Analysis

The Carbon Brief Interview: Janos Pasztor

  • 26 Jun 2015, 17:30
  • Leo Hickman
Janos Pasztor at the 2015 climate talks in Bonn

Janos Pasztor | Carbon Brief

Janos Pasztor was appointed Ban Ki-moon's assistant secretary-general on climate change in January 2015. He will serve as the UN secretary-general's senior advisor on climate change until the climate conference in Paris in December. Previously, he was director of policy and science at WWF International in Switzerland. From 2011 to 2012, he served as the executive secretary of the UN secretary-general's high-level panel on global sustainability.

Pasztor on how much time Ban Ki-moon is dedicating to climate change: "There is not another subject that he spends as much time on as climate change."

On the importance of tackling climate change: "If we don't fix climate change, all the development advances that we have achieved will go backwards again."

On the role of Ban Ki-moon: "[His] role...in all this is to keep reminding ourselves of what the science tells us and what the science tells us where we need to be and where we are now."

On the importance of climate finance: "We need a lot of trust in this negotiation process. To have a finance package be resolved...this would be very helpful for the overall negotiation process."

On whether the world could tackle climate change without the UN: "Change...is not happening fast enough...We need a global agreement that clarifies the direction in which we are going and, therefore, accelerates the whole process. Who else can do this other than the UN?"

On whether the 1.5C target is still politically possible? "It is possible. The feasibility is more difficult, let's be honest."

On the need for a ratchet mechanism in the Paris deal: "We have to be sure that in the agreement there is a good system of monitoring and review...ratchet up the ambition over time, correcting and adjusting as needs be, to make sure that we can move off the 4-5C pathway."

On the need for a long-term goal in the Paris deal: "The long-term goal also has to address adaptation and address the financing  of developing countries."

 

CB: What proportion of Ban Ki-moon's working week is he dedicating to climate change?

JP: Wow, it's a lot! He has consistently, since his first term, been very much focused on climate change. It's hard to say how many hours. We don't count the hours when your secretary general; the days and the weeks and so on. But I can tell you that I don't think there is another subject that he has to deal with - and there are many - there is not another subject that he spends as much time on as climate change.

CB: And at what point did it become this intense? At the summit last September in New York? Has this been a dominant theme for the last two years? Or was it particularly 2015?

JP: No, no. It goes back to his first term. He's been there now for eight years. And his interests and his engagement in climate change was from the very beginning, shortly after he became secretary-general. And the first major event where he was in action was at the Bali conference and this was in 2007. That's where he was then  he spoke very engagingly and then he left and the negotiations were not going well so he came back and got the people together and said, "You've got to agree on something". That's how the Bali agreement was finalised. That was his first real interaction and after that he formulated a strategy that he really needs to deal with this particular issue as it was so important to everything that the United Nations does. If we don't fix climate change, all the development advances that we have achieved will go backwards again: the impact on poverty and food security, and all the things of the UN stands for.  So he recognised it quite early and he said this is something I have to focus on. Then he went on and has been focused on this ever since. It's not just this year or last year. It's a long-term, eight-year project.

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Solar minimum could bring cold winters to Europe and US, but would not hold off climate change

  • 23 Jun 2015, 16:00
  • Robert McSweeney
Low winter sun over a common

Winter sun | Flickr

Over the past few decades, our Sun has been relatively active, giving off high levels of the solar radiation that warms the Earth. However, in recent years this peak activity has tailed off, prompting scientists to wonder if the Sun is heading into a period of lower output.

A new study says even if the Sun's activity did drop off for a while, it wouldn't have much impact on rising global temperatures. But it could mean a higher chance of a chilly winter in Europe and the US, the researchers say.

Solar output

The Sun's activity rises and falls on an approximately 11-year cycle, but it can experience longer variations from one century to another. Over the past 10,000 years, the Sun has hit around 30 periods of very high or very low activity - called 'grand maxima' and 'grand minima'.

One of these occurred between 1645 and 1715, when the Sun went through a prolonged spell of low solar activity, known as the Maunder Minimum. This didn't have much of an effect on global climate, but it was linked to a number of  very cold winters in Europe.

In 2010, scientists  predicted an 8% chance that we could return to Maunder Minimum conditions within the next 40 years.

But since that study was published, solar activity has declined further, and this likelihood has increased to 15 or 20%, says new research published today in open-access journal Nature Communications.

In fact, the Sun's output has declined faster than any time in our 9,300-year record, say the researchers. And so they set out to analyse what this could mean for global and regional climate.

Small decrease

The researchers used a climate model to run two scenarios where solar activity declines to a grand minimum. They then compared the results with a control scenario where the Sun continues on its regular cycle.

For all model runs they used the RCP8.5 scenario to account for future climate change - this is the scenario with the highest greenhouse gas emissions of those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC). Global emissions are currently tracking just above this scenario.

You can see the modelling results in the maps below. Overall, a grand solar minimum could see global average temperature rise trimmed by around 0.12C for the second half of this century, the researchers say. Larger changes (shown as dark greens and blues) are seen in some parts of the northern hemisphere.Ineson Et Al (2015) Fig2Projected difference in annual average surface temperature for 2050-99 between RCP8.5 emissions scenario and a) Solar scenario 1 and b) Solar scenario 2. Areas of blue and green show regions projected to be cooler because of the solar minimum. Source: Ineson, S. et al. (2015)

 

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Tackling climate change will reap benefits for human health

  • 23 Jun 2015, 00:01
  • Roz Pidcock

Curbing climate change could be the biggest global health opportunity of the 21st century. But if we choose not to act, we could reverse all the progress made by economic development in the last 50 years towards improving global public health.

These are the conclusions of a new report by the Lancet Commission out today.

Curbing air pollution, phasing out coal, access to clean energy worldwide and promoting healthier lifestyles would have "immediate gains" for human health, says the report. 

The authors also call for a global price on carbon and a scaling-up of adaptation financing.

The Lancet Commission is a body set up to map out the impacts of climate change on health, and make recommendations to improve health standards worldwide.

Today's report is a collaboration between European and Chinese academics across the physical, health, political and social sciences, economics, energy policy and engineering.

Impacts are here and now

The risks posed by climate change are already unacceptably high, today's report begins:

"After only 0.85C warming, many anticipated threats have already become real-world impacts."

And if we continue to track the highest emissions scenarios - taking us to  4C or 5C by the end of the century - the risk of potentially catastrophic impacts rises even higher, the report adds.

Screenshot 2015-06-22 17.21.32

Changing exposure in over 65s to heatwaves by 2090 for RCP8.5 (left). Growth in annual heatwave exposure for over 65s with and without accounting for a growing and ageing population (right). Source: Lancet Commission report on health and climate change (2015)

The impacts of climate change on human health are all-pervading. Small risks can interact to produce larger-than-expected chances of catastrophic outcomes, the report notes.

As well as the  direct effects of rising temperatures on heat stress, floods, drought and other extreme weather, climate change increases air pollution, alters the spread of disease and raises the risk of food insecurity, malnutrition, migration and conflict.

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Climate change attribution studies are asking the wrong questions, study says

  • 22 Jun 2015, 16:30
  • Robert McSweeney
Devastation after cyclone Pam

Cyclone Pam | Wikimedia

Scientists are calling for a rethink in the way we seek to understand how climate change affects extreme weather.

The latest in so-called attribution studies is to study each  individual event by itself, looking for how climate change may have made it stronger or more likely.

But a new paper says the methods used in many of these studies underestimate the influence of climate change, and suggests a new approach to identify the "true likelihood of human influence".

Single-event attribution

One of the first studies to attribute a single extreme weather event to climate change was published just over a decade ago. Researchers  showed that climate change had doubled the chances of the record heatwave Europe experienced in 2003.

In the years that followed, many more studies have aimed to provide answers on how climate change is affecting our most brutal weather.

But while scientists have been able to attribute events caused by temperature extremes, linking other extreme events like storms and heavy rainfall events has proved more difficult, says a new paper in Nature Climate Change.

Canicule _Europe _2003Difference in temperature for 20 July to 20 August 2003 compared to long-term average. Source: Reto Stockli and Robert Simmon (NASA).

In our chaotic weather system, the complex dynamics of the atmosphere mean the size and path of a storm or heavy rainfall event has a large element of chance, the authors say. This can make it tricky to identify where climate change fits in.

But rather than analysing the wind patterns that bring a storm to an area, scientists should be looking at how the impact of that storm has been boosted by temperature changes -  known as thermodynamic effects.

Temperature increases mean more moisture evaporates into the atmosphere and more ice melts into our warming oceans, raising their levels. These are changes that scientists can be confident of, the authors say, and so should be the basis for attribution studies - rather than looking at changes to circulation patterns in the atmosphere.

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The Atlantic 'conveyor belt' and climate: 10 years of the RAPID project

  • 19 Jun 2015, 18:40
  • Roz Pidcock and Robert McSweeney

A global project that's been instrumental in shaping scientists' understanding of how the oceans affect our climate celebrated its tenth birthday recently.

A new paper published in  Science looks back at 10 years of the  RAPID project, which has been keeping tabs on how heat moves around in the Atlantic Ocean since 2004.

Over its short lifetime, the project has thrown up a few surprises. Parts of the Atlantic circulation seem to have slowed down, though whether that's down to human activity remains to be seen.

Carbon Brief talks to one of RAPID's founding scientists, Prof Harry Bryden from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, about the project's past and future.

Global heat transport

Above about 1,000 metres in the North Atlantic, warm water flows northwards from the equator towards the poles, releasing heat as it goes. The water cools and sinks at high latitudes, returning southwards towards the equator at much deeper depths.

This is known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and forms part of a global ocean conveyor belt that transports heat all around the world.

                 Screenshot 2015-06-19 18.22.21

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Warm water flows north in the upper ocean (red arrows) then sinks and returns south as deep cold water (blue arrows) Source: Srokosz & Bryden (  2015) Supplementary material

The Gulf Stream - another component of the AMOC - is driven by the wind. Heat released to the atmosphere as the warm Gulf Stream moves northward gives northwest Europe its mild climate.

All components of the AMOC together transport about 18 million cubic metres of water per second - equivalent to a hundred times the flow from the Amazon river. The heat carried with it means North Atlantic sea surface temperature is about  5C warmer than in the North Pacific at similar latitudes.

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The Carbon Brief Interview: Dr Fatih Birol

  • 16 Jun 2015, 13:15
  • Simon Evans
Dr Fatih Birol

Dr Fatih Birol | Carbon Brief

Dr Fatih Birol is the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, and is responsible for its World Energy Outlook publication. He is also chairman of the World Economic Forum's energy advisory board. Before joining the IEA in 1995, he worked at the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna. Birol will take over as chief executive of the IEA in September.

On renewables and coal: "Renewables will be, if the INDCs [ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions] are implemented, in 2030 the first fuel in terms of providing electricity. Efficiency improvements accelerate by a factor of three, which is extremely important and we see that the coal consumption gets strong downward trend."

On current climate pledges: "The INDCs will not bring us there, where we want to go. They are far from bringing us to our 2C scenario."

On banning some coal plants: "The first area in terms of coal we should focus would be to ban inefficient coal-fired power plants and this can save a lot of emissions and this is not out of reach."

On carbon capture and storage: "Without having a significant carbon price in many countries it will be difficult to see CCS having an important market share."

On oil demand projections: "People who want to look at the future, need to look at the efficiency policies and their impact on the demand growth much more closely."

On a 100% renewable future: "If it is tomorrow, that's wishful thinking. But if it's in the very future, it is definitely feasible, and it is also something that I would like to see."

 

CB: Your bridge scenario, that you published today and identified additional action needed to keep the 2C goal in sight beyond what countries are already pledging in their INDCs [ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions], how confident are you, given what you've seen so far, that INDCs are the best way to capture national ambition and to ratchet it up over time?

FB: I think when we look at INDCs today, first of all from a political perspective, I am optimistic because for the first time I see there is a global growing commitments coming from many countries, developed and developing countries, and like Europe. We have seen many developing countries, like Ethiopia and Gabon, Russia, US, Europe, Canada and Mexico, they are all putting their pledges, and this is definitely very encouraging. At the same time, I see some other countries, such as China, such as Japan, making indications what they are going to do in terms of INDCs. Then we look at all of them together. They are covering more than two thirds of the global emissions, and then we look at the implications of those INDCs in terms of energy, there is a material impact on the energy sector.

Renewables are the main beneficiaries here. Renewables will be, if the INDCs are implemented, in 2030 the first fuel in terms of providing electricity. Efficiency improvements accelerate by a factor of three, which is extremely important and we see that the coal consumption gets strong downward trend, especially in the OECD countries, and slows down in the emerging countries. So, all in all, INDCs make an important change in the energy sector, and provide a much-needed momentum for the innovation and technology improvement. But the INDCs will not bring us there, where we want to go. They are far from bringing us to our 2C scenario. Since they are not bringing us to where we want to go, we want to build a bridge, which we call the bridge scenario. In this scenario, we have five major policy initiatives, which can be implemented tomorrow with no economic cost and with no new discovery of new technologies in place, so we can make it with existing technologies. As such, it is a set of policies which can help us to bring to a 2C trajectory - at least, leave the door open for a 2C trajectory.

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Oxygen is an overlooked factor in past climate, study suggests

  • 11 Jun 2015, 19:00
  • Robert McSweeney
A view of the Earth and stars from space

Earth from space | Shutterstock

It's well established how carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour affect our climate. But a new study suggests another gas may have played a role in Earth's long climate history - oxygen.

Natural variations in atmospheric oxygen levels could be a missing factor in piecing together Earth's past climate, the researchers say. The findings help explain why climate models tend to simulate temperatures 100m years ago that are lower than scientific evidence suggests.

Oxygen levels

Today, oxygen makes up around 21% of the air we breathe. But that hasn't always been the case. Over the last 500m years, known as the Phanerozoic eon, oxygen levels have been as low as 10% and as high as 35%.

This period has seen the evolution of life as we know it, and scientists know that changes in atmospheric oxygen has been intertwined with how life on Earth has thrived .

Now new research, published today in the journal Science, suggests that oxygen may have had a role in how our climate evolved as well.

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The Carbon Brief Interview: Christiana Figueres

  • 11 Jun 2015, 14:20
  • Leo Hickman
Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres | Carbon Brief

Christiana Figueres has been the executive secretary of the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since July 2010 and was reappointed for a second three-year term in July 2013. Before then, she was a member of the Costa Rican negotiating team at the UNFCCC from 1995-2009. In 1995, she founded the non-profit Center for Sustainable Development of the Americas, based in Washington DC.

On defining success at the Paris climate conference this coming December: "If financial support for developing countries to be able to follow that path [to bring their population out of poverty but to do so in a low-carbon, high-resilient way] is made evident, then I think we have success."

The political possibility of limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5C: "I don't know that it is possible to say right now are we going to end up with 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, 1.9C? But it's got to be within that range. There is no doubt that it has to be below 2C."

The legal form of the Paris agreement: "I don't think that the whole agreement is actually going to have the same legal nature [as the Kyoto protocol], but rather there will be several components, key components, that will have different legal nature."

Whether the world could tackle climate change without the UNFCCC: "This has to be done in a way that protects the most vulnerable. That would not occur without the UNFCCC."

How the IPCC can best complement the UNFCCC: "There has been a very clear intent to be more and more guided by science. And you see it in all of the negotiations now that there is much more direct dialogue, in fact, even between the delegates and the scientists, which is a very welcome development."

The usefulness of the IPCC's carbon budgets to the UNFCCC: "I think [they have] brought a sense of realism and a sense of urgency into this discussion."

The challenge and reviewing and aggregating the INDCs [intended nationally determined contributions]: "What we have here is a fruit salad. We have apples, we have pears and we, in fact, even have bananas."

The importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UNFCCC: "If we do not address climate change in a timely fashion, we will wipe out all the development gains that have been made in the past 15-20 years. We will wipe that out."

The challenge for the UN of managing these parallel, inter-related processes: "When I first saw it I thought how is this going to be possible, and it is very, very difficult, but...we will remember 2015 as being a very important year in the history of the design of mankind."

On reports that the French will present their own text for a climate deal, if progress at the UNFCCC is slow: "They are not going to come with their own text. This is not a Copenhagen 2.0."

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Climate change could cut growing days of plants and crops by 11%

  • 11 Jun 2015, 10:45
  • Robert McSweeney

Sunrise over meadow | Shutterstock

The number of days each year when conditions are suitable for plants to grow could fall as the climate warms, according to new research.

Researchers in Hawaii found rising temperatures and falling soil moisture could curtail growth of plants and crops across much of the tropics. And if emissions remain unchecked, gains in plant growth at higher latitudes won't make up for these losses.

But other scientists, not involved in the study, tell Carbon Brief the new research may have overestimated the negative impacts of climate change.

Plant growth

Climate change is likely to have both positive and negative impacts on plant growth.

A warmer, more carbon-rich atmosphere could provide better conditions for growth. On the other hand, rising temperatures could make conditions too hot for plant growth. How much water and nutrients plants and crops have access to will also affect how much they can grow.

Scientists have conducted numerous studies into how these factors are likely to play out for different plants and different regions of the world.

The new study, published in open-access journal PLoS Biology, takes a different approach. Rather than estimating how much plants might grow, the researchers focus on how many days each year we'll see conditions favourable for plant growth in the future.

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Irreversible loss of world's ice cover should spur leaders into action, say scientists

  • 09 Jun 2015, 16:25
  • Roz Pidcock
Icebergs in Disko Bay Greenland

Icebergs in Greenland | Shutterstock

We need only look to the world's ice cover to see the urgency with which emissions need to come down, scientists told delegates at this week's climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

At a  press conference today, US and German scientists updated negotiators and journalists with the latest science on the state of Arctic sea ice, the Antarctic continent and thawing permafrost.

New observations gathered since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report show the cryosphere in serious and irreversible decline, they warned.

Pam Pearson, director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, the network of policy experts and researchers holding the event, told the audience:

"This is not like air pollution or water pollution, where if you clean it up it will go back to the way it was before."

Sea ice in decline

Arctic sea ice has been retreating rapidly in recent years as a result of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere, explained Dr Dirk Notz, sea ice expert at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. The biggest losses are happening in summer, he said:

"Over the past 10 years or so, we've roughly seen a 50% loss of Arctic sea ice area. So, the ice in the Arctic is currently retreating very, very rapidly."

In March, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest maximum extent in the satellite record. Last week, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre confirmed Arctic sea ice extent for May was the third lowest on record.

Antarctic sea ice has been at record high levels in 2015 but this should be viewed  in perspective with what's happening at the other end of the planet, Notz said:

"There is a slight increase, but it's nothing compared to the very, very rapid loss that we've seen in the Arctic."

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