Computer simulations predict the worlds of tomorrow

The Apollo 11 Moon landing was achieved on a computer with less brainpower than a 1990s games console. Today’s computers are so sophisticated they can create complex models to create a potential roadmap away from environmental catastrophe.

In recent decades, computers have been a source of wonder and trepidation when it comes to the future of humanity. From HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the mind-bending world of the Matrix films, computers in science fiction offer us a special perspective of how the future could look. Now, computers could be the key to unlocking the door to a greener future, all through the power of computer modelling and simulation.

What we mostly are doing, is trying to explore what is needed to meet the Paris goals.

– Detlef van Vuuren, Senior researcher, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency speaking to OPB

Simulacra and simulation

Anyone with a passion for computer games is likely to have spent some time playing around in simulated worlds, through the likes of SimCity, taking civilisations and shaping them over time to your own liking. Taken to a further extent, computers can do more than just immerse us in fantasy worlds of our choosing. Fantasy, afterall, isn’t going to help us design fusion power stations of the future, or help us decide which renewable power sources to opt for in place of oil and gas.

The recent IPCC report published on the potential pathways for our planet as a result of climate change are the product of extensive computer modelling and simulations. Simulations for the world of tomorrow require meticulous calculations about a broad spectrum of variables, ranging from electricity consumption, projected economic growth and the cost of technological innovations. Detlef van Vuuren is a Senior Researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, using the skills he has as a researcher to concoct strategies to environmental concerns using models. He has been instrumental in helping develop Representative Concentration Pathways used for the IPCC’s assessments for how the world of the future could come to be.

An urgent forecast

The world is expected to have already crossed the threshold of experiencing a temperature rise of at least one degree celsius above pre-industrial levels, and the Paris Agreement is intended to help countries commit to keep it below 1.5 degrees.

The Paris Agreement serves as a useful pointer to help countries commit to a zero-carbon future, but not all countries are signed up just yet. Variables such as unsustainably high energy prices or a more concerted effort by governments to spur decarbonisation could be a great help in allowing economies to transition away from hydrocarbons. Afterall, why risk the chaos of another oil shock, when you can invest in the future by switching to a far more sustainable energy source such as wind, solar or fusion?

Ditching petrol and diesel-powered cars, as well as an end to coal, oil and gas consumption, plus building more energy-efficient homes could all help suppress a temperature rise even further, putting us on the path to a greener future. While the future and the simulations surrounding it might seem like a game of luck and chance, everything is to play for and it all comes down to individual decisions taken, en masse, which have a real impact on all of us and future generations to come.

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