1: Play the Climate Action Simulation Game!
Put your students into six different stakeholder groups: Clean Tech, Climate Hawks, Government, Conventional Energy, Industry/Commerce, and Agriculture/Land. Details of each of these groups can be found in the briefing statements described below. You are the secretary-general of the UN and you have called this summit so they can work together to find a solution to climate change.

Let them know that they will be using a climate simulator that will let them run ‘experiments’ to see which combinations of policies will work. Give the students a brief overview of the En-ROADS simulator, as shown below.


The graphs show what the model predicts will occur if we continue on our present course. The left graph shows that renewable energy sources are expected to increase a lot (good news) and that coal, oil and gas will continue to be burnt (bad news). The right graph shows how greenhouse gas emissions will grow and how these will cause the Earth’s temperature to be 3.3°C warmer than pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. Since the 2015 Paris agreement, there has been a consensus that we need to limit this to no more than 1.5°C. How can we do this? The simulation provides 19 different solution sliders and each group needs to decide which they should use.

Provide each group with one of the well-balanced and informative two-page briefing statements written by En-ROADS. These explain what their group’s main concerns are and what sorts of measures they would favour to mitigate climate change. You can find these materials (and more!) here.

Give the groups ten minutes to read their briefs and choose which three sliders they want to move. They need to write a short explanation of why they think their proposal will reduce climate change and what are the co-benefits and equity concerns.

The groups take turns selecting one of their choices and reading their justification out loud. Then you move the slider all the way. You might want to ‘forget’ to ask the Climate Hawks group for their input — dramatizing how climate activists are often ignored.

After each group has gone once, they will have a chance to move a second slider. During this round, they can also choose to undo another group’s choice. You might want to give the groups a few minutes to consider this new option.

After the second round, you will probably need a third one, in order to get the temperature increase well below 2°C. You might want to give them some time to negotiate with the other groups.

After the final round, celebrate your success! Have a huge round of applause for everyone’s efforts. Then show them what a difference their policies will make. Select the Graphs option in the top menu bar and then choose Impacts. I recommend showing them Air Pollution from Energy (a huge health issue), Decrease in Crop Yield (a huge food security issue), Additional Deaths from Extreme Heat (another huge health issue) and Global GDP loss (a huge financial issue).

Finally, well-before the bell rings, have them take 60 seconds of silence to think about how they feel after this exercise. Then, give them time to talk. The emotional and mental health impact of climate change on young people is huge and we need to give it space. Spending a whole class focusing on effective solutions might give them ideas about what they can do to promote these solutions in real life. Focusing on solutions and doing something about them is a great way to reduce climate despair.

The most obvious place for this lesson would be toward the end of the Climate Change unit in grade 10 science. It would also fit well in the Energy and Society unit of grade 11 physics, grade 12 World Issues, and in many other courses.

Part 2: Understanding What Happens in En-ROADS
Some of the results in En-ROADS can be quite surprising, and this is a perfect opportunity to make use of the Predict, Explain, Observe, Explain teaching approach. Here are explanations of some of the most surprising observations.

Electrification of Transportation and Buildings and Industry
Moving the electrification sliders has almost no effect on emissions on its own. Why? Look at the graph of Global Sources of Primary Energy graph and you will see that about two-thirds of the electricity is coming from burning fossil fuels. The electricity sector needs to be cleaned up before electrification helps. (Note: Ontario’s electricity grid used to be one of the greenest in the world, but this is going to change because the present government is expanding gas-powered electricity plants.)

Subsidizing renewable energy doesn’t have much of an effect. Why? Look at the graph of Global Sources of Primary Energy graph. Renewables were already expected to increase. Why? Go to the grid icon on the menu bar at the top and select the Marginal Cost of Electricity Production. Renewables are now the cheapest form of power. Over the past decade increased sales have allowed for a reduction in production costs, and the lower prices drive higher sales. This is an example of positive feedback in economics.

Energy Efficiency in Buildings and Industry
This has a huge effect. It is the second most significant slider in En-ROADS. Why is it so effective? Look at the Greenhouse Gas Net Emissions graph. The emissions start to decrease almost immediately. This is important because the sooner the emissions drop, the greater the effect on temperature. The emissions can drop quickly because the technology for building efficiency is already commercially available and as soon as you properly insulate a building, you need less energy for heating in the winter and for cooling in the summer. The Royal Bank of Canada says that improving building efficiency can reduce the need for the Ontario government’s expansion of gas-powered electricity generation and it will also save 500 million a year.

Coal, Oil and Gas
Of the three fossil fuels, taxing coal has the greatest effect. Reducing just one fossil fuel tends to increase the other two, so it’s a good idea to tax all three. Taxing coal also has a huge effect on reducing air pollution. Select Graphs > Impacts > Air Pollution from Energy by Source. Air pollution causes millions of premature deaths every year.

Carbon Price
This slider has the greatest effect in En-ROADS. Why? This one policy has many effects. Look at the graph of Global Sources of Primary Energy. It decreases all three fossil fuels and increases renewables. The graph also shows a decrease in the total energy. This is a result of choosing to conserve energy by using less energy (i.e. turn down the thermostat in the winter) or choosing more efficient devices (i.e. heat pumps, insulation). En-ROADS groups all of these changes in the ‘efficiency’ sliders for buildings and transportation. Look at the graph of Greenhouse Gas Net Emissions. The emissions drop dramatically and almost immediately. Once again, the sooner the emissions change, the greater the reduction in temperature. If you want to ‘axe the tax’, you can get the same great effect but you have to move six separate sliders for coal, oil, gas, renewables and the two efficiencies. A carbon price is the simplest, cheapest and most effective way to reduce emissions.

Nature Based Carbon Removal
Planting trees, also known as afforestation, seems like such a great idea. But how effective is it? Leave the slider alone and choose the three vertical dots for the slider and then use the detailed settings. Now you can examine afforestation on its own. Move the afforestation slider to 100%. This brings the temperature down from 3.33°C to 3.21°C. Why is it so small? Look at the graphs to the right in the detailed settings and choose CO2 Removal from Afforestation. The net CO2 removal is much smaller than the gross because it takes into account the CO2 that has gone back into the atmosphere because of wildfires.

So, why don’t we just plant even more trees? Go to the related graphs on the right and choose the graph of Land for CO2 Removal. This graph shows that the area planted with trees was twice the size of India (that is about two-thirds the area of the U.S.) That is a lot of land. The En-ROADS simulator forces our choices to be realistic.

Planting trees in cities might be more important than anywhere else. Trees clean and cool the air, reducing the urban heat island effect. They also provide mental health benefits. They are also less likely to get wiped out by wildfires.

Nuclear and New Zero Carbon
Nuclear has a surprisingly small effect on the temperature. Why? Look at the Global Sources of Primary Energy graph. It shows that there is little effect on emissions until 2040. This is because it takes such a long time to get a nuclear power plant up and running. Also, look closely at the graph of Global Sources of Primary Energy. Subsidizing nuclear energy decreases the growth of renewables. New Zero Carbon shows similar, but even bigger problems. This slider models what we could get if we had a breakthrough in fusion or thorium fission today. It doesn’t have much of an effect until 2050 (too late) and it reduces the renewables by a great amount (counter-productive). And… we might never get that breakthrough.

Agricultural Emissions and Waste and Leakage
These two sliders have a significant effect, but they have nothing to do with CO2. Go to the grid icon on the top menu bar and choose Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas. This shows that other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide and refrigerants are responsible for a quarter of the emissions problem.

Subsidizing bioenergy increases emissions and the temperature. Shouldn’t it be carbon neutral? It can be, but only in the long run. There is a delay between burning the material and regrowing it — especially for wood. That delay results in the temperature rising more.

Part 3: Going Even Deeper
I have been exploring this resource for several months now and I keep learning more every time I use it. I find that it provides a structure on which I can organize my thoughts about whatever shows up in the news. It has reduced my tendency to feel overwhelmed and it has helped to clarify my thoughts around nuclear energy, biofuels, population control, fusion, and carbon capture and storage. I have started holding ‘Climate Salons’ for friends and acquaintances. We have drinks and snacks and we use En-ROADS to help us have a grounded and hopeful conversation about climate change.

En-ROADS has also helped inform my activism. Here is one example.

If you ‘very highly tax’ all three fossil fuels in the simulation, you reduce emissions quite a bit — but there is still a lot of fossil fuel being burnt. We can see this happening in Canada. Fossil fuels are taxed but their emissions have risen 11% since 2005, while the other sectors have decreased by 13%. Taxation is not enough and so some kind of regulation is needed. You can simulate a regulation in En-ROADS by going to each fossil fuel slider, selecting the three vertical dots, and reducing new infrastructure to zero. It is very effective.

The federal government is considering imposing cap and cut regulations on fossil fuels and the fossil fuel companies are lobbying politicians to prevent this. This is a good time for citizens to speak up. I have been getting signatures on a paper petition created by Citizen Climate Lobby which my MP is going to read out in parliament. I enjoy the process of collecting the signatures because it stimulates climate change conversations and it models how ordinary folks can get involved. I have attached a copy of the petition in case you would like to do the same.

If you want to learn more about En-ROADS, there is a virtual training camp starting in August. There are also webinars, recorded and live, that are very helpful.

Finally, I would love to talk with people who are exploring En-ROADS. If you are interested or just have a few questions, please contact me at roberta@tevlin.ca.
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