More drastic than ever before, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has revealed in its new report, issued in early August 2021, how devastating the situation is for our planet. Global warming can now be felt in every region of the earth. Heat waves, drought and torrential rain are just three of its many effects and are set to occur more frequently. That climate-change is an exclusively man-made phenomenon is a fact on which there is no more room for doubt. It also means that man is equally capable of slowing climate change down. Professor Hans-Otto Poertner, climate researcher and member of the IPCC, speaks plainly.
Professor Poertner, the alarm bells are ringing louder than ever. You assisted the latest IPCC report – what do we have to change now?
There's simply no alternative to the Paris climate accord. To implement it, the world community has to embark immediately on an ambitious reduction of emissions and make eco-systems more resistant at the same time. To stabilize our climate in the long term we need healthy eco-systems and the preservation of biodiversity. Eco-systems that have already suffered should be given the chance to start regenerating now. In concrete terms, that means re-foresting, cleaning up our oceans, and greening our towns and cities. In my opinion, anyone who still thinks that climate change doesn't have to concern them is acting criminally.
What do you expect from industry and policy-makers?
Policy-makers are still far too hesitant and cling to the status-quo. Other players could act, given the right conditions. And industry could then take as active a role as other players in protecting the climate. In contrast to policy-makers in fact, industry is often waiting in the starting-blocks. CO2-neutral technologies are taking initial shape. Now the right policies are needed to create the necessary infrastructure.
In climate change, I see some parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic: who says that we won't need to go into a climate lockdown at some point if we don't achieve climate reversal quickly enough? That would mean ceasing all activity that causes high emissions. The time scales involved would be much longer than for Covid. That's something we have to be clear about! But obviously, it's much better to seek alternatives.
What can each of us do? Can one person make any difference at all?
Each and every one of us can make a difference and has to change the way they think: we need to change our whole way of life – from the way we get about to the way we eat. That means, for example, reducing meat consumption by about 80% which will benefit the environment by reducing the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated in agriculture. That will make land available for healthy ecosystems and sustainable, healthy foodstuffs. We must give primacy to the scientific basis of climate change and let it guide our actions. That's what people have to get into their heads.
When did you realize that the report would be much more dramatic than generally expected?
The statements the report makes are nothing new – but there is greater certainty surrounding them. And now climate change is being basically acknowledged to a greater extent. The extreme weather events we are witnessing at the moment have raised awareness among the wider population. And such events are going to become even more extreme.
How can we achieve such a fundamental turnaround?
Various possibilities are now open: Lufthansa passengers, for example, could opt for synthetic kerosene when booking their flight tickets. Now that's going to be much more expensive – and to get people doing that, structural changes will be needed to make living ecologically worthwhile, by offsetting, for example: whoever spends more to protect the climate in one area should be rewarded in another.
Can we obtain sufficient energy from renewables in Europe to manufacture synthetic fuels for the need there?
There are several ways of making energy from renewables. The problem still lies with inadequate transport and storage facilities. We could achieve turnarounds in many things more quickly if we could build up an energy surplus from renewables. International cooperation is very important here – with global cooperation and synergies, faster progress could be made worldwide. International compensation will also play a decisive role.
How can we make the energy supply greener?
Hydrogen is currently in the spotlight for the future because it will allow us to wind down our reliance on fossil fuels. But to make it we need surplus energies from renewables. Apart from wind, solar energy has a major role to play here and we should install as many solar panels on as many roofs as possible. Hydrogen can also be exported from sun-rich countries. And there are many other sources of energy that remain to be exploited such as ocean currents. In the future, we have to make the most of all these possibilities, but in a way that is gentle on eco-systems.
Given the alarming facts named in the new report, are there any reasons for optimism?
It's pleasing to see people's growing awareness of the need for climate protection. The current report, combined with the previous reports, clearly highlights were action is needed. If we're ambitious now, the goals are still achievable. That's the good news. It all depends on the will of society, and above all on our political will!
Mr. Poertner, many thanks for the interview!