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meet 2°C global warming target if we act fast
Hoesung Lee was elected chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change just one month before the landmark Paris climate talks
The agreement that emerged from that meeting committed the world’s
governments to keeping global warming below 2°C, with an aspiration of
a 1.5℃ temperature limit.
As the race accelerates for individual countries to ratify the Paris
agreement, and hence bring it into effect, Lee and the IPCC have been
charged with assessing the science behind the 1.5°C goal.
At this crucial point for climate action worldwide, we asked eight
scholars from around the world – some of them previous IPCC authors –
to put their questions to the world’s most important climate
In a wide-ranging conversation, Lee talks about how to get more
scientists from the Global South involved in the work of the IPCC, what
we do and don’t know about climate change, and how the world can meet
its ambitious warming targets.
Sandrine Maljean-Dubois, Université Aix-Marseille:
The objective of the Paris Agreement was to keep global temperature to
“well below 2°C”. Is this still attainable? And what about limiting
temperature rise to 1.5°C?
Yes, 2°C is still attainable, if the world acts fast. The IPCC’s last
comprehensive assessment established a carbon budget for 2ºC and higher
ranges. It also found that to have a two in three chance of holding
warming to 2ºC, it would be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by 40-70% by 2050 compared to 2010, and to net zero by the
end of the century.
The longer this is delayed, the harder and costlier it will be to
Governments have now set an aspirational target of holding warming to
1.5ºC. That is why they asked the Climate Panel to prepare a report on
the impacts of 1.5ºC warming and related emissions pathways to take us
there. We have started the preparations, and the report will be
delivered in 2018.
Ina Islam, Independent University of Bangladesh: What
measures would you recommend governments and relevant institutions take
to allow women to play their critical role in meeting the many
challenges associated with climate change?
The vulnerable are often the most exposed to climate change and, in
many societies, women are among the vulnerable groups.
The IPCC found in its special report on managing the risks of extreme
events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation that social,
economic and environmental sustainability can be enhanced by disaster
risk management and adaptation approaches.
A prerequisite for sustainability in the context of climate change is
addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability, including the
structural inequalities that create and sustain poverty and constrain
access to resources.
But I should make it clear that the IPCC doesn’t make recommendations.
What we do is assess the scientific literature relevant to climate
change to inform policymakers about the state of knowledge on these
issues. That might include laying out policy options arising from the
literature, but we wouldn’t make our own recommendations.
Joyashree Roy, Jadavpur University: National leaders
in Paris committed to keeping emissions to below 2°C to reduce the
vulnerability of their citizens, but many were also vocal about
expanding economic activities to keep those same people employed, and
with higher standards of living. What gives you hope that economic
growth ambitions, higher standards of living, and climate stabilisation
can all be delivered?
Our last assessment report found that the integration of adaptation
and mitigation into planning and decision-making can create synergies
with sustainable development.
Article two of the Paris agreement aims to strengthen the global
response to the threat of climate change in the context of sustainable
development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
We know that climate change responses can reinforce development, for
instance through co-benefits – the additional advantages that come with
actions to control climate change. To put co-benefits into perspective,
a recent World Bank study found that air pollution deaths cost the
global economy US$5 trillion annually, with 5.5 million lives lost to
related diseases in 2013.
In our last report, the IPCC started to get a sense of the economics
of the response to climate change. But it would be misleading simply to
contrast a supposed “business as usual” involving continuing growth for
years with the costs of ambitious mitigation.
Business will be far from usual in a world of four, five or six
degrees of warming. It is hard to envisage such a world, and the
related costs. But a decarbonised economy will provide new jobs and
opportunities as green technology develops. According to the
International Renewable Energy Agency, renewable energy excluding large
hydropower now employs 8.1 million people, up 5% from a year ago.
So one of the key tasks for our next assessment will be to understand
not only the costs of responding to climate change, but the benefits of
new opportunities and the costs of inaction and ignored
Chukwumerije Okereke, University of Reading: Many in
developing countries, especially those in rural communities, have
complained that they do not get sufficient information about the IPCC’s
assessments and the implications for their livelihood. Does the chair
have any concrete plans to make the output of IPCC assessments more
widely available to the world’s poor?
This is a very important question. One of the best ways we can tackle
it is by getting scientists from developing countries more closely
involved in our work. We are looking at various ways to enhance the
participation of developing countries in the work of the IPCC.
We also have an outreach programme where we bring authors from the
IPCC to different countries to present our findings, and work with
policymakers, scientists and other local stakeholders. The emphasis is
on developing countries, and we have covered most regions in the world.
We hope to get to West Africa next year.
But there are limits to what we can do with our own very limited
resources. We therefore rely on third parties to act as multipliers,
spreading information about the IPCC. We are looking at ways of working
with some of those people who produce reports based on our assessments
that target particular audiences in different countries, to help ensure
We would greatly welcome advice and suggestions on how we can reach
more people in developing countries.
Shobhakar Dhakal, Asian Institute of Technology:
Science is loud and clear on global climate change. Yet our knowledge
of risks and solutions of climate change at the local level – in the
cities, regions and nations where actions must take place – are weak.
How can a global organisation such as the IPCC address locally relevant
climate change science and action?
You’ve raised an issue we are well aware of at the IPCC. Governments
want the panel to pay special attention to regional questions in our
next assessment. After all, local impacts are most relevant to policy
makers. We will do so, but exactly how will be determined when the
panel scopes the outlines and structure of the report early next
With more than half the world’s population living in urban areas, we
know that cities offer particular challenges and opportunities for
mitigation and adaptation. In our last comprehensive assessment, we
introduced dedicated chapters on urban areas and human settlements, but
we can increase this focus.
So in the assessment cycle starting in 2023, the panel will produce a
special report on climate change and cities. To encourage research on
this topic, we have proposed to co-sponsor an international conference
on climate change and cities in 2018. We will also pay special
attention to this topic in our next assessment.
Cities have a crucial role to play – but we don’t know enough about
them yet. Aly Song/Reuters
Michel Damian, Université Grenoble Alpes: In 2015,
you wrote: “The focus on solutions will be a major component of my
tenure at the IPCC”. Does this focus on “solutions” represent a major
reorientation of the work of the IPCC?
It’s a change in emphasis rather than a major reorientation. The IPCC
has always looked at solutions – our Working Group II considers
adaptation, and Working Group III is devoted to the mitigation of
There is plenty more to learn about climate science, especially
impacts at the regional level. But with our last comprehensive
assessment, the basic facts of climate change are now well understood.
The Paris agreement drew on the findings of that report.
With the agreement now in place, it’s natural that policymakers turn
to implementation, hence an increased interest in solutions. For that
reason, the panel will be turning increasingly to social science,
political science, economics and similar disciplines in our next
Angelina Davydova, St Petersburg State University:
How can we attract more scientists from the Global South to work with
the IPCC on further Assessment Reports?
This is a priority for us, and we are looking at different ways to
facilitate this. One thing we already do is when we hold an outreach
activity in a country, we always include a session with young
scientists, where IPCC authors and the scientific leadership explain to
them what is involved in working as an author on an assessment.
Another step we have just taken is to develop a library facility with
the help of UN Environment, to give our authors access to the relevant
Joice Ferreira, Federal University of Pará: The Amazon
rainforest is facing alarming threats from deforestation and climate
change. As an ecologist working in the Brazilian Amazon, I would like
to know where you think the scientific community needs to most urgently
prioritise its efforts to strengthen understanding of the critical role
that this, and other major biomes play in shaping the Earth’s future
There were a number of research and knowledge gaps identified in our
last report. The incorporation of interactive components of the carbon
cycle – including terrestrial and oceanic sources and sinks – into
analyses and models is a growing need.
The fifth assessment report also identified a substantial gap in the
literature on how climate change may affect the food system beyond
production, such as food availability, quality, and food stability.
Indeed, we have learned more (and with greater confidence) about the
impact of climate changes on food production – crop yields, fisheries
and livestock – but we know comparatively little about how climate
change will affect the post-harvest stages. Since global food
production is the result of hundreds of millions of farming households
responding to diverse economic incentives, estimating the long-run
implications remains difficult, but critical to identifying potential
Increasing efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change will
involve increasingly complex interactions, particularly at the
intersection of water, energy, land use and biodiversity. But tools to
understand and manage these interactions remain limited. Though there
has been an increased focus on policies to integrate multiple
objectives, increase co-benefits and reduce adverse side effects, the
analytical and empirical underpinnings of many of the interactive
effects are under-developed.
Regional aspects are very important, especially for extreme events,
yet some major data gaps in observations have been identified in
Africa, South America and Asia, as well as for complex topographies and
major river basins. The overall perspective from the latest adaptation
report is that producing the required regional climate information for
those who need it is still an ambitious target. Until we produce
scale-relevant information to inform decisions, science will have
minimal immediate value to society.
Ecologists and economists need to collaborate closely to improve data
and methodology for estimating the economic value of ecosystem
services. This will help improve our understanding of climate damage
and facilitate investment for sustainable development.
The article was originaly published in The Conversation at this