Our Common Future Under Climate Change

International Scientific Conference 7-10 JULY 2015 Paris, France



No more doom and gloom: Climate science can tell a positive future story, expert says


By Michelle Kovacevic

VIENNA, Austria (01 May, 2015)_Doom and gloom scenarios of scarce resources. Drought stricken landscapes. Melting polar ice caps. Much of the discourse on climate change has been about the costs, the difficulties, the threats and the consequences of doing too little too late.

With a new global climate agreement likely to emerge in December this year, climate science must tell a different kind of story: one of hope, solutions, benefits and opportunities for a decarbonized economy, says Professor Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Deputy Director General of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), ahead of Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference where he is a keynote speaker.

“I hope this conference will start to change this discourse and instead we will talk of the many benefits of investing in cleaner energies and moving towards decarbonization of the world.”

“Of course, we need large emissions reductions that require huge changes to our societies, so as to still mitigate climate change to a level at which humans can adapt. It is still doable if we work hard and act quickly,” he added. 

This is part of a blog series profiling climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at Our Common Future. For more follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15 on Twitter.

Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Nakicenovic, who can be reached for comment at naki@iiasa.ac.at 

Q: Your conference keynote will look at scenarios and stories of possible future climate change. Can you tell us more about this?

A: My presentation looks at what needs to be done in terms of measures and policies to stabilize the climate to 2 degrees warming and below. I will use scenarios to assess the future amount of greenhouse gas emissions to be released into the atmosphere and the major driving forces behind those emissions, such as population growth, economic development, technology, and institutions. 

This will be presented against a background of what we have already achieved so far. We have had 200 years of explosive development starting with the industrial revolution where global economic output increased 100-fold and emissions increased 20-fold. However, around 3 billion people on the planet today did not benefit from this rapid period of economic development, and it is expected that the future population will reach 9 million, so we have a huge challenge in providing low carbon, sustainable alternatives. In effect, we have to double energy and other services such as food and water without endangering planetary processes any further.  

If we look at where we are today, we have already reduced emission intensities of human activities but it is way too slow for the challenges ahead and we need to accelerate this. 

Q: What is the difference between storylines and scenarios?

A: Storylines are narratives about possible futures. Some storylines can be very detailed and have a human interest element, whereas others can be more general, for example, “in the future there might be much more emphasis on globalisation,” or “in the future we might be more aware of the planetary boundaries of our species.”  It is a qualitative description of what might happen in the future. 

When we talk about scenarios, they are quantitative and are usually based on models, which are used in different fields, to represent systems like the economy, technology, and  climate. 

Traditionally storylines and scenarios have been separate fields of study, but they are becoming increasingly merged together and can be complementary.

Q: Our Common Future will focus on the need for interdisciplinary research to solve the many challenges of climate change. Do you think this is why storylines and scenarios have merged together in recent years?

A: I think the more we have learned about climate change over the past 30 years, the more we have come to understand the problem and the responses, the more we have realized that interdisciplinary and multi-perspective approaches are vital. 

We have moved on from the view that we simply need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to meet the 2-degree limit and have now realized that we need to make major changes to our societies. 

You can’t just have the engineering, economic and policy point of view - you need a holistic perspective. This is why the literature of scenarios and storylines has merged. 

However, I should also mention that there is still a long way to go. The barriers between the disciplines are still large, so an interdisciplinary approach will evolve slowly over time.  

We are getting better at it and this is why the conference will be exciting.

Q: The conference is being held only 6 months before the United Nations climate change conference in Paris. How do you hope science will inform these international policy decisions?

A: I think the expectations for the Paris COP21 are high. It must be a success and will depend on establishing individual national emissions reductions commitments as well as commitments from the private sector and regions. It requires action from the bottom-up. 

The challenge for interdisciplinary scientists is to put all that together and understand the extent to which we are on track to stabilizing climate change and meeting global ambitions. In terms of the role of science, I would like to look at cases where existing emission reductions commitments have already been made, for example by China and the US, and see how they align with what needs to be achieved at the global level to ensure that climate change does not exceed the 2 degree limit. 

Also, I would stress the need to look at the different kinds of technologies and institutional frameworks needed and how we will invest and finance climate mitigation and adaptation activities. 

Q: What message do you hope people take from the conference?

A: The first is that I hope that people will realise that if we work hard and act quickly, we can still mitigate climate change at a level at which humans can adapt to. We need large emissions reductions that require huge cultural, institutional, economic, political and lifestyle changes, but it is still doable. 

Secondly, I hope that the conference will change the climate change discourse. In the past, much of the discourse has been about the costs, the difficulties, the threats and the consequences of doing too little too late, but I hope this discourse will change and instead we will realize that there are many benefits of investing in cleaner energies and moving towards  global decarbonization. 

To stabilize the global climate, we need:

1. Radical improvements in energy efficiency, especially in end use

Retrofitting buildings can reduce heating and cooling energy requirements by 50–90%; 

New buildings can be designed and built to very high energy performance levels, often using close to zero energy for heating and cooling; 

Electrically-powered transportation reduces final energy use by more than a factor of three, as compared to gasoline-powered vehicles; 

A greater integration between spatial planning and travel that emphasizes shorter destinations and enhances opportunities for flexible and diverse choices of travel (collective, motorized, and non- motorized travel options). 

2. Greater shares of renewable energies and advanced energy systems (with carbon capture and storage for both fossil fuels and biomass)

3. Major Changes in Fossil Energy Systems 

Growing roles for natural gas, the least carbon-intensive and cleanest fossil fuel, are feasible, including for shale gas, if related environmental issues are properly addressed.

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