At the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference 2019, ClimateXChange convened a workshop session looking at the practical use of scenario planning in climate change adaptation. This blog is a summary of the discussion amongst participants. A paper written by the session presenters is published in Environmental Science & Policy

What is scenario planning?

Planning for uncertain futures is a major challenge for policy and decision-makers in climate change adaptation. The range of unknowns includes future emissions, climate change impacts, and socio-economic conditions. Creating a range of scenarios is one way to consider uncertain futures in their adaptation planning.

Scenario planning is an approach for:

  • structured thinking about future uncertainty;
  • describing futures that could be by looking at a combination of drivers; and
  • helping societies better plan for these possible development.

How scenario planning works

Scenario planning is a way to test and compare a range of alternative options against multiple possible futures.

The scenarios can be created by experts using date for different drives, e.g. projections for population growth, climate change, food production, technology etc, or developing the scenarios can be part of the stakeholder process by drawing on their lived experience and insights. Scenarios created by the participants in the process are usually local or regional.

Many scenario planning processes combine high level data driven scenarios created by experts with local knowledge and perspectives.

Benefits and strengths of scenario planning

Scenario planning is particularly useful in relation to climate change because it allows different groups like communities, academics, local and national government, agencies or businesses, to look at possible futures together. They all bring different and relevant knowledge and expertise to inform the discussion from different angles, such as climate, economic development, demographics, local history etc.

It can work at different geographical scales – local, national and global, in different contexts, and looking at short or longer term timelines. Shorter time horizons work best at the local scale, while longer term scenarios are more suited to the national and global scale.

Fig 1: The most useful aspects of scenario planning

Scenarios are particularly useful to:

  • frame discussion about new problems;
  • bring in a range of stakeholders to share and broaden knowledge and learning;
  • explore drivers for change; and
  • explore solutions.

In discussing a scenario the participants can either focus on how to respond to the different drivers for change, like population growth, and their impact. Or they can consider how these potential responses fit with existing practices.

Using scenarios

As scenario planning processes involve significant resources, primarily in gathering participants and data/information, it is important to maximise their value.

Rather than being a stand-alone tool, scenarios work better as part of a wider process.

Re-visiting scenarios, for example every 5 years, as part of a planning cycle is one way to encourage feedback loops and build learning.

Scenarios can also work well with an adaptation pathways approach[i], where future decision-makers have flexibility to make use of their increased knowledge of how climate change impacts are playing out and better climate projections.

Used flexibly and iteratively scenarios can therefore help identify no and low-regret adaptation options.

What scenarios are not well suited to

Individual scenarios are not well suited to identifying specific adaptation options or actions.

They can support decisions by identifying possible options, but not in assessing which option to choose.

They are also static – each scenario representing only one point in time - and so unable to take account of unexpected changes, such as extreme weather events, new regulations or political decisions.

Fig 2: Scenario planning limitations and weaknesses

[i] See https://coastadapt.com.au/pathways-approach for an overview of the adaptation pathway approach