Credible, Possible, and Likely Scenarios

To decide what is a possible future and what is a credible scenario, scientists have established criteria that prospective models and their results need to fulfill. Exogenous assumptions need to be plausible and consistent. Often, they follow a certain scheme or idea that is called story line. Criteria for prospective models include process balancing constraints such as monetary, mass, or energy balances; the assumption that certain parameters, like efficiency improvement rates, do not leave empirically determined ranges; assumptions on human behavior; or the ability of the model to correctly determine the actual development from a given starting point in the past, using macro-indicators such as GDP as driver.

Criteria for plausibility, consistency, and properties of exogenous assumptions and prospective models differ across modeling fields, mainly because of different academic traditions. This scientific inconsistency has repeatedly led to criticism across modeling disciplines, like our criticism of integrated assessment models from an industrial ecology perspective presented below.

Are scenarios, or possible futures, also likely outcomes of future development? This often-raised question about the predictive capability of scenarios needs clarification. Strictly speaking, there cannot be a connection between possibility and likelihood in an indeterminate system, and a scenario can never be a prediction of the likely future outcome. This dogma, however, contradicts our intuition and the way the term scenario is often used. Especially when it covers only a short time span into the future, a scenario for the future development of SEM can appear to have predictive character (Börjeson et al. 2006). We assert that the apparent short-term determinacy of the indeterminate socio-metabolic system is a result of the slow turnover of in-use stocks, such as buildings, infrastructure, and products of different kinds, which adds considerable inertia to the system. The large amount of social and biophysical resources required to transform in-use stocks limits the speed at which the system can deviate from its present state (Pauliuk and Müller 2014). Hence, the spectrum of likely future states of SEM is the narrower the shorter the time horizon. Still, this predictability of an indeterminate system differs from the “absolute” predictions for truly deterministic systems because in indeterminate systems, unforeseen events such as the discovery of new technologies, sudden political changes, or natural catastrophes can substantially alter the trajectory even in the short run. To accommodate for the indeterminacy of SEM in the near future, prospective shortterm models of society's metabolism are complemented by risk assessment.

The coming transformation of society's metabolism will require us to rebuild a substantial fraction of society's in-use stocks. The more complete the transformation, the less the future state of SEM is determined by present in-use stocks. Scenarios that cover time scales during which the coming transition may take place are therefore only little constrained by the inertia given by present stocks. Consequently, these scenarios have no predictive but explorative (What can happen?) or normative (How can a specific target be reached?) character (Börjeson et al. 2006). Prospective models in industrial ecology are used to study the transition ahead, and hence, the scenarios they generate are explorative or normative but not predictive.

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