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Climate Change

“Even poorest countries must cut carbon emissions”

by Dirk Messner
The latest data show that earth’s climate is changing even faster than experts previously assumed. Dirk Messner of the German Advisory Council on Global Change explains the trends and their political implications. [ Interview with Dirk Messner ]

Why do you say that climate protection is even more urgent than generally understood?
The latest scientific findings show that the greenhouse effect is stronger than previously assumed. All statistics are near the dangerous top end of the scenarios the International Panel on Climate Change caused a commotion with in 2007. In other words, the danger is indeed greater than previously assumed.

What are the reasons?
In view of recent data, we have to reconsider four factors:
– The ability of carbon sinks to absorb carbon dioxide is weaker than expected. Forests and oceans, in particular, are absorbing less CO2 than they used to.
– Permafrost is melting faster than expected; as a result, methane – itself a powerful greenhouse gas – is being released in greater amounts.
– The polar caps and glaciers everywhere are melting faster than predicted; and their ice serves as a mirror, reflecting sunrays back into space.
– The fourth factor is related to this phenomenon, and somewhat paradoxical. The atmosphere is also absorbing more solar energy because air pollution is being successfully reduced, especially in Asia. As a result, there is less smog that reflects sunlight into space.

All summed up, it will be a tremendous effort to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. And that is the threshold scientists believe is the tolerance limit.

So what do we do?
We know that humankind must not emit more than 1750 gigatons of greenhouse gases in the first half of this century if we are to remain within that two-degree limit, and one third of that volume has already been blown into the air in this decade. Time is running out, and the longer it will take us to reach the peak of global emissions, the tougher our agenda will be afterwards. For instance, if we were to reach the turning point next year, emissions would only have to be reduced by two percent per year worldwide from then on. Achieving that would be relatively easy. However, it is not feasible to stop global emissions from rising so soon. If we only reach the peak in 2020, emissions will have to drop by six percent every year until 2050. In human history, progress in terms of efficiency has never been sustained at that rate over the long run. An ambitious, but still realistic aspiration would be to reduce emissions by 3.6 % per year. That means we would have to achieve the turnaround as early as 2015.

Are you saying we might as well forget about the two-degrees limit because we will not reach it anyway?
No, we must not give up that goal. Otherwise, change will be completely chaotic, and it will become impossible to solve the resulting problems. On the other hand, I do believe that risk prevention should not be based on the assumption that everything will work out as hoped. If governments are to get a grip on severe effects, they must start considering a world that is four degrees warmer, instead of taking for granted that the two-degrees limit will never be exceeded.

If climate protection has to be stepped up even more, poor countries must probably start preparing for a low-carbon world too.
Exactly, business as usual is no longer an option, not even for least-developed countries. Even poor countries must prepare for a low-carbon world. For that purpose, they need strategies, funds and international partnership. We are not just talking about giants like China, India or Brazil. The fight against global warming will not be won unless economically less potent countries engage in climate protection too. That applies to Vietnam and Ghana, and even to Bolivia and Mali. All development strategies will have to be low-carbon strategies, starting right now. In German development circles, that is already understood, but we are not yet practicing what we preach.

Do you have any figures about how fast technological change will have to be implemented?
McKinsey, a consulting firm business circles hold in high esteem, has come up with some calculations. For the two-degrees goal is to be met, according to the McKinsey data, the industrialised economies must use state-of-the-art technology 90 % of the time in all industries from now on. McKinsey argues that developing countries will have to do so from 2015 on, and that, until then, they must use the most modern equipment 30 % of the time. We must rise to a massive, global challenge.

Do forests matter?
Yes, they do. Forest and land-use policies make up about a quarter to a third of the overall problem. Forest-rich countries – think of Brazil, Indonesia, Congo or Cameroon for instance – sorely need to consider environmental impacts in their forest management. Again, donor nations will have to help out; after all, they are the ones who have mainly caused the greenhouse effect.

Lower production always goes hand-in-hand with lower energy and resource use. Will the current global economic crisis at least help slow down climate change a bit?
I wouldn’t bank on it. For us to reach the two-degrees target, global production would have to drop by 50 % worldwide – and in the long run. That is impossible, and the effects would be devastating. The social unrest would be immense. The keys to success lie in energy efficiency, conservation of resources and more prudent lifestyles.

I wasn't suggesting to cut economic production in order to combat climate change. But doesn’t the global slump mean we have a little more time?
The economic crisis is certainly slowing down climate change a bit – but only a bit. However, we also know that economic hardship normally tends to slow efforts to protect the environment. Japan’s decade of stagnation was a telling example: regulations were loosened and energy prices lowered for companies to get going again. If such policies were adopted all over the world, the climate problems would only worsen. This is plainly not an option.