Have we accurately assessed the challenge of climate change?

Vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and professor of climatology at Université […]


Vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and professor of climatology at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele offers a reminder of what should be an obvious fact: if we want to protect the climate as decided in Copenhagen, instead of “reducing” CO2 emissions, we need to achieve zero—or even negative—emissions well before the end of the century! There are solutions but we need to act fast: the higher emissions rise, the more drastically they will need to be cut.

Interview :

Queries: The European Union is in the process of drawing up its 2030 roadmap to combat climate change, which will set more far-reaching goals than the 2020 targets introduced in 2008. This comes just a few weeks after publication of the first part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, which is a key milestone, given that the previous report dates back to 2007. As a result, we have updates on two fronts. Would you say the ambitions of European politicians reflect the concerns of the world’s scientific experts?

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele: As vice-chair of the IPCC, I cannot comment on Europe’s new targets. The IPCC is extremely careful in this regard. Our reports aim to provide relevant scientific information to help draw up climate policies: IPCC reports are policy-relevant, not policy-prescriptive.

I will make one thing clear, however, from a simple, mathematical standpoint: if the European “package” is the only solution on the table, then no, it will not be enough. First, because Europe represents just 15% of the world’s total emissions. If the 85% of greenhouse gases emitted every year around the globe are not reined in, then there is no solution; even if the EU targeted a 100% reduction in emissions, it would not be enough.

On the eve of the publication of the European Commission’s proposals, I tweeted a quick reminder of the overall context because I knew I would be asked to comment on the matter. If we are to meet the target set by world leaders—and not by the IPCC—at the Copenhagen summit (i.e. limit the average global temperature increase to 2°C by 2100), we will need to achieve zero emissions well before the end of the century. Somewhere between 2060 and 2100. We will then have to move towards negative global emissions, which means we will need to absorb more CO2 than we emit! That is a real challenge, and one that the IPCC identified back in 2007. It doesn’t get enough exposure.

I think very few decision-makers have grasped the real implications of such a goal. At the Copenhagen summit, some even suggested limiting the temperature rise to 1.5°C, even though the IPCC scenario I am talking about—the first scenario, the most demanding—would still leave us just over the 2°C mark by 2100, not under. One thing is certain, though: if we stick to the business-as-usual scenario, we will pass the 2°C limit shortly before 2050.

Q.: So are we expected to stop people breathing and prevent cows from grazing?

J.P.v.Y.: Of course not. But we will need to capture the carbon from big power plants that are still producing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere. And we will need to adopt the kind of proactive approach summed up by the acronym BECCS, which stands for “Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage”. The only known way of achieving that goal on a large scale today is through the use of biomass plants coupled with carbon capture and storage. The organic matter is used to “hold” the CO2; the biomass is burned to provide energy; then the CO2 is captured and sequestered underground.

There are, of course, a whole array of related issues, including how to produce the biomass in a sustainable manner and how to determine the impact on the environment and on food production. BECCS is the theory, on paper. However, we cannot rule out future innovations or other energy sources such as renewables and nuclear. The IPCC refuses to fall into that trap. As I said earlier, our job is to objectively assess the scientific research available around the world, not to make recommendations.

Q.: To come back to Europe, even if it has a relatively small quantitative impact, couldn’t its initiatives still serve as an example or model?

J.P.v.Y.: Yes, but there is still the matter of historical responsibility. All studies show that only part of the planet has been responsible for the large majority of total emissions since 1750. Those who have most enjoyed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution—first England, then Europe, then North America, then other industrialised countries—are not spread evenly around Earth.

That is a fact acknowledged in the principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The historical responsibility of developed countries outweighs that of developing countries. As a result, it falls to the former to “take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

Political science teaches us that any international agreement can only be effective if the vast majority—preferably all—parties at the table perceive the agreement as fair.

The notion of historical responsibility must therefore be explicitly or implicitly taken into account to ensure that the agreement sought at the 2015 summit in Paris can come into effect. Those who have been emitted very little CO2 will refuse to be party to an uneven accord.

Conversely, it is hard to believe that half the world—the developing world—could pretend it is not affected and expect to do whatever it wants on the pretext that it has been responsible for very few emissions in the past. On a sinking ship, you wouldn’t see half of the crew bailing out while the others stand idly by and watch the water pour in.

Q.: Do you think there has been progress in terms of the international consensus on the need to take action?

J.P.v.Y.: People are more aware of the fact that climate change is a problem. That awareness is also widespread. If it weren’t, there would not have been so many heads of state at the Copenhagen conference. The media labelled Copenhagen a failure. I am not saying that it was a huge success—I am not naïve—but there has been one very positive outcome in the decision to set a limit of 2°C for the maximum increase in global temperature. In the past, we would vaguely talk about avoiding any dangerous anthropogenic interference. It has taken 17 years for a clear decision to emerge. As a result, the IPCC can now explore ways of achieving that target.

Naturally, this must now lead to measures that will have a tangible impact. Since the 1992 Convention, anthropogenic emissions have increased by 50% in 20 years. Contrast that with the fact that we need to get those emissions down to zero in a little over 50 years—then make them negative—if we are to achieve the objectives set by elected officials. Let me reiterate, this is not an IPCC objective, it is the target set by the politicians.

We cannot change everything overnight; but bearing in mind that we are aiming to bring emissions below zero, if levels rise another 30% or 40%, then we will only be widening the rift! The longer levels continue to rise, the lower they will have to be brought below zero, since it is the total emissions that count. The sooner we start lowering emissions, the less drastically they will need to be cut.

Q.: Has the global financial crisis had a negative impact in this regard?

J.P.v.Y.: The financial crisis began at roughly the same time as the Copenhagen conference and undoubtedly put the issue of climate change on the back burner, so to speak. Nowadays, politicians have a lot of short-term priorities, which means the more-long-term problems, such as climate change, have been somewhat overshadowed.

Don’t forget, every tonne added to unchecked emissions leads to a rise in temperature. Every year we fail to tackle the problem makes the solution even tougher. We are running out of room to manoeuvre.

Q.: Who are the key players in the fight against climate change? Countries? International organisations? Citizens? Companies?

J.P.v.Y.: The big question is: “Are we moving swiftly enough towards the goal?” But, yes, of course, that does involve determining who “we” are.

International organisations—let’s say the “United Nations machinery”—is vital in tackling such a global problem. Without international agreement, with only sporadic efforts here and there, we will never be able to implement initiatives on the kind of scale needed to have sufficient impact.

The seven billion people on the planet—soon to be nine or ten billion—all have a share of the responsibility to a certain extent. However, as the 1992 UN Framework Convention acknowledges, although there are common responsibilities, they are differentiated according to when the various parties began to take up the tools of the Industrial Revolution.

I must also underscore the role of companies. There comes a point when citizens cannot be expected to build cities that no longer require heating, or to go and scoop CO2 from the atmosphere with a teaspoon! We need machines, heavy equipment and investments. That means we need companies, large and small.

For nearly 20 years, I have chaired the Energy & Climate working group for Belgium’s Federal Council for Sustainable Development, which comprises representatives from across the board. I have been working with industry for a long time.

Those in industry really loathe uncertainty, and especially unexpected rule changes. They are willing to invest but only if they are given a clear, stable framework—even if that framework changes over time. For instance, we could announce more stringent standards in the next 25 years. Provided things are made clear in advance, industry can do its sums.

Industry also hates an uneven playing field. If manufacturers are required to respect a rule, they expect their main competitors to be made to do the same.

We must take these two expectations into account and set far-reaching targets. Many manufacturers are willing to say: “Tomorrow, I will sell you cars and machines that reduce emissions, but don’t change the rules on me every six months and make sure there is a level playing field.”

Q.: All of these efforts have a financial impact. What is the cost of combating global warming? And what is the price of inaction?

J.P.v.Y.: In its 2007 report, the IPCC calculated the cost of measures to be taken by 2030, and even by 2050. Those costs are not enormous: they correspond to slowing average annual global GDP growth by some 0.12 percentage points. They are quite easy to calculate: we know how much it costs to build a zero-energy home, to renovate ageing homes, to replace outdated bulbs with LEDs and to develop public transport.

In contrast, it is extremely hard to assess the potential global cost of doing nothing; the price of inaction. What will come of climate change and other anthropogenic impacts? The IPCC will attempt to provide a clearer answer to this question in the other parts of its Fifth Assessment Report, which are due for release in March and April, but that is no easy task.

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