Author of New IPCC Report Says She Still Has Hope

The IPCC’s new report says we could face irreversible consequences of climate change by as soon as 2030, but a coordinating lead author of the report says policymakers, businesses, and individuals can still make big changes to protect our future

Author of New IPCC Report Says She Still Has Hope

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor.

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says governments, businesses, policy-makers and individuals must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented action in all aspects of society to avoid climate disaster.” Three years ago, under the Paris climate accord, countries agreed to aim to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and set 1.5 degrees Celsius as an aspirational target. But this new report says 1.5 degrees of warming could be catastrophic, and we might get there as soon as 2030.

Now joining me to talk about this is one of the contributors to the report, Heleen de Conick is associate professor in Innovation Studies at the Environmental Science Department at Radboud University’s Faculty of Science. She was a coordinating lead author on this special IPCC report. Thanks for coming on today.

HELEEN DE CONINCK: My pleasure.

DHARNA NOOR: So Helen, this report was written at the request of countries that signed 2015’s Paris Climate Accord, which again, set 1.5 degrees of warming as a safe target to stay under 2 degrees. Talk about what happens when we hit that 1.5 degrees Celsius, and is the question if or when? Is it an inevitability?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: So, the parties in the Paris Indeed have asked for these reports to answer that question whether they can still make the 1.5 degree targets or limits, and how that would compare to limiting global warming to 2 degrees. The Paris agreement says that we, as a world, should stay well below 2 degrees temperature rise compared to pre-industrial, and strive for 1.5 degree temperature rise. In terms of the difference in impacts, this report really has added lot to the understanding of that. For instance, we know now that under a 2 degree limit, pretty much all coral reefs in the world will just die. Under a 1.5 degree limit, some of them would still be left.

Another example is sea level rise, which is very important for my own country. I’m from the Netherlands, and a large part of the Netherlands is below sea level. So, sea level rise is a big risk. At the end of this century, by the 2100s, sea level rise will be 10 centimeters less under a 1.5 degree scenario than under a two degree scenario. Globally, that would mean that at least 10 million people fewer would be affected by sea level rise, so this is a really significant reduction in the impacts. As for whether it’s still possible, the report concludes that it’s still possible. We’re not geophysically committed to exceeding the 1.5 degree limits. So, that’s the good news. This, by the way, includes potential scenarios that would slightly overshoot 1.5 degrees and then go back down, but would be under 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, so by 2100.

The bad news is that it would really take a tremendous effort, pretty much everyone in the world, including every business, every country, every financial institution and every community to help us stay below that target. The issue is that our economic activities are so intertwined with greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, particularly fossil energy use, that it’s very difficult to change all those activities at such short notice, as would be required for the one and a half degree limits. So it’s a bit of a mixed message. We need a lot of effort to remain below 1.5 degrees. It’s still possible, and if you look at the impacts, it’s up for the politicians to decide, of course, but we are basically presenting a case in this IPCC report that it might be worth going for a 1.5 degree targets relative to a 2 degrees target.

DHARNA NOOR: To that point, this report is being called the IPCC’s most political report yet, and you are one of the lead authors of the report’s chapter on emission control measures. What kinds of measures do policymakers need to take in order to curb emissions?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: Sure. So, my chapter, chapter four, is about strengthening and implementing the global response. So we’re assessing which mitigation and adaptation options are there, and how feasible they are, and what we could do as a global community to make that happen. It’s also important to realize as not just policy makers or politicians that should act. They’re definitely one of the groups that should act, but they cannot do it alone. Because if businesses keep on resisting change, then they will have a hard time following things through as well. And it’s a very interconnected world that we have now. So what we’re saying is, basically we’re looking at our measures in four, maybe five big groups. And one set is related to the energy systems transition. So that’s everything related to the supply of our energy.

We should very rapidly shift from a predominantly fossil fuel based system to a predominantly renewables based system that is also very efficient with energy. As an example, this means that by 2050, the world would basically not use any coal anymore for electricity generation. At the moment, this is 40 percent of the electricity generation in the world, which is a big change. The second transition that we look at is the land and ecosystems transition, and this relates very much both to the energy system and how we deal with nature and our forests and the emissions that entails. And it relates also to agriculture and how we produce our food. Now, one of the options there is, for instance, we would all eat much less meat. A lot of the surface area now used for agriculture to produce the fodder for our cattle would be freed up to supply, for instance, renewable energy.

Third transition is in industry. It’s also a very big sector, which produces all our goods that are also transported around the world to produce, for instance, steel and cement and plastics. And this also will need to go, basically, to almost zero emissions in the next 35 years show. And the fourth one is the urban and infrastructure transition. And we’re looking at urban systems as sort of places where you should start with big changes, because a lot of things come together there. And it’s not enough just to look at energy use in buildings or energy use in transportation. It all relates to each other. If you plan your city in a way that you can you reduce your transport needs and make your houses more efficient, you could do that in one go through urban planning policies, for instance. So those are sort of the four sets of measures.

And then there’s a fifth one which is fairly new, and this is called carbon dioxide removal technologies. These are technologies that make sure that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is reduced. And not just reducing the emissions, so how much are we putting into the atmosphere, but reducing the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. You can do that, for instance, with large-scale tree plantings, with large-scale forestation, but also by using biomass for producing energy, and then capturing the CO2 from that by ways of electricity plans and storing it in geological formations in the deep underground. And that way, you would also reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. And we’d probably need those removal options in order to lower concentrations and reduce temperatures towards the end of the century if there’s a slight overshoot.

DHARNA NOOR: It’s interesting, the report deals with what could be called the need for lifestyle changes, but it sounds like you’re outlining sort of bigger picture changes that would impact lifestyle changes. But can individual changes really make a difference when it comes to a problem as huge as climate change? Some are saying, if you’re concerned about the IPCC’s new report, individually eat less meat or individually drive in your car less. Can those sorts of things really make an impact?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: I think absolutely. So I think underlying the existent transitions that I just laid out are all kinds of other processes, including how people decide to live their lives and what lifestyles they’ll have. But I also don’t think it’s fair to place the responsibility on the individual fully. I mean, people can do what they can, but if in their cities there is no bike lanes or there’s no urban transport provided, no public transport provided because the cities are planned in such a way that it’s basically infeasible or inviable to have public transport, then of course the individual is sort of trapped in a high carbon lifestyle. And I think that’s why it’s incredibly important for realizing this 1.5 C limit that all actors in the system start collaborating.

So individuals would indicate what are the barriers to that changing lifestyles, governments and companies should respond by enabling them to do better, basically, and to abandon their high carbon and find the way to lead a low carbon lifestyle. The same goes for meat. I mean, you need to have your nutrition, and if you’re low carbon products in the supermarkets are more expensive or harder to get by or just don’t taste as good as meat based products or animal waste products, then it’s still very hard for individuals to make that difference. And it’s not really made very easy for them. So it has to be a collaboration between the different actors, and they have to work in synergy. And that’s one of the biggest challenges that we also lay out in the chapter that I contributed to.

DHARNA NOOR: You also mentioned that the report calls for the use of carbon capture, or carbon capture and storage. But critics of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, have said that the method is high-risk, it’s very expensive, and that it could actually increase emissions due to the greater demand for things like coal. Could you respond to some of these critiques and talk about why, despite them, you’re advocating for CCS?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: So I think in the report we do have a few scenarios that don’t use CCS at all. They would demand very, very stringent lifestyle changes early on. Otherwise, you just need it in order to bring emissions down. CCS, carbon capture and storage, has been on the agenda since maybe 15 years or so and hasn’t really taken off so far. There’s about 40 megatons of CO2 capture and storage globally. Some projects suffer from public resistance, indeed related to the risks of geological storage, some from just poor economics, because it’s more expensive than coal fired or any kind of plan without CCS. I think governments have the role to get the economics right, by rebates or carbon pricing or subsidies or another standard.

In terms of the risks of geological storage, if you listen to the experts on this, they say that these risks are fully manageable, and it can be done safely if regulated well and if the right reservoirs are selected for geological storage. As for the rise in coal use if we use carbon capture and storage, I think that would be true if you would have limited the mitigation of emissions elsewhere. But if you would go to basically coal-free electricity and industrial system by 2050, you would use renewable electricity to capture your CO2, so it would not be such an issue anymore. Now, I see also in the scenarios, that we would be using carbon capture and storage basically for three reasons.

One is to reduce the emissions from industry, which are otherwise very hard to reduce. For instance, cement has, just inherent in its process, a CO2 emission that cannot be replaced by anything else. So you would have to do something with that CO2. The second reason is to use it on gas-fired power plants, and that’s also what the report outlines. And this gas-fired electricity you would still need in order to balance the intermittent renewable sources, which sometimes depend on the weather or whether it’s dark or light outside. And the third reason is for carbon dioxide removal, as I outlined earlier, in combination with either bioenergy or chemical capture of CO2 directly from the atmosphere. I don’t think, at least that’s not why the pathways are saying, that CCS would be used a lot on coal fired electricity, because as some of the critics are saying as well, the emissions basically would still be too high for a 1.5 degree pathway, and coal would be surpassed in attractiveness by other electricity options.

DHARNA NOOR: I actually recently spoke with climate scientist, Michael Mann, he’s the author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, about this report. Let’s take a listen to a clip from that interview.

MICHAEL MANN: That the IPCC made a number of extremely conservative, I would argue overly conservative, decisions in how they measure the warming that has already happened. And by doing that, they underestimate how close we are to these 1.5 degree Celsius and 2 degree Celsius thresholds. And they overestimate how much carbon we have left to burn. If you look, for example, at the northern hemisphere, which is where most of us live, and you ask the question, “When do we cross the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold for the northern hemisphere if we continue with business as usual, burning of fossil fuels?” I showed in an article several years ago, in Scientific American, we cross that threshold before 2040, in the late 2030s.

DHARNA NOOR: What’s your response to Michael Mann saying that this report is too conservative, that it understates the possibilities of climate disaster?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: Well first of all, I deeply respect Michael Mann and I don’t even dare to take issue with him on this topic, which is much more an issue of the mind. But the way I understand we did this in the IPCC report, is by looking at the real temperature developments so far and look at what has actually been the warming up to now and then since and derived the climate sensitivity to CO2 and other greenhouse gases from that relation. And that’s actually a novelty, which was basically not done yet in earlier IPCC reports as far as I know, not in the other literature. It’s based on a few very recent papers, and we had big debate within the IPCC author team, like what sort of approach should we take and decide for this, because this is the latest state of literature.

But I really should emphasize that these temperature predictions, whichever you take, are surrounded by huge uncertainties. And even the 1.5 degree pathways that you will see in this IPCC report, give you between 50 and 66 percent chance of staying below 1.5 C at the end of the century. So if you want 100 percent chance, that basically means that we should reduce emissions very, very quickly, and in that sense Professor Mann is certainly right. I think it depends a bit on which kind of probability you take for the 1.5 degrees, and also what type of temperature and climate sensitivity you would assume for this. I hope this clarifies.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. And again, in the report you wrote, by 2050 the world’s net CO2 emissions should be zero. Talk a little bit more about the political and economic implications of this. This would essentially require decarbonizing every sector of the global economy. And here in the U.S., Trump has cast doubt on this report. He said, “I can give you reports that are fabulous and I can give you reports that aren’t so good.” Just last year, he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. So given this political climate, you could say, is it even possible to try to curb climate change through emissions reduction?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: So of course, the political situation varies over the years, and the IPCC report looks at things on a global level and doesn’t go into the politics of individual countries. We just trying to outline the evidence that we see and also try to outline what enabling conditions we see for making the 1.5 degree limits. And as for whether is possible from a political point of view, we have the sense that what we have looks at, because it’s based on literature, we have to rely on the peer-reviewed literature for this. What we see at the moment is that some countries are really urging ahead on this. Some countries have adopted greenhouse gas emission reduction targets which are almost in line with net zero and in 2050, and those countries tend to be thriving, and might be the technological leaders in the decades to come because they’re really investing in it.

There’s also literature that says that even without climate targets, you would see a huge reduction in renewable energy supply costs which could even be so much that it would price other fossil fuel options out of the markets. That would help, if that scenario would play out. And we’re not sure, I mean the IPCC doesn’t have a crystal ball. Then it would actually become in countries’ interests to invest in the new technologies rather than the old fossil ones. It would still help to have climate policy, of course, which would speed things up, but it’s potentially not even a pure necessity.

DHARNA NOOR: So Heleen, given that you did say that there are countries, governments, nations, who are setting the stage for climate leadership and who are implementing the right kinds of policies, do you have hope that we could stay under that 1.5 degrees Celsius, could stay under that 2 degrees Celsius, that we could avoid the kinds of climate disaster that are outlined in the IPCC’s latest report?

HELEEN DE CONINCK: Personally, I think the IPCC report and the results therein, they give me hope, yes. I think it shows that we can still change our future, and I think it also shows that some cities and some regions and even countries are at least pretty much on track to give a good example to the rest of the world. So personally, I think this is a hopeful report. And of course, there are many barriers to overcome, there’s many issues that we need to deal with, but I just hope that this report gives some tools and some actionable information for policymakers to start dealing with those big questions that are coming their way.

I have heard a lot of their responses to this report, and some of them are very positive, and also basically leads people and communities and countries to get into the action, to get into gear. Of course, there are also always responses that indicate, “No, we’re not going to change things.” It’s part of the game that will eventually have to play in order to get further along. But we will really see, I think, more depends on what will happen at COP24, in the next climate conference where an internal dialogue, which is a dialogue between the parties of the Paris Agreement about a way forward. I think that will give us a lot of information about how this report will be taken forward and whether the 1.5 degree target will remain in sight.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, as we continue to see how individuals and governments and policy makers respond to this report, and leading up to COP24 in Poland, we would love to talk to you again. So please stay in the loop, and thanks for coming on today.

HELEEN DE CONINCK: My pleasure.

DHARNA NOOR: And Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.