Johan Rockström interview | Planetary boundaries, 'negative emissions', mitigation models & fairness

Johan Rockström interview | Planetary boundaries, 'negative emissions', mitigation models & fairness

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[Kevin] I'm here today with Professor Johan Rockström, and he is the joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. And I think it's fair to say that, Johan, you're most well known for your work on - with other colleagues - on planetary boundaries, and indeed some other issues around Earth system feedbacks, which we'll come back to later. But most significantly around planetary boundaries.

And one of the nine planetary boundaries, of course, is climate change. So the focus today is going to be primarily on that boundary, on the climate change one. But really rather than addressing the broader sort of science issues, we want to try and bring this towards delivering on our Paris Agreement. So it's more about mitigation... how does your work help us understand the challenges that we're facing, in terms of reducing emissions? So I wonder if you could start by outlining as succinctly as you can the concept of planetary boundaries.

Because I think for some people it'll be quite a new concept. For others it'll be hopefully something they're quite familiar with now. [Johan] Yeah. Thanks and great to be with you here on this talk. The plantery boundary science originates from three strands of scientific advancement over the past 30 years. And the most important one is that we have overwhelming evidence that we've entered a whole new geological epoch - the Anthropocene.

So we're putting human pressures at the planetary scale. And we're hitting the ceiling of hard-wired processes that regulate the functioning of the whole earth system. So out of that, and the science showing more and more evidence that systems that regulate the state of the planet have multiple stable states separated by tipping points. Which means that, push them too far, and they will irreversibly shift towards a state that not only has a lesser chance of delivering and supporting human well-being, but also a lesser chance of stable regulation of the planetary system. You put this together and two questions arise, which is basically the planetary boundary framework. Which is, what are the big biophysical systems that regulate the state of the planet? And can we, for each of these, once we've identified the system that regulates the state of the Earth System, define scientifically ... first identify a control variable ...

and then quantify scientifically the boundary position, that if you go beyond it, you risk causing negative trends that can push the Earth System away from a state that can support human well-being. But stay within them, and we have a high chance of having a safe operating space for world development on a stable planet. And the missing piece, scientifically to do this, is that we need a reference of the desired plane. And scientifically, we have that today. because there's so much proof that the Holocene - the geological epoch that we're now leaving, the last 12,000 years - is not only remarkably stable, but also the state that enabled us to go from hunters and gatherers to sedentary farmers and develop civilization as we know it. So basically, the planetary boundary framework is there to scientifically define a safe operating space for the systems that regulate the state of the planet.

To stay as close as possible to a Holocene-like state of the planet. And we've identified nine planetary boundary systems. That's quite interesting, because, you know, you could have thought of having 50+ environmental indicators. Or, you know, like the Sustainable Development Goals, with their 170 or so targets.

But however we twist and turn this, inviting all Earth system science disciplines and lifting turning all stones, we come down to nine [planetary boundaries]. And this has been published in 2009 and scrutinized and debated and updated in 2015. And I would argue today it's quite well recognized that we can manage these nine, which of course the climate then being one, but the stratospheric ozone layer and ocean stability being two additional global systems. But importantly, the biosphere boundaries of biodiversity, freshwater, land system change, and nutrient loading (nitrogen and phosphorus) are also part of regulating the state of the planet.

And then the two, what I sometimes call the aliens, because we've created them entirely as humans – chemical pollution and aerosol loading. Mainly all air pollutants. And together these nine form the planetary boundaries. And the scientific quest is to get the right quantifications. And we use tipping point science to help inform this – to stay away from tipping points. That's why tipping point science is so coupled to planetry boundary research. And we've now ... you know in 2015 we were able to quantify seven of the nine.

It's a continuous work to improve and update the quantifications. The more we advance our science the more we learn. But now I can share that we are in a review phase, with the third scientific update.

But we're finally able to quantify all the nine [planetary boundaries] for the first time. So this is actually ongoing research. It's not as if we just have it already. But the nine, I would say today, are quite well established. And that is very helpful, I think, to guide us on a pathway towards a more sustainable future. [KEVIN] Okay well that leaves me asking some... or thinking of some really significant questions there.

Because in a previous interview that you gave, the impression I got – and it wasn't really from you, I think it was a misunderstanding, in my view, of how the interviewer interpreted what you were saying – was that a lot of these tipping elements and tipping points were centuries away from today. So is it reasonable to think that, based on your work, some of these big tipping point issues could occur earlier than centuries away from today? Is that a reasonable conclusion? Or am I overplaying that? [JOHAN] No, I would fully agree. I would even say that it is definitely a misinterpretation from that interview. We published a paper just six months back, where we for the first time went through all the climate tipping elements. We so far have identified sixteen climate tipping element systems. These are the big systems that fulfil two criteria.

One is that we have scientific evidence that they contribute to regulate the state of the climate system. And secondly, we also have evidence that they have multiple stable states separated by tipping points. So if you change feedback dynamics in these systems, they can be pushed from one state that generally has negative feedbacks dominating, which dampen and cool the planet, – which helps us in this situation where we're emitting more greenhouse gases – where they tip over to become self-amplifying systems that add more heat. And in this latest assessment we show that four of these sixteen are likely to cross their thresholds or their tipping points already at 1.5 degrees Celsius. And 1.5 degrees Celsius of global mean surface temperature rise is a point that we're likely now to reach already by the 2030s,

with the pace of emissions we are on today. So certainly, not [a] century away. What happens, of course, and that is important to recognise, that the moment you cross a tipping point does not mean that you fall off some form of escarpment.

But the changes become ... the feedback changes direction. And the system goes from cooling and dampening to warming and self-amplifying. And it's irreversible. And among these four that are likely to cross tipping points, we have the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, all tropical coral reef systems. But also the boreal permafrost systems – an abrupt thawing of boreal permafrost.

All of these are associated with risks of amplified warming if we cross the thresholds. But there are also massive, massive impacts on human communities across the world. Just the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet together represent ten metres additional sea level rise. So this is big, and it's certainly not ... I mean it's centuries away before we have 10 metres sea level rise. But it would be ... the commitment would occur within the next decade or two, depending on the climate forcing we cause.

So I would say that it is much, much earlier in terms of the need to integrate tipping point evidence into the global carbon budgets. It has to happen now, not not pushing it into the future. And you're absolutely right, I'm also deeply concerned by the fact that the IPCC is not integrating yet tipping point risks into their global climate models, So the global carbon budget, which I agree is minuscule today. I mean, some 300 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide divided by the 40 that we emit per year gives us some 7.5 years remaining on current pace of burning fossil fuel.

So it's basically... by the end of this decade we've already committed ourselves to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But this still being a very optimistic budget, because it has essentially no tipping points inbuilt into the assessment. But it's more than that, as you know, because the models also assume that the ocean and all ecosystems on land will just continue to absorb roughly 50 percent of our emissions.

So, no tipping points and assumed continued stability in the biosphere. So it's basically saying that all the planetary boundaries on biodiversity, land, fresh water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and oceans will remain on the right side of the boundary. And unfortunately our assessment shows that that's not the case. We're actually outside of the safe space on the biosphere boundaries. So we are in this very delicate situation that, when we need a healthy and resilient planet more than ever, because of the climate stress, we have a weaker planet than ever. And that's not a good position to be in. [KEVIN] No, and I think, unfortunately I think it's one that is not common in the dialogue, even amongst a lot of the expert community.

[JOHAN] I agree. [KEVIN] So I think we need to do that. Coming back to these tipping elements, let's call them that You can easily see ten metres in centuries from today. Some of the people I've spoken to,

the experts on sea level rise, they say privately, and sometimes even publicly, that there's still a significant risk we should see a metre, a metre and a half, by the end of this century. [JOHAN] Oh yes. [KEVIN] Because quite a lot of that is from Greenland, my understanding is that quite a lot of that warming – because of the changes... if you like, in the gravitational patterns of the planet, as you melt the water ... melt the ice on Greenland and spread that amongst the oceans around the planet. But actually that sea level rise isn't evenly spread. Actually it significantly impacts the southern hemisphere. So, although that may not be a tipping point, those impacts then – and indeed the impacts we're already seeing today at 1.2[°C] –

are incredibly serious for many communities around the world. So I think we need to escape this sort of language that centuries from now we will be seeing these really big sets of impacts. We're seeing some of them to major communities now. Typically poor, more vulnerable, climate vulnerable communities. They're playing out now in other parts of the world as well.

And it does appear that, when you talk to quite a lot of the people who work in specific areas that relate to some of these tipping points, that they're anticipating... let's be careful about that language here... There's a risk of more severe impacts, even in quite short time frames, like 2100, than, say, for the orthodox view, which is much more conservative and puts it a lot further, beyond... behind that. Is that a reasonable interpretation? [JOHAN] Absolutely. I mean in the latest IPCC assessment

the sea level rise, you know, range is between 60 centimetres and 100 centimetres, on the average level. But it still recognizes, even in the IPCC, that we cannot exclude going above 100 centimetres. And I'm totally with you here, that there's a risk that we're underestimating the pace. If we cross a tipping point on the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, what happens then is, of course, that the rate of sea level rise, that the annual increase, may significantly increase. Which means that we may follow a path that takes us to 1.5 – 2 metre sea level rise within... over the next 80 years. And that would be a very, very serious... you know it's already serious today, the pace of sea level rise.

But it would make it even more damaging and potentially catastrophic for, particularly, the most vulnerable low-lying island states and coastal zones, for example Bangladesh. And remembering that the sea level rise in itself... I mean we've so far raised the sea level globally with roughly 25 centimetres. And that may sound like a small number, but it isn't a small number when you add a storm surge.

Because that's when you get much more massive erosion. And you're seeing that already today: a rapid increase in erosion of coastal areas in low-lying island states. Because you get this combination of sea levels rising, more intensive storms, and the erosion of land areas increases. So it's a much more sensitive... it's a much more damaging and serious risk than we often anticipate... or than we often discuss.

And adding the tipping point risk, which then, again, coming back to my point earlier, that we have so far also had a lot of uncertainty of when we cross the tipping points on the big ice sheets. But more and more signs show that the temperature [of the tipping point] is going down, the more we learn of how these ice sheets function. And what worries me a lot, which is really outside of the IPCC, is that our latest science at the Potsdam Institute shows that the Greenland Ice Sheet is connected to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet over the ocean circulation of heat. And that the whole AMOC, the North Atlantic overturning of heat, is slowing down because of the release of cold fresh water from the Greenland Ice Sheet. And when that slows down it locks in more warm surface water, saline surface water, in the Southern Ocean.

Which can explain why Antarctica is melting more rapidly than predicted. So you have this cascading potential knock-on effect, between the ice sheets even. And, of course, these are not represented in the models, they're not in the global carbon budget estimates, they're not in the IPCC. But we see more and more empirical work in ocean dynamics indicating this. So we may be in for some surprise also, which we hadn't even scientifically counted on just a few years back.

So I think your point about precaution is so valid today. I mean it's like... I would even argue that, if you look at the broader scheme of things, the easiest thing we can do is to phase out fossil fuels And we should just do it as fast as we ever can, because there are so many uncertain factors on soil carbon, ocean carbon, ocean heat, ice melt, biodiversity loss, biome tipping points. I mean the Amazon Rainforest on the Brazilian side has now, in several scientific papers, shown to have already tipped from sink to source.

I mean, the richest biome on land is no longer helping us. It was a massive carbon sink but now, because of droughts, forest fires and deforestation, it's actually a net source. These are... it's not a collapse, but it's a warning sign. It's a very important warning sign. [KEVIN] And then we've got places like the Congo which we're still trying to get the data for. [JOHAN] We don't have the data, exactly. And we see signs in the Canadian temperate forest, the Finnish forest... I mean Finland is the world's per capita richest forest. There's no country that has such a dense forest in relation to its national area.

And the Finnish EPA, just a month back, came out with this dramatic data showing that the Finnish forest is no longer a net sink. And the Finnish parliament has even used the forest as part of their carbon neutrality pathway. And they can basically not count on it anymore. And we don't even know why this is happening, because it's complicated. It's probably bark beetle disease outbreaks, combined with droughts and forest fires, with unsustainable logging and temperature rise. So there's a whole...

I mean, we don't know if it's at saturation point in terms of carbon uptake. I mean, what people generally don't recognize is that forest across the planet has responded in a tremendously helpful way by absorbing roughly 25% of carbon dioxide from our fossil fuel burning. And we generally talk about this as a positive. "Isn't that fantastic!" But, in reality, it's a stress response. A healthy planet in equilibrium takes up as much carbon dioxide in the photosynthesis as it releases through respiration. So it's a zero-sum game. So that we have a net uptake is because we're causing this stress. So it's not so surprising that, you know, when you knock the system hard you come to a point where the system can take no more pressure.

We don't know the answer yet. I mean, this is very frustrating that the research does not really... you know, how... What's the buffering capacity in the world forest systems? How much can it take? But we know that the temperate forests are growing faster than ever before, because of the CO2 fertilization effect. Which, again, we often talk of wrongly as a positive.

We even talk sometimes wrongly positive that the oceans are taking up carbon dioxide. Oh my God, I mean it's causing ocean acidification, basically ruining all biological life in the ocean, because carbon dioxide makes the whole ocean more acidic, breaking up calcium carbonate, which is the the LEGO block for all calcareous species. [KEVIN] This is one of my concerns here. As I understand it, that the... Most of the IPCC scenarios, they assume that these beneficial – you know, "beneficial" – buffering capacities will remain roughly as they are today.

And yet really, when you think about it, we've only really started to emit emissions at a significant level since the 1950s. A little bit before that, but significantly since the 1950s. And we can already observe, in what is the smallest of timelines – 1950s to today – these significant sets of impacts. And yet, when we do the models for what's happening over the next 60, 70, 100 or more years, we seem to assume that that buffering capacity remains. Even though, within those same models, we're assuming lots more emissions. And that seems quite a dangerous assumption to have, as a single assumption.

If you were playing out different levels of buffering, if you like. You imagine the buffering significantly reducing – what would that mean? I think then we get a better picture, a better range of possible outcomes, all of which, or at least many of which, would look much worse than we are today. And so I think we... There's a sense that very good scientists, coming together through the IPCC, develop what are innately very conservative outputs and scenarios. And that's not... I don't really say we should blame them. I don't think so. But I think ... it is incumbent on those of us who use that data to be aware of this. You need to be a discerning user of it.

It also does play into the hands of those who are more ... or less scrupulous, let's put it like that ... who want to make out that we have a lot more capacity for carrying on business as usual. Maybe a slightly greened business as usual. So I think there is a risk that if we in the scientific community don't speak out more openly and clearly about our work, with all the uncertainties – so being honest and clear about it – then I think there's a risk that a lot of the powers in society push on with business as usual.

And then we lock ourselves into the awful things that you're talking talking about, that feed into these wider sets of concerns that are beyond climate change. So that's that's a concern I have. But it's not a direct criticism of the science here, well it's not a direct criticism of the science at all. It is a request, I suppose, for scientists to be a little bit clearer about the quite conservative processes that we inevitably do in science.

[JOHAN] No, I fully agree. I mean I try to, as often as I can, make clear that the IPCC is like the floor we're standing on. It is the consensus across the entire scientific community. Of course it's conservative and it's several years behind the frontier, the cutting edge of science. But it's also the minimum common denominator, so of course it is conservative.

And it is a deep concern that... You know one should also recognize that what the IPCC community has done in the 1.5 degree Celsius report is basically to say, look here, we've been asked to run scenarios that can take us to 1.5. So and then we try to give the most ambitious mitigation pathway ever possible. And then the results show that, "oh my God, that won't take us to 1.5".

So we need to add additional elements. And one element is to assume that nature will just continue to be perfectly stable. And then the oceans will be perfectly stable. And then the agricultural system in the world will magically just go from source to sink, which is also built into the models. There is no 1.5 degrees Celsius model that, you know, takes us there without assuming that agriculture will go from today emitting 25% of the emissions to magically start to become a sink.

And then on top of that, the issues that you often talk about – massively optimistic assumptions on Negative Emission Technologies. So all of these are necessary wedges to add to have a chance of delivering 1.5, if you assume, what I think my IPCC colleagues would call an orderly phase out of the fossil fuel economy.

But, of course, I would like to turn that around to say, well let's take an Earth system perspective on this, and just look at the tipping points, the buffering capacities, how the planetary boundaries are doing, and build it up from that perspective. And then you end up with the result that shows that the budget is gone. There's simply nothing left for the fossil fuel driven economy anymore. That of course ... You cannot shut down the world. I mean, we almost tried during the pandemic and it's not a good outcome.

So it has to be an orderly phase out. But it would help us to recognize that this is serious. And this has to follow a pace that that is... You know... reaching zero by 2050 won't take us there. We have to go even faster. But also show that we have to put investments in safeguarding the resilience in the biosphere, as much as we ever can.

And that is something we're really... We're starting to see it, but it goes much too slowly. And I find that to be perhaps the biggest frustration today, that where we're kind of still focusing in so much only on the energy transition, which is important, but it won't take us to 1.5, or even close to 1.5, on its own. [KEVIN] I take some responsibility for this. My work is on the energy system.

[JOHAN] Yeah but it is really important. [KEVIN] It is ... and I always want to point out that it's just one part of the picture. And it's very – from a carbon point of view – it's a very important part. [JOHAN] It's fundamental. [KEVIN] It's also, if we'd started earlier, probably the easiest part to resolve.

[JOHAN] Exactly. [KEVIN] I mean, if we had genuinely started in 1990 to move away from fossil fuels, we probably would have moved away by now. I think the other... many of the other sort of broader sustainability issues are much more challenging than climate change. But I think the urgency of the climate change brings that to the fore. That we are putting out the emissions at 41 billion tonnes of CO2 a year – 36 billion tonnes from energy. And there's no sign of that changing in the next few years, anyway at the moment.

And so I think the urgency side for 1.5 and 2 degrees Centigrade comes out of... The fact is that we're not doing anything, if we're really blunt about it. We always like to pick... cherry pick examples of where we've been successful. But you put them all together and what you show is emissions just keep rising.

And are still rising – we'll likely be higher this year again than last year. And in fact you're then taking us over to these scenarios about reducing emissions, which actually I was going to come to later. But I think we'll probably go on with that now. You're co-director of PIC. And they do some of the world's... I think there are... is it six main mitigation modelling groups? So I think that's important to make the distinction – mitigation modeling about emission...

looking at what we have to do with our emissions to stay within our Paris commitments, or some other temperature threshold. So it's not about the climate science, it's not the big circulation models. This is about how do we stay within the budgets that the science gives us, if you like. So you head that group. So I want to try to unpick some of the work that's going on there.

Some of the work that, let's be brutally honest about it, I've been quite critical of. Not particularly in relation to PIC, but in general, these big, what are referred to [as] Integrated Assessment Modeling groups. So these are the... I think, is it six of them? [JOHAN] Yeah. So, six main ones. And we... yes you're correct, we have the so-called REMIND model at PIC,

which is one of those larger IAMs that contributed to the working group three of the IPCC. That's right. [KEVIN] And they're all... all those six, as far as I'm aware, they're all in relatively wealthy Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-American, European and one in Japan, I think. So there are none in the Global South, as far as I'm aware? [JOHAN] No. [KEVIN] No. So I think that's something maybe we'll come back to. But I think that's an interesting comment in itself,

that we... when we do something... We often work objectively in deeply subjective boundaries. And our subjective boundaries are the norms that we have. And so if you ask people in the Global North to produce scenarios, we might do that quite objectively, but the boundaries within which our own imagination and psychology and culture let us develop the... You know, they're very limited, very constrained. So I think opening that up would be really positive to get other views of what's feasible. So the other bit I want to get... pull out of this... Well, there are three bits in the integrated assessment models,

and you've touched about... touched on one of these to start off with. This whole sense... sort of concept of carbon dioxide removal. And I find these terms interesting, because now I find myself just... it just trips off my tongue, as if these things really existed. As if you could go out and buy them like a pound of broccoli or something. I mean it just feels like you can go out and get them from the shop.

But then, of course, they're still very much in the imagination of the academics. And there are a few pilot schemes, but they are incredibly small relative to the scale of the challenge. So these carbon dioxide removal schemes – and there's two principal ones that I want us to... well, one that I want to focus on. But there's the nature-based solutions, which I think you've been very clear about in the past.

Is that we can't really use the planting of trees and the use of nature as compensation for fossil fuel emissions. [JOHAN] Exactly. [KEVIN] Is that... that is correct? OK. I think that's really important to get across, because, as far as I'm aware, in a lot of sort of national policies they don't... they're not prepared to accept that distinction, or they're not aware of that important caveat. [JOHAN] No, no exactly. No and you have companies...

You know, there are only voluntary carbon markets for nature-based solutions. And there is this tendency of companies buying carbon credits on the voluntary markets that, you know, represent carbon stores in planted forest – or even preserving natural forest. And then that they can count that against their inability to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, and thereby report that they are doing quite good on mitigation, when in fact they're not accomplishing anything. And often it's just double counting, because these are carbon sinks that the models have already factored in, to be able to give any carbon budget in the first place. But, of course, also it's very... The uncertainty of these carbon sinks is enormous.

Because if that forest burns down, or you know, in fifty years time that carbon may be in the atmosphere again So... they're not persistent and they are often misused. So... but there's a difficulty here, because, on the other hand, we need to invest in nature. We need to really, really invest in keeping the nature carbon sinks intact. But we cannot use them as offsets, that's my point. [KEVIN] No. I always have this sort of language, it's a simple language... We should plant trees for good 'tree reasons' not for 'carbon reasons'. [JOHAN] Exactly.

[KEVIN] I'd almost prefer we take them out of the carbon accountancy framework, and let's think about these things in terms of biodiversity, in terms of the other planetary boundaries, and they will, undoubtedly, give us some carbon benefit. But that should be just, almost like, put to one side. That's not why we do it. But I think there is a risk, as you say, that we put them into the accounting accountancy regime, and then people misuse them. And it's... I think it's actually worse than doing nothing. Because it actually, you know, gives the impression we are making some sort of action, so we don't do other things. So actually, it's quite regressive in doing that. But the other one I want to really explore are these things that we now give the language of 'negative emission technologies'.

Again, these are technologies that really don't exist at scale. There are a few incredibly small pilot schemes out there, that are... most of them are just a few million... even collectively, just a few million tonnes, compared with the 41 billion tonnes that we're emitting. And yet, as far as I'm aware, with very few exceptions, the models rely on these technologies at huge levels at hundreds of billions of tonnes for 1.5 degrees Centigrade, for 2 degrees Centigrade.

And, as I understand it, for a lot of the 2.5 and 3°C scenarios, there's still a huge amount of these negative emissions in those scenarios where the budgets are much bigger. I mean, the impacts are terrible, so we don't want to go there. [JOHAN] No. [KEVIN] But even there, where the budgets are larger, we're still relying on them, because they seem, to me, to allow us to maintain a certain sort of 'business as usual'. And that's really key, that we are playing them out

as a way that allows us to maintain a sort of... a 'greened' business as usual. Or I would use... my language would be a 'green-washed' business as usual. And that seems to be quite common. Well, not common – I would say ubiquitous amongst the outputs from the IAMs. And that's quite a critical view of it. Is that something you would share? Or you would have... do you think I'm overplaying that? [JOHAN] I mean, given where we are today, I would agree with you.

How it plays out in the high temperature scenarios, I'm not sure myself, to be honest. But I think it's as you say – it's not interesting, because we don't want to go there. Because that's just a kind of a disastrous future. But, you know, for the 1.5 pathway, you're absolutely right.

There are something like 110 modelling runs. Now we are back into the global climate modelling runs that can hold the 1.5 [°C] line. So among all the thousands of runs there are very few that actually take us to 1.5. And these are the ones that have very optimistic assumptions on the so-called Shared Socio-economic Pathways. So they talk of very low population growth. They talk of, you know, equity. They talk of food system transformation.

And also assumptions on keeping nature intact. So they have very, very optimistic storylines. But they still cannot achieve 1.5 [°C] without turning up the negative emission technologies. So we've come to a point where we have consumed... We've simply failed so much for such a long time. And just kicking the can down the road for so many decades, that the carbon budget can only exist thanks to assumptions of negative emission technologies.

So I would even say today that, even though I agree with you, because we have no evidence that we can scale it to the level of the 5 to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year that is assumed in the second half of this century. [KEVIN] Which is very similar to the amount the oceans absorb. [JOHAN] Exactly. It's at that scale. So it's just enormous volumes.

But the problem, the reason why I kind of land in a perhaps slightly different conclusion than you, to say that we have no choice but to really communicate that nothing less than this is needed, is that if you take it out, if you just run the models without the negative emission technologies instead, then the pace of decarbonization suddenly flips over from anything realistic to be completely unrealistic. So I've come to the conclusion that, you know, if you look at the emission, let's say the mitigation... What's the highest mitigation pace we can think of in the world economy? Well anything above 2% per year of reductions is what we would normally call 'revolution pace'.

The Green Revolution was increased food yields of rice and maize were two percent per year. 2% per year is non-linear. It's a doubling in one generation. It's big. 2% per year is a really rapid pace. So we're increasing emissions today between 1 and 2% per year. Now, to reduce emissions even in the global model runs we have, with optimistic I mean, overly optimistic negative emission technologies – assume mitigation pathways, as you know, between 5 and 7% per year.

So that is three times revolution pace, at the current modeling runs. If you take away negative emission technologies, you would exceed 10% very rapidly. You would be more the 10 to 15%. I would call that... That's not revolution, that is a complete disruption of the global economy. It's like a pace that is beyond... I mean then you need to bulldoze down coal-fired plants, basically.

You would be in a complete global Marshall Plan. It's a war zone agenda. [KEVIN] Isn't that not... This is what I find interesting here, because you're saying that's what we would be in. But actually, I think, because we haven't spoken like this for a long time, we haven't spoken about that. That is what our choice to fail... and I'm quite careful here about the 'our' in this, and the 'we' – it's a particular group of us. Our choice to fail over the last 30 years has brought us to this position. And a way out of that, a way out of the Marshall Plan, is to say we can have these negative emissions I think we need to say that, okay that's one way out of it – if they work.

Another way out of it is the Marshall Plan. And so we need to open that that dialogue up. but we've... in effect, I think the IAMs have closed that dialogue,. Which is one of the reasons, going back to... It would be interesting to see other parts of the world looking at this, because, I would have a guess, when we say 'that's not feasible', many people elsewhere in the world are saying 'well of course it's feasible, we've been doing... we've been living like that for years!' And other people live good quality of lives in the developing countries as well. It's not as if they're all living terrible lives. There are many good quality lives going on there, with much lower consumption than we have in the... on average in the Global North,

let alone the wealthy of us in the Global North. So I think that, to me, the negative emissions, the way that they have dominated... And it's not just 1.5, because it's 2°C scenarios as well. And for a long time that they've undermined that ... other narrative. And that, the more we continue to use them as – in all of the scenarios, and that's my concern – is the more that we stop us developing other ways of thinking about these issues. So the policy makers don't think about it. It's not a dialogue in the newspapers.

It's not a wider discussion amongst the population. Because, why would it be? Because we, as academics, have actually sidelined that by applying the negative emissions. So I think we have a responsibility in this to open that dialogue up, I suppose. [JOHAN] No, that I agree, too. But... Definitely. But remember that, you know,

again, including negative emission technologies gives us a pace of emission reductions, which is in the order of 5 to 6% per year, which is... Which is so massive, because it has to happen at the global level, that it's, in itself, a challenge equally big as just scaling the negative emission technologies. I agree. But at the same time, remembering that the bulk of that budget must go to the developing countries. [KEVIN] Without a doubt. Yes. [JOHAN] There's no other way. And if you look at the world today, the big pace of increase in emissions is in countries like India.

China is by far the world's largest emitter today. So for an orderly phase out, I think the Marshall Plan option is simply not an option. I think even staying within a carbon budget, which has built-in optimistic assumptions on negative emission technologies, is at least an effort of trying to succeed. But it's still overly optimistic. So all these elements are very optimistic. And then I... We've done kind of a synthesis on negative emission technologies,

together with the Mercator Centre on the Global Commons in Berlin. My co-director at the Potsdam Institue, Ottmar Edenhofer is heading still the Mercator Centre – which is going to be integrated with PIC, by the way, in a few years time. So it will be, kind of, one interdisciplinary, big climate research institute. Now they did a special issue on NETs – negative emission technologies – in the Environmental Research Letters journal a few years back. And, I would say, that that assessment agrees with you in terms of the fact that we're still just at pilot scale.

But it does show that, you know, these basic carbon capture and storage technologies – even direct air capture – they are least not magic technologies. I mean they function, they're quite well established. Actually, CCS has been around for decades. I mean, the oil industry developed it. So, I mean, you know about this. [KEVIN] But that's what I find interesting. It's been around for decades and in 2021, according to the Global CCS Institute, the advocacy body for CCS, it captured seven million tonnes – point-zero-two percent [0.02%]... [JOHAN] I know, but with the right price on carbon you would come to a point where it would be, you know, economically worth to put the money instead of...

[KEVIN] Well, yes, but the... again the Global CCS Institute, and this is in the 2021 report, said that if you... It laid out all the all the plans that it envisaged around the world out to 2030. Now, they never occur exactly as they expect, there's usually less. But let's imagine that they did deliver all of those. And then that they operated in some sort of ideal theoretical fashion. That increases the amount of capture to point-one percent [0.1%] of global emissions by 2030.

So I think the rollout of these technologies – and I think there is a huge difference, as someone who's spent a lot of time, you know, building big bits of kit in the oil industry – the rollout of very large bits of equipment is not just the multiplication of doing it at a small level. There are deep systemic challenges from scaling something up. And we don't know what those challenges are until we start to do it. Which is why, throughout history, major technologies, whether it's power stations or wind turbines, whatever it happens to be, always has to go through some sort of learning curve. So even if you were to push this agenda, which I think we should be.

I mean, I'm not against doing these technologies. I think we should be researching them. Deploy them if they meet broader sustainability... ecological and social sustainability criteria. Let's deploy them. But to deeply rely on them in all of our models is, to me, a systemic bias. And it has stopped us asking other questions. So that's my concern. Not that we shouldn't be considering them. We should be considering them. And we should be really trying to develop them as rapidly as possible, within broader sustainability criteria. But to assume across all the models that they work is, to me, a systemic bias and has undermined the need for us to imagine different ways of resolving these challenges, which I think could have been complementary to those, or could have been some alternatives.

So I think we, as a community here, have not served society well. Because we have closed that debate down. I accept your point that, you know, these incredibly fast reduction rates... and in fact that brings me on to really the next point, because I think we probably agree that these technologies are small and they're probably scalable. We may argue a bit about... they're very likely to be scalable to some degree. We might argue then about how fast you can put them out. And there, I think that that plays back into the tight budget. So I mean they're rolling out technology from seven million tonnes to say even 10 million tonnes. 10 billion tonnes is a... I mean just... in the time frame we have, I think it's simply not viable.

But the next part about this 'we need 5% per annum reduction rates', which is roughly what we need for an outside chance of 1.5 [°C] – and a good chance is nearer 10% per annum. And that's just with the IPCC budgets, without the additional problems when you add your feedbacks. So the next part is this equity dimension. And I think this is, to me, this is another sort of elephant in the room that we... the IAMs, and not just the IAMs, but the broader academic and wider sort of expert community, including the policy makers, including the journalists in this. We haven't opened that box.

And we haven't opened the box in two ways. We haven't opened it within our countries. So 5% per annum is not 5% as an average within the UK or Norway or Sweden or the U.S., including the wealthy countries. Because there's a huge difference in emissions between the wealthy and the average and the median and the mode. So... and I think by pretending we're all in this together, we've undermined 'well what would it really mean for our society?' And I think, again, we've lost really constructive narratives about 'how do we bring other people from society in?' So for most people in a country like the UK, in my view responding to climate change would be really positive for them. Regardless of the climate benefits. In terms of quality of housing, public transport, air quality,

therefore health for their children, educational attainment of their children, a stronger civic sense of well-being when you put all these things in. But to do all of that, of course, requires a lot of resources and a lot of labour. And, as we know from all the information out there, including the latest reports from the IEA and a new paper in Nature by Lucas Chancel, just shows these huge differences within our countries. The resources, of course, in our countries are disproportionately used by a very small proportion of us. So for that group it might be 30% per annum reductions. But for the other people it may be very small levels of reductions, if at all.

And I think the way that our modelling, and the way we've talked about these, has not allowed us to open that narrative of equity even within our countries. And I'll come back to the one, between our countries in a minute. So is that something else we could try to do there, to open up that narrative? To think about 'what does it mean for different socio-economic groups within our countries?' [JOHAN] No definitely. And I agree that that is certainly a weakness in the IAM kind of... The IAM models have been focusing even on regional level and to even to a lesser extent on national level. Kind of really equating nations and regions at average levels.

Absolutely. So the wedges for the mitigation pathways are very much national policy related, or even international policy related. And technology developments. So with assumptions that if you are able to introduce electric mobility, for example, that this simply benefits all of society basically universally. And, of course, that's not the case.

But overall it corrects system failures, that in the end makes the whole nation, or region, or economy fossil fuel free in the end. So, of course, you can... I think for the end goal the IAMs may have got it okay, but on the pathways it's different. Because the pathways must have the equity dimension of who really needs to do the heavy lifting here, which is the the rich minority. I mean, the numbers, what was it... the richest 1% represents over 17% of global emissions.

So, I mean, it's a... on the per capita level, we have an enormously skewed relationship. And, of course, your point that the IAMs tend to also be run in the rich part of the world, which may skew the results even more. I have no really strong opinion on this, and I won't defend my colleagues in the REMIND team at PIC. But what I can say is that, one, we have for many, many years been really concerned about this – that we don't have more developing country modelling groups involved in the IPCC work. I mean, across the IPCC. I mean, it's both in the impact work in Working Group II and on the IAM pathways, scenarios in Working Group III. And secondly, there are very many efforts being done, I mean both by us as research groups or research institutes, but also in the IPCC, to engage with voices from the Global South. So it's not as if it's completely decoupled,

but I would overall, in summary, still agree with you that there is much more that needs to be done. And I'm, actually here, quite optimistic, because – I don't know if you agree with me here – but, you know, in the work that we're doing on planetary boundary science and the Earth Commission, which is an effort of trying to get the social sciences on board on the planetary boundary research. where we're now defining safe and just boundaries, and bringing in earth system justice, and what does it mean to have a fair pathway towards a safe and just future for humanity. And I find that... just through the past five years there's such a rapid increase in, you know, litigation cases and law, justice, equity is really entering the... our climate space and sustainability space. [KEVIN] At last.

[JOHAN] At last. But it's a... Something is happening, I think... So it's not completely, let's say, none... with no attention to it. On the contrary, I think we're seeing more and more efforts being made. [KEVIN] I think yeah, both the legal aspect and I also think bringing the... I mean, this goes back to your sort of planetary boundary. Let's think about the system, the health impacts as well. I think that the health impacts, in fact a lot more people are more... That brings them on board much faster than talking about CO2 molecules.

So I think the health and the legal aspects are really important. But I still think we have to be careful if we bring the social scientists in, and even if we bring people from abroad, from the Global South, in – who are we bringing in? Are we bringing in the professors from the Global South? And is a professor from the Global South closer to a professor from the Global North than they are from another citizen in their own country? So I just see that within the sort of mitigation efforts in somewhere like the UK, you look at the work from the Committee on Climate Change – it really doesn't embed equity in there. It doesn't embed the... You know, the sixth richest country in the world that has these just huge inequitable access to resources. That's not in there. So certain things that can't be questioned – what we mean is cannot be questioned by the small tier of society that have normalized very large houses, a second home, maybe they've now bought a large electric vehicle, and another vehicle and fly regularly, sometimes business class.

And you know, all those things that we've – this particular group of us, and I think we're the ones that have framed the agenda – that we've normalized. If we bring other people in who have also normalized that, that won't allow us then to raise these questions at the sort of the median and the mode level. I think we somehow have to bring that in. And that's going to be difficult. Because to bring that in raises questions about who we are and what we have done. And that won't be easy. It isn't easy. I mean it makes us uncomfortable and that's not a natural place that we want to spend our time. And so I think we have to find some way to do that, which is quite difficult.

So I think it's important we bring people in from the Global [South]... Actually that sounds too colonial, 'bring people in from the Global [South]'... It's important that they start to lead the things and they can take us to help... You know, not to even necessarily help... to engage with them in what they're doing.

But I think we also have to look more within the different socio-economic groups in our society. And that is not going to be easy. You look at the relationship between income and emissions – it's so tightly bound that it begs these sort of fundamental questions about that. [JOHAN] But just to flick in... I think perhaps we're talking about two different things here, that we're kind of a bit mixed up.

Because on the one hand I'm fully on board with you that that we need to engage with all citizens in the world. And I think we particularly need to learn from indigenous communities, because they are so connected to the biosphere, to the climate system, to the Earth system. And they know how to be stewards. I mean just the fact that 80% of the remaining biodiversity in the world is stewarded, managed, by 5% of the world population.

And these are the indigenous communities in the world. So I mean, there's so much we need to do there. But then, at the same time, we have a crisis And things have to change at the global level so fast that we need to correct big system failures at a very large scale. And I'm convinced that that can only be done top-down not bottom-up. We have some big... I mean there are only 20 countries in the world that represent, you know, over ⅔ of global emissions. You have just a handful of global oil companies in the world. If you look at the national oil companies, this is just a small club.

The cement industry, it's just you know, you have just a handful of them. [KEVIN] Yeah, but we are in agreement on this. [JOHAN] So you have to kind of somehow... Yeah okay So I mean there's a question of... because if we just make this a big, big, you know, parliament for every citizen in the world, which would be wonderful of course, you know, you wouldn't make much progress. [KEVIN] No I certainly don't think that it's going to be driven by bottom-up.

But I don't think top-down will do it unless it's dragged kicking and screaming by small... it will be small, catalytic, vociferous groups that are bottom-up. So I don't think there's any way, shape, or form... And this would come back to another discussion, maybe in a minute... is the sort of – the way that colleagues and I called them in one of our papers – sort of 'the Davos set', that sort of the 'great and good', the 'movers and shakers'. I mean I think they've demonstrated for 30 years that they want to fail on this. In fact they've succeeded. They've succeeded because they've given the impression of being well-meaning, but actually what they've done is they've avoided action, they've delayed action, and they've undermined action across the board.

And hence, you know, those... that top-down has actively chosen to fail for, I would say, for 30 years. Nevertheless, I don't think this is going to be done by some sort of altruistic, bottom-up framing of these challenges. But I think it does recognize, it does require, small vociferous groups of society – whatever they happen to be in the messy way they come together – to actually bring a story of what change would look like, which then will percolate up, in various messy ways again, to the policy process. So ultimately the policies will be put in place – so the structures put in place, the regulations and so forth put in place – top-down.

But I don't think they will do that... if we just leave it for those expert groups to do, I think we'll just fail for another 30 years, and it'll be catastrophe. So I think there is a real, important partnership here. Not between every citizen in society, because other people have other things to do. There are plenty of other things to worry about in the world and get on with. But those people who are engaged and, you know, to do so enthusiastically and vociferously and carefully.

And then I think we can get that, some sort of – I hope anyway, it is a hope – that there will be some sort of partnership between bottom-up and top-down that will provide guidance to leaders to put the right things in place. So I see it much more like that. I don't see it as just being some altruistic, well-meaning people changing their individual behaviour. But individual behaviour can be very important in helping them think about the policy changes that are necessary, and add legitimacy to the arguments that we then make for policy change.

Because, you know, we've tried it ourselves, this is where it succeeded, this is where it didn't, This is what we think would help from a regulatory point of view. We can... It's that sort of messy interplay that I think we have to... we have to feed into. And that's why I want to hear the voices of other socio-economic groups. You know, we don't get them all involved, but somehow. And I think Sweden's really interesting in this.

Virtually no national scenarios get anywhere near a carbon budget that would be necessary for them to deliver on 1.5 to 2°C I think probably none. I mean the UK's certainly doesn't. But in Sweden, the Swedish parliament, which is completely set up by citizens – set up by citizens for citizens.

They've produced a fantastic report. Detailed, rich report from citizens about how you could deliver budgets that are... from colleagues' and myself work on this, would say are broadly in line with somewhere between 1.5 and 2 [°C]. And it's the first time we've seen this. The other climate parliaments, which have generally been set up – or the climate assemblies rather – have been set up, to some degree, by governments. Those have not managed to deliver anything like the sort of thing that this much more independent process in Sweden has delivered.

And I think there's perhaps some lessons in that. That almost like the minimum information, the minimum structure we can put in and then let citizens engage. And they do... in this case they did a fantastic job on their own. They brought the experts in as they thought was necessary. It wasn't directed by academics, it wasn't directed by government

It was emergent and phenomenally successful. So I think that's an interesting model and there's some lessons to learn from that. But it is about citizens informing top-down framing ultimately. [JOHAN] It's interesting you pick up the Swedish case. And I agree that that is a real success. But, unfortunately, it has had zero influence on conventional policy making in Sweden.

Because, I mean, I've been so critical... I mean, in both governments, so it's not an ideological issue at all... the social democratic government that preceded the current conservative government. That, you know, the Swedish climate law, which stipulates that it's supposed to deliver on the Paris Agreement, predates the 1.5°C report. Predates the Sixth Assessment and predates the Glasgow and all the most recent COP meetings. So what it says is that Sweden should be carbon neutral by 2045, and allowing 15% of the mitigation to occur abroad.

And this is so far away from what the science says is necessary, which the citizens' group is proving. And I've been, you know, trying to communicate with the prime minister in Sweden – I mean, both Stefan Löfven and Ulf Kristersson – that, you know, you have to simply open up this parliamentary group that designed the pathway for Sweden, and just do a science update. It's a small thing. You know, it's just... get the parliamentary committee to, you know, reassume themselves and call upon science to recalculate. And if you recalculate, you'll end up aligned with exactly the report that you were referring to. Perhaps not exactly, but something similar. So there's a mismatch here, and the question is how to break this. And, as you know, in Sweden right now, we're actually backpedalling on climate policy, rather than going forward.

Which is really worrying. And this is, of course, the dilemma with politics. That as soon as you get a stress factor over here – a war in Ukraine, inflation, recession, energy prices going up, food prices going up – then suddenly, you cannot handle two crises at the same time. So you're kind of backtracking on... as always with environmental issues, you believe that that's one of these agendas that you can take seriously as a 'nice to have', rather than being an integrated necessity across the entire governance system. So, you know, there's still some work to do, even in Sweden.


2023-09-18 11:12

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