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You are here: Home / Environmental topics / Environmental scenarios / Environmental scenarios

Environmental scenarios

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Problems like climate change, biodiversity loss and natural resource use have long-term implications which require long-term policy solutions. To make informed strategic decisions, we must try to anticipate what lies ahead and grasp ongoing, emerging and latent developments. If we want to seriously address Europe's sustainability, we have to look beyond two legislative cycles and more. However, a long view requires a broad mind: the key challenges facing Europe can change significantly with time. Environmental scenarios, outlooks and other types of forward studies help us to address discontinuity and uncertainties of future developments and to design robust policies that can withstand the test of time.

Forward-looking studies, such as scenarios and outlooks, have been widely conducted in international organisations, governments, companies and non-governmental organisations over the last few decades.

The long-term emission scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are well-known. They have been widely used for the analysis of climate change, its impacts and mitigation options, and to support international negotiations on setting long-term targets.

Another prominent example is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which developed scenarios to analyse outcomes for global ecosystem services in different future situations. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) uses its Global Environment Outlook scenarios to frame its long-term analyses. Major international organisations such as the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also frequently publish long-term projections and analyses.

There is no standard recipe for analysing the future. It can be done in a purely quantitative fashion, taking data and (mathematical) models to project future trends and analyse their uncertainties (also called outlook analysis); it can combine quantitative analysis with qualitative analysis in the form of narratives, diagrams and images; or it can rely on a qualitative analysis only.

Thinking about the future requires thinking in alternatives. The future is full of uncertainty, and lots of things can happen. Scenarios are powerful tools in this regard as they help to think 'out of the box'. Scenarios are neither predictions nor forecasts. They are plausible descriptions of how the future may unfold for our organisations, our issues, our nations and even our world, based on 'if-then' propositions. A typical environmental scenario includes a representation of the initial situation and a storyline that describes the key driving forces and the changes that provide an image of the future.

For example, the EEA's PRELUDE scenarios help us to rethink our current approaches towards biodiversity and landscape protection. They highlight a number of factors that could jeopardise their effectiveness and efficiency in the mid- to long-term, such as demographic changes and climate change.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100