IPCC baseline scenarios have over-projected CO2 emissions and economic growth Journal Article uri icon



  • Scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are central to climate science and policy. Recent studies find that observed trends and International Energy Agency (IEA) projections of global CO2 emissions have diverged from emission scenario outlooks widely employed in climate research. Here, we quantify the bases for this divergence, focusing on Kaya Identity factors: population, per-capita GDP, energy intensity (energy consumption/GDP), and carbon intensity (CO2 emissions/energy consumption). We compare 2005-2017 observations and IEA projections to 2040 of these variables, to “baseline” scenario projections from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), and from the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) used in the upcoming Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). We find that the historical divergence of observed CO2 emissions from baseline scenario projections can be explained largely by slower-than-projected per-capita GDP growth—predating the COVID-19 crisis. We also find carbon intensity divergence from baselines in IEA’s projections to 2040. IEA projects less coal energy expansion than the baseline scenarios, with divergence expected to continue to 2100. Future economic growth is uncertain, but we show that past divergence from observations makes it unlikely that per-capita GDP growth will catch up to baselines before mid-century. Some experts hypothesize high enough economic growth rates to allow per-capita GDP growth to catch up to or exceed baseline scenarios by 2100. However, we argue that this magnitude of catch-up may be unlikely, in light of: headwinds such as aging and debt, the likelihood of unanticipated economic crises, the fact that past economic forecasts have tended to over-project, the aftermath of the current pandemic, and economic impacts of climate change unaccounted-for in the baseline scenarios. Our analyses inform the rapidly evolving discussions on climate and development futures, and on uses of scenarios in climate science and policy.

publication date

  • February 18, 2020

has restriction

  • green

Date in CU Experts

  • November 4, 2020 5:02 AM

Full Author List

  • Burgess MG; Ritchie J; Shapland J; Pielke R

author count

  • 4

Other Profiles