Not all carbon dioxide emission scenarios are equally likely: a subjective expert assessment

Climate researchers use carbon dioxide emission scenarios to explore alternative climate futures and potential impacts, as well as implications of mitigation and adaptation policies. Often, these scenarios are published without formal probabilistic interpretations, given the deep uncertainty related to future development. However, users often seek such information, a likely range or relative probabilities. Without further specifications, users sometimes pick a small subset of emission scenarios and/or assume that all scenarios are equally likely. Here, we present probabilistic judgments of experts assessing the distribution of 2100 emissions under a business-as-usual and a policy scenario. We obtain the judgments through a method that relies only on pairwise comparisons of various ranges of emissions.

There is wide variability between individual experts, but they clearly do not assign equal probabilities for the total range of future emissions. We contrast these judgments with the emission projection ranges derived from the shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) and a recent multi-model comparison producing probabilistic emission scenarios. Differences on long-term emission probabilities between expert estimates and model-based calculations may result from various factors including model restrictions, a coverage of a wider set of factors by experts, but also group think and inability to appreciate long-term processes.

This article is available on the publisher’s website via restricted access.


PBL Authors
Detlef van Vuuren
Other authors
Emily Ho
David V. Budescu
Valentina Bosetti
Klaus Keller


Publication title
Not all carbon dioxide emission scenarios are equally likely: a subjective expert assessment
Publication date
23 August 2019
Publication type
Publication language
Climatic Change
Volume 155, Issue 4, pp 545–561
Product number