Mustafa Babiker: Part of the Brain Trust

Mustafa Babiker: Part of the Brain Trust

Mark Dwortzan | MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

What is the optimal way to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and slow down rising global temperatures? What targets should be set, and through what technologies, mitigation policies and international agreements might those targets be reached? And how might actions taken today narrow or widen the choices available in the future?

These are among the questions that MIT Joint Program Research Associate Mustafa Babiker grappled with as a lead author of a chapter on "Assessing Transformation Pathways" in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC's latest comprehensive review of the state of climate change, its potential impacts, and options for mitigation and adaptation.

Shaping Climate Policy

For more than a decade, Babiker has contributed his climate and economic modeling expertise to three such reviews, which support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the main international treaty on climate change. One of these, the Fourth Assessment Report, propelled the IPCC to share the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore in 2007.

Compiled by the world's most authoritative brain trust on the global climate and based on thousands of scenarios from climate modeling research groups including the Joint Program, IPCC Assessment Reports do far more than occupy space on bureaucrats' bookshelves. Providing scientific, technical and economic evaluation of the feasibility of capping the average global temperature rise at 2° Celsius; the likely consequences of not meeting that goal; strategies, timelines and costs for achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets, and other pertinent issues; these reports set the tone for climate action around the globe.

"They help shape climate policies at multiple levels, from driving municipal and business investments to guiding national action plans to formulating international agreements among more than 190 countries," says Babiker. "The Fifth Assessment Report, which we completed in 2014, will be influential in the [COP21] negotiations in Paris, especially in determining how large an effort will be needed."

Contributing to IPCC Assessment Reports since 2004 as a review editor and lead author, Babiker has served on IPCC Working Group III, a panel of experts charged to assess options for mitigating climate change and their socioeconomic implications. He is now participating in the group's efforts to explore new emissions scenarios for the Sixth Assessment Report.

Babiker's journey to his initial appointment on IPCC Working Group III began in his native Sudan, where he completed undergraduate studies in econometrics and social statistics at the University of Khartoum. Offered a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his studies in the US, he pursued a doctorate in environmental and natural resources at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Working as a research assistant to Thomas Rutherford, a renowned applied economist specializing in trade, energy and environmental economics (now an MIT Joint Program research collaborator), and focused on computational economics, Babiker developed his expertise in modeling the global climate and economy.  

Becoming a Modeler

"My undergraduate training in three disciplines-economics, mathematics and statistics-was essential to my effectiveness as a modeler," he observes. "Graduate studies in public and environmental economics and computation further sharpened those skills."

Drawing upon that skill set, Babiker completed his PhD thesis, "Climate Change and the International Trading System: A Computable General Equilibrium Perspective," which highlighted the economic impacts of climate change mitigation policies in developing countries, in 1998. One year later, he was invited to present his research at an IPCC expert meeting at The Hague. That presentation, along with subsequent papers and talks on the topic, paved the way to his long-term relationship with the IPCC.

Meanwhile, Babiker worked at the Joint Program from 1998 to 2002 as a developer for the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis (EPPA) model. Since then he has visited periodically to help enhance EPPA with structural improvements and new sub-models of climate policies, technologies and economic sectors. He has also collaborated with Joint Program researchers from his home base in Saudi Arabia, where he serves as an analyst for Saudi Aramco.

Whether informing global climate policymakers through IPCC Assessment Reports or EPPA upgrades, Babiker's motivation is twofold.

"Part of what got me into this work was that I grew up in a country undergoing significant desertification," he says, "but the main reason was the opportunity to develop modeling tools and apply them to environmental and climate issues."

Related Publication:

Mustafa Babiker et al., 2014: Chapter 6: "Assessing Transformation Pathways." IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, pp. 413-510, https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter6.pdf

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Global Changes.