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11 July 2016 6:41

The Carbon Brief Interview: Jim Skea

Leo Hickman


Leo Hickman

11.07.2016 | 6:41am
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Jim Skea

Prof Jim Skea is the chair in sustainable energy at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy. He is a founding member of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and in 2015 was elected co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group III. He is president of the Energy Institute. He was awarded an OBE for services to sustainable transport in 2004 and a CBE for services to sustainable energy in 2013.

  • On the implications for trying to stay below 1.5C: “The question is now a little bit being raised about what are the sustainability implications of the mitigation measures themselves. And here we’re getting into things like BECCS, where the fairly massive land-use changes that might be implied are beginning to come to people’s attentions.”
  • On the focus of the IPCC’s special reports: “Personally, I think the special reports should be special and targeted. We’ve ended up with three special reports that, if not carefully looked at, could actually sprawl quite significantly in terms of their scope.”
  • On why the IPCC’s working groups need to work together: “I think one of the big debates that we may have between different communities is whether this is all a technology fix, energy supply kind of thing, or whether it’s more consumer-led demand-side, and how you integrate it with the sustainable development goals.”
  • On the power of the IPCC’s summary for policymakers: “Countries are not going to accept things in the summary for policymakers that will compromise a subsequent negotiating position…Once you’ve agreed the SPM, nobody can ever row back on it, and that’s part of it power.”
  • On the Paris Agreement’s pledge to achieve net-zero emissions: “Well, I’m very fluid about my interpretation of Article 4… Realistically, it will be very hard to tell when you’ve actually hit a peak [in global emissions], because it will look more like a plateau probably looking back.”
  • On critics of the IPCC: “The appeal for people who sort of critique the IPCC for not considering other approaches is please produce papers, write books for us to assess, because if it goes through peer review and you do it, we will assess it and that’s the challenge.”
  • On communicating climate change to young people: “Frankly, it’s people my age that are much more difficult to communicate about climate change. [Laughs.] They’ve lived off the benefits of the high-carbon lifestyle. For me, that’s a bigger challenge in a political sense.”


Carbon Brief: Energy policy uncertainty and investor uncertainty have hung over the UK even before the recent EU referendum. The Energy Institute said just before the vote, and I quote: “Renewable energy and capturing carbon – key to implementing the Paris climate agreement – are seen to have been particularly badly hit by policy changes over the last year.” So, how do you feel now following the Brexit vote and now that we have a government, to put it mildly, in transition?

Jim Skea: Well, just to repeat what the Energy Institute members said, I think the obvious key driver was the UK’s decision to row back from the big demonstration program in carbon capture and storage [CCS]. And all the work that IPCC showed from the fifth assessment cycle [AR5], has basically demonstrated that carbon capture and storage – the ability to get carbon out of the atmosphere – is going to be critical in terms of meeting future targets set at the international level. So, CCS is absolutely critical. Renewable energy also plays a major part in all kinds of future scenarios. So, the UK, in terms of electricity, hasn’t done too badly, actually, so far in terms of investing in wind – and solar energy has come through much more quickly than expected. I think, as far as electricity is concerned, we’re going to hit the renewable energy directive targets by 2020, more or less. We definitely won’t on heat and transport, but we certainly will in electricity. I think the key question is going to be what policies influence people’s investment decisions in the 2020s. The thing I think that we’re waiting for now is [now that] we’ve got the fifth carbon budget agreed, the big challenge is going to be the carbon plan which the government has to produce by the end of 2016. The fifth carbon budget kind of sets the mood music but, what I think investors are waiting for is the real signals that come from the carbon plan.

CB: And do you think with, potentially, a new prime minister and new cabinet within the next 2-3 months, there’s a risk that that carbon plan will be knocked off of its stride, or there will be continuing question marks over it? Or do you think, regardless of the faces in the cabinet, that that will have to happen by the end of this year?

JS: Well, I think it’s quite interesting, in the sense that the UK’s climate policy has effectively been more ambitious than the EU policy and the UK has in the past been pressing the EU to be more ambitious and we haven’t actually seen any of the individual sort of ministers rowing back on that so far. The current secretary of state, Amber Rudd, has made “steady as she goes” kind of comments. And Andrea Leadsom, who’s obviously one of the candidates for leader of the Conservative party and hence prime minister, was one of the first politicians to come out and say that the UK should be aiming for a net-zero target sometime during the 21st century. So, if you take all these signals at their face value, we should be continuing as we are in the political sense. The difficulty is whether investors actually believe it and whether they believe the detailed measures and the specific kind of things that government comes up with.

CB: So, on that point, in your view, do you think Hinkley C [nuclear power plant in Somerset] will be built? And, if not, how will that gap in the UK’s energy mix be plugged?

JS: With the various positions I hold, I am very reluctant to comment on individual projects. But the decision on Hinkley C, I don’t think hangs so much on UK energy policy as on decisions that are being made in France, because there are well publicised differences among different members of the EDF board, for example. I think the other thing to mention is that Hinkley Point isn’t the only nuclear game in town for the UK. The Hitachi Project, with the boiling water reactor, is also going through its regulatory process. You could argue that Hitachi probably has deeper pockets than EDF to carry this one through. So even if Hinkley were not to go ahead, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the nuclear story for the UK.

CB: But it would presumably leave a big hole – a 7% hole or whatever we variously get told about what it would mean. So, you think other nuclear would fill that void, or do you think other low-carbon sources of power would come into play at that point?

JS: It depends how strong any government wanted to be about the carbon intensity of electricity by around 2030 because there are many things, actually, that could fill the gap covered by Hinkley Point. And I don’t think security of supply is necessarily a worry that’s caused by Hinkley Point. It could be filled in by renewable energy and renewables projects have a three- or four-year planning timeline to get them through, whereas a nuclear station it’s decade at least, on experience. So there are other technologies that could come and fill the gap more quickly. If we were not to be strict on the carbon intensity of electricity, then you would find gas could fill the gap as well, if all you were worried about was getting the kilowatt hours out and you weren’t so troubled about the carbon dimension of it.

CB: Talking about the carbon dimension of it, Lord Stern says in a newspaper article that the fifth carbon budget reduction – 57% by the early 2030s – is not enough to meet the Paris Agreement commitments. Do you agree with that?

JS: Well, yes, but I’m a little more cautious about it. The 2030 carbon budget was set with the 2050 target of an 80% reduction by 2050 in mind and that, in turn, was premised on, basically, a 2C kind of target. And, obviously, the Paris Agreement says “well below 2C pursuing efforts towards 1.5C”, so, on the face of it, you need to work harder. I think the question is whether where the fifth carbon budget leaves you and whether it leaves the option open of going for more ambitious than 2C later on and the UK’s fair share of that. And I think that that depends on how ambitious you’re prepared to get after 2030, because, actually, that’s what will make the difference. There’s only 15 years to 2030. There’s another 70 years before the end of the century and what we do after that is going to be the critical thing.

CB: Is fracking compatible with the UK’s climate goals and commitments?

JS: Well, I can’t comment on that because as a member of the Committee on Climate Change I have basically authored a report that comments on that very feature and as the Department for Energy and Climate Change hasn’t yet released that report under the Infrastructure Act I’m afraid I can’t go into that…

CB: It must be imminent, though?

JS: I had heard that it was going to happen by the end of this week. [The report was published last Thursday.]

CB: OK, well, we’ll wait for that. How about are we right to burn so much biomass at Drax?

JS: The question about biomass at Drax, personally, I think we could take a harder look at the way that biomass fits into the overall picture. Clearly, the reason for burning biomass at Drax was not to pursue carbon, necessarily, it was to hit the renewable energy directive targets and the ability to institute biomass burning by converting a coal station was obviously a very quick way of getting a win on the renewable energy directive. I do think we need to take a harder look at that. And one of the things I’m sure the IPCC, subject to scoping, will be considering much more detail in the next cycle is the sustainability consequences of the large-scale adoption of technologies that will include biomass and, perhaps, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage [BECCS] as well…

CB: Well, we’ll come onto BECCS a bit later on. I was thinking specifically, if you look at the UK’s percentage of renewables, a big chunk of that is currently the biomass burning at Drax. Perhaps, the public may think, “oh, this is all wind and solar”, when, actually, a big chunk of it is what’s going on at Drax and, as you suggest, there’s sustainability issues connect to your question marks around that. OK, next question then. Many of the prominent euro skeptics are also prominent climate skeptics. Do you think that there’s a risk now that the Climate Change Act itself might become under threat in the way that politics is moving since the Brexit vote?

JS: I would acknowledge the overlap between climate skepticism and euro skepticism, but it is not absolutely perfect. And, again, I’d go to the point that one of the leading candidates for the Conservative party leadership, who is a euro skeptic and was emphatically on the Leave side, has also made some of the most ambitious statements about UK climate policy.  So I don’t think this is a simple one to resolve. I think it will depend on the shape of the new government and the new cabinet that emerges later this year and how it shapes out. This is an area in which I would make no predictions whatsoever. Given the current political turbulence we’re facing, I think you’re sitting here, 10 days after the UK referendum, I think it’s impossible to make predictions about where we’re going to go on that.

CB: You mentioned it briefly already, but what should the government do now to make CCS happen, given some of the policy setbacks over the past year or so?

JS: Well, I think the Carbon Capture & Storage Association and other bodies have started to paint a picture about the challenges; how cheaply can you do it, basically? And I think the argument is that there have been no significant amounts and advances in the technology. We just need to get on and demonstrate it. A lot of the innovation that could actually help it forward are more in the kind of the business models that you use to advance it because so far we’ve tried the thing, but we’ve tried to complete the vertical chain all the way from capture through to burying it in geological formations. And the point there is there are actors involved in different parts of the chain and each actor has to bear everybody else’s risk at the moment. So, I think one of the big challenges is to sort of chop it up into bits, actually, and break it down into more manageable problems where the carbon capturing people can be guaranteed a market for their stored carbon, if you want it, and the people involved with transportation and storage have a guaranteed supply of carbon. Now that means somebody else taking the risk and that somebody else is government, basically. They would have to underwrite it, underpin it, or put the right regulatory and planning arrangements in place. And that has got to be the way forward, but whether a government, given the changed economic circumstances, has the courage to actually do that is another question. But if you want to move forward, then that is what you need to do.

CB: There’s not a Plan B? Namely, not reliant on government underwriting…

JS: Well, the only way you could do it without government underwriting is if you had a very substantial carbon price that people expect it to continue into the future, and we don’t have that at the moment. So, these are the two ways you can go: a very strong carbon price you can count on; or else government has to step in and provide capital support for R&D and demonstration and sort of begin to underwrite some of the risks.

CB: On that point, do you think that the much-vaunted global carbon price is actually a pipe dream? Is that day ever going to arrive?

JS: Well, we certainly could get more global carbon prices than we do at the moment. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s interesting, for example, we’ve got a global oil price, but we don’t have global gas prices. They’re all regionally based. And I think it’s more realistic to think in terms of carbon that perhaps we see these regional sort of markets getting to join up and move in the direction of a global price. It’s a bit like the Paris Agreement itself, where we kind of abandoned the top-down approach and we’ve moved to a bottom-up one. We can see the EU Emission Trading Scheme perhaps linking up with American states, linking up with Australia and New Zealand, or whatever. I think it’s probably more that bottom-up, gradual approach that will work towards a global carbon price. But it’s worthwhile saying that I think a global carbon price is necessary, but it’s not enough to move in it because a lot of the things that we need to to deal with climate change are not things that are most easily stimulated by pricing. It’s things like regulation, around energy efficiency, the way you plan cities and infrastructure. These are not things that a carbon price directly touches, so we’re going to need an awful lot more, besides a carbon price, to really move things forward.

CB: Some prominent voices in the media and policy circles like to promote the idea that, to quote, “the lights could go out”, if low-carbon policies are pursued here in the UK. Is that a real threat, or do you think it’s a bit overhyped?

JS: Frankly, I think it’s overhyped. I mean there are obvious risks and we got closer in the last winter and we’ll be quite close in the next winter, but there are lots of things that can be done about it and are happening. There’s a huge amount of investment, potentially, just about to go into a connection with other parts of Europe and that will absolutely improve our supply security. There’s a huge amount of interest in energy storage with new projects coming through and, frankly, many of the stories told about the impacts of the intermittency of renewables on reliability have also been exaggerated. It can be managed by the other things I mentioned – interconnections, storage, demand-side management, etc. So, it needs an eye kept on it, but, I don’t have sleepless nights that the lights are going out.

CB: But you’re reassured that there are people keeping an eye on it?

JS: I am reassured that there are people keeping an eye on it and I’ve lived in times in Brighton where the lights went out, you know, 2-3 times a year and it was nothing to do with not having enough generation capacity. It was because of weaknesses in the local distribution grid. That’s where most of the customer minutes are actually lost.

CB: What is a fossil fuel subsidy and how and when should they be phased out? Because there’s a bit of a debate about what exactly the definition of a fossil fuel subsidy is. So, answering that and then moving on to how do we end and how quickly do we phase out fossil fuel subsidies?

JS: Well, fossil fuel subsidies mean many things to many different people. I mean if you look at the outputs of, say, the International Energy Agency, I suppose the biggest target that they have is the very low energy prices to consumers and some emerging kind of economies in the Middle East of whatever. If I was a clever economist in one of these countries, I could cunningly argue that you should measure the subsidy as the difference between the price charged to consumers and the cost of actually producing it in the country, which would produce a very, very different answer from the one that you get by taking the difference between the price charged and the global oil price, which is, frankly, the result of holding back supplies from the market and making it artificially high. We shouldn’t be too complacent about it in our own countries because under any OECD definition, for example, having a lower rate of value-added tax on residential gas and electricity is a subsidy that’s worth about 15% of the price. So, there’s a lot of, frankly, not terribly straight talking about energy subsidies that needs sorted out. Certainly my colleagues at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Grantham Institute over at LSE have done really quite careful work to demonstrate what the implicit carbon price is in fossil fuels and other forms of energy for the UK and it quite clearly shows that we do not have a very rational pricing system.

CB: In terms of helping on the journey towards the global decarbonization, what sort of time scale are we talking? A decade, two decades, five years? Or Is it going to be different paces for different countries?

JS: It’s not something I have looked at, but my gut feeling is that because this involves social equity, it involves shifting money from one part of society to another, my own feeling is that 10, 15, 20 years is the right kind of time scale to allow for adjustments as you move from one kind of world to another.

CB: So, a different focus. Given the UK is a net beneficiary of science funding from the EU, what does Brexit mean for science funding in the UK?

JS: Well, that entirely depends on what the UK government decides to do with the so-called “bonus” that comes from leaving the EU…

CB: But it’s all being spent on the NHS, apparently. [Laughs.]

JS: That’s an unknown. That’s up to a future UK government.

CB: But are you concerned about that question mark that now hangs over science funding?

JS: I would be concerned about the degree to which it inhibits collaboration between people in the UK and their European counterparts because it’s almost become part of the DNA of British science to operate in a collaborative mode with people internationally now. And if that incentive disappears, then it’s very difficult. That also depends on the kind of arrangement that the UK makes with the European Union, if it comes out and we go all the way and eventually leave. Because for those countries, like Norway and Switzerland, it’s real and they are all participating in the European Horizon 2020 Program.

CB: How should the UK now approach the UNFCCC negotiations post the Brexit vote? Should it work in parallel with the EU, in the way that Norway does, or should it all, say, join the Umbrella Group or Environmental Integrity Group? Do you have any sense of how this Brexit might shift how we, as a country, face these climate negotiations?

JS: I am pretty sure that neither I, nor any civil servant in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, has ever actually systematically thought through that proposition. Only 10 days after the referendum, there is so much uncertainty up in the air, it’s not clear. This is also not a decision that the UK can take by itself. Our European colleagues can also decide whether to open the door for us or not, because they have their own kind of sovereignty that they may want to exercise.

CB: Looking back to last year’s SDGs – the sustainable development goals – how does the world implement its decarbonisation goals whilst meeting its development goals? And do they conflict, or, perhaps, compliment each other?

JS: Well, there’s obviously an interaction between them and different people have actually argued in different ways. I’ve gone into workshops and had two researchers make completely different conflicting assertions about the relationship between ambitious carbon policies and access to energy, which is one of the sustainable development goals. And the truth is that it may well vary from one part of the world to, to another. If you are looking at, say, access to modern energy in many parts of rural Africa, you are then increasing the use of photovoltaics associated with energy storage. The two things may well go together, actually. It may be a bit different in more middle-income countries, where people are already using lots of modern energy, and if it turns out that that energy becomes more expensive, then you may have a different kind of impact. So, it’s one of these things that global generalisation is not going to help us on. You really need to get down into the regional detail to understand that.

CB: Let’s move onto IPCC-related matters. Do you think the UNFCCC has thrown the IPCC – to use a rugby phrase – a hospital pass in this invitation to produce a 1.5C report? With only five years left of current emissions before we blow the 66% chance of meeting the 1.5C carbon budget, is it too late, in effect, to wait until 2018 before this 1.5C report is published?

JS: Well, I think the question with the 1.5C report is how you actually treat the response and how you sort of interpret the homework question that the UNFCCC has set for IPCC because some people try to boil it down to the issue: is it feasible to meet 1.5C or not? Given that the UNFCCC has said we’re going to pursue efforts to 1.5C, it will not be helpful for the IPCC to come up with a response that says, ‘Yes, it’s feasible as long as you pursue efforts’. And that kind of points to where it is. I think the job of the IPCC is to produce a useful response to that invitation that obviously came from a very political place in terms of the way that the Paris Agreement was put together. So we will need on the mitigation side – you have to remember that impacts was the one that was specifically mentioned in the invitation rather than mitigation – in the mitigation side, which I’m on, I think some of the things we will need to consider are open questions like: When you might hit 1.5C? Is it 2100? Do you overshoot and come back again? With what kind of certainty do you want to think about hitting 1.5C? And all of these questions will have to actually be addressed there. Then there are the kind of issues about the kind of measures that need to be put in place. If you were going to hit 1.5C, what kind of roadmap do you need for demonstrating new technologies for bringing them to market? So I think, if you break it down, there are all sorts of useful responses that can be produced in response to the UNFCCC’s invitation, but it may disappoint some people in terms of the definitiveness of the answer that comes out. But, as I said, we haven’t even scoped it yet, never mind written the report, so we have to wait for that.

CB: In the scoping questionnaire that is on the IPCC website at the moment, it actually begins with the following question: “In your vision, what are the main relevant elements that could be addressed in the special report?” So, extending your previous answer, what is your vision for that?

JS: Well, clearly we’ll need to understand the emission pathways that are associated with different interpretations of 1.5C and that’s going to need a lot of collaboration between the people in Working Group I [WG1] running the climate models and the people in the mitigation side who run the so-called Integrated Assessment Models [IAMs]. There needs to be some kind of convergence between their thinking. Our colleagues in Working Group II [WG2] and impacts are going to need to think about that side a bit carefully because that was one of the things that really inspired the asking of the question. What kind of impacts are associated with 1.5C? Would we be already crossing a line in terms of dangerous anthropogenic interference if you got to that point? And for us in Working Group III [WG3], what I will delicately put inverted commas around and call the “feasibility of achieving it” will also need to come in there, but he word “feasibility” in inverted commas needs a lot of unpacking in order to understand it.

CB: OK, on that, can you give us a flavour and in your honest assessment, can you unpack that feasibility question around 1.5C? You hear it a lot, but is it actually feasible?

JS: Well, the key elements are going to be things like lock-in. What are the things we could do over the next 15-20 years that could put that kind of ambitious target beyond reach because we’ve invested in so much high-carbon infrastructure?

CB: Even from an overshoot point of view?

JS: Well, possibly, but people have yet to publish their research on this, but that’s the kind of question that I think will probably need to be asked. We need to ask questions about whether we’re developing the technologies fast enough – the roadmap question that I mentioned earlier. The question of stranded assets – investing in kit that has to be written off early. So these are all the sorts of questions that need to be asked, I think.

CB: From a WG3 perspective, can you explain the difference between 1.5C and 2C? So, we’ve heard about the Working Group II difference. We heard about that in the 2013-15 review [structured expert dialogue] before Paris and and some of the testimony from that. Specifically from a WG3 perspective, what is the difference between 1.5C and 2C, in your view?

JS: Well, one of the things that I think we need to make an advance in AR6 compared with AR5 is actually to unpack the agenda because, basically, the main messaging from AR5 came from the chapter on IAMs, which, basically, you’ll take the side of technical fixers and superimpose them on a fairly conventional economic growth paradigm. And if you follow that paradigm through, then, basically, what you need is more and quicker of the same kind of stuff that you had for 2C. That’s kind of what the models I think will tell you, though we may need to wait until people run them to see if my hypothesis is actually fulfilled. There’s another strand that says that the last assessment report didn’t pay enough attention to things like alternative growth patterns where economic growth takes place in a different kind of way and I think when we get to the scoping meeting, it may well be that that’s the kind of debate we have about how to have more than one approach to deep decarbonisation pathways, that it might not all be about technical fixes. If we just add one thing on that is that with 1.5C, the question is now a little bit being raised about what are the sustainability implications of the mitigation measures themselves. And here we’re getting into things like BECCS, where the fairly massive land-use changes that might be implied are beginning to come to people’s attentions.

CB: Well, that’s my exact next question, so, let’s move onto that. So, firstly, does limiting at 1.5C rely too heavily on negative emissions technologies, such as BECCS, and how should AR6 and the 1.5C special report best spell out, as you suggest, the land-use implications of relying so heavily on BECCS?

JS: Well, basically, the answer is the same words as the question. [Laughs] The report is actually going to have to figure that one out because it did not get a great deal of attention in AR5 and the policymakers are now asking us to look at that. If you look at some of the proposals for special reports that we weren’t able to take up because of lack of time, they’re asking that very, very same question. And the IPCC has said the questions that were raised by these unsuccessful special report proposals will need to be dealt with in one way or another in the AR6 cycle. So these issues will pop up. They will come up in the 1.5C report. They’ll come up on the special report on land use, which we mustn’t forget about, especially as WG3 is going to take the lead on it operationally and it will come up in the main assessment report…

CB: That will come after the 1.5C one?

JS: Yes, it will be about a year. It would be 2019 by the time that one comes out.

CB: Sort of again touching on what you just said, the scoping questionnaire also asked this following question: “The special report will be communicated to non-specialists. In this respect, in your view, how could this be best served by the report’s structure, presentation, and supporting materials?” So, what is your view on how best to communicate what are some quite chewy issues with big implications within the 1.5C?

JS: Well I, I was kind of hoping you would ask me what my three priorities were for that cycle [laughs] and communications was absolutely the third of them. So, it is a good point because, as you’re probably well aware, WG3 scored lowest on the Flesch reading scale. It’s more difficult to understand than Einstein’s original papers on relativity. So, this is absolutely a priority and I think one of the things is if you look at the last reports the same kind of graphic material has been used all the way through from the individual chapters, the summary for policymakers and then the collateral material like the presentations. And I think we need to think much earlier on about how you change the kind of presentation as you move through to two different audiences, because, frankly, the approach often when scientists are challenged by space limitations they try to put as much into a single figure as they possibly can. Now there’s a good saying that a good figure saves you a thousand words and my joke is an IPCC figure takes a thousand words to explain and we really need to simplify these things. The technical support unit we are currently putting together for WG3 has provision for support both on communicating language and graphical presentation as well. We’re going to put a much bigger emphasis on that, but it needs to be played very well because as you move to that better communication, you must also not lose or corrupt the scientific meaning. So, we well understand that this is what can often be a tricky negotiation between communication specialists and people on the scientific side. But it certainly is one of my priorities, because I’m so conscious of it.

CB: My guess is that you’re at the eye of the storm in terms of all the working groups. You’re probably in the most politicised arena, aren’t you?

JS: Yes.

CB: …in the mitigation area, compared to, say, WG1 certainly.

JS: Yes.

CB: …arguably, even more than WG2. You’re right there in the middle of the politics.

JS: That again gets to the challenges of things like the summary for policymakers. But I have to say, mentally, I’ve kind of started at the backend on this and tried to think backwards to how you put together a process that leads towards a communicable project at the end of it. But you do need to be very careful with the summary for policymakers because, frankly, one of the reasons some of the sentences become so convoluted, is just because it’s so difficult to negotiate…

CB: It has to go through that notorious plenary where everyone has their say…

JS: Yes, and most often, I think, a better text comes out than goes in, but there might be one or two paragraphs where I still have nightmares and wake up with sweats at two o’clock in the morning about. [Laughs.]

CB: In terms of the 1.5C report, I think in documents recently submitted by the WG3 co-chairs, which I assume you signed off on, it said [pdf] that the special report should be motivated by new scientific findings previously not sufficiently covered rather than updates of early reports. Do you think there’s actually going to be enough new science to truly inform the 1.5C reports?

JS: Yes, it’s actually interesting…

CB: There’s the call for evidence and now everyone’s kind of racing out of the starting blocks, it seems, to try and get some stuff published…

JS: Yes, they definitely and they’re actually moving quite quickly. Some communities are more agile than others in getting new stuff into the public domain. What I’ve been impressed by is how conscious scientists are of the timetable for getting the report out and the approval would be September 2018, which more or less means that you’ve got to get things accepted by the beginning of that very first quarter of that year in order to get them into the report. And probably have them submitted a bit earlier than that. But scientists are actually quite conscious of that timetable.

CB: So, it probably means, realistically, you need to, as an academic, to have submitted it to a journal by first quarter of next year, roughly?

JS: No, with electronic publishing, it has sped it up quite a lot. As long as you have the thing proposed to be in literature by just before the report that goes out to the full governmental review, but you need to have it accepted by the time you’re producing the final draft. That’s the kind of sequence for it. But, just to say, for example, the integrated assessment modelling community, who, basically, can put in the assumptions and press the go button on their keyboards can actually turn the results around relatively quickly. That’s not the case for WG1 colleagues, whose climate models take somewhat longer to run effectively. Different communities are going to go quicker.

CB: The UK is hosting a meeting, I think, in Oxford in September, I think for 1.5C…

JS: That’s at the initiative of the scientists themselves. Natural Environment Research Council has put out a call for rapid research that would feed into the 1.5C report, so they will provide extra money for it. DG Research in Brussels has held a meeting and has actually said it will allow people to deviate from the milestones and goals in their original awards if they can show that it’s moving towards the 1.5C report. So the funders, as well as the scientists, are also taking account of it.

CB: There’s probably risks, aren’t there, with accelerated science, that you don’t leap over all the conventional hurdles of peer review?

JS: No, it will still go through peer review, because it equally may be the case that the peer reviewers will work quicker, because, I tell you, they don’t work that quickly, I can promise you. [Laughs.]

CB: More than two-thirds of the world’s carbon emissions come from urban areas and that percentage is obviously set to grow as the century moves on. Given the importance of cities, do you regret that there will not now be a special report on the cities, specifically, until the AR7 cycle?

JS: Yes, ideally, it would’ve been really good had the cities report taken place. The problem was at the end of the AR5 cycle the countries said, “We would like more special reports please, and more focused kind of things”. So everybody piled in with ideas, far more ideas than any of the working groups had the capacity to deliver, and it was a political process by which it was decided which report was going to go ahead. My nervousness about the special reports is that, personally, I think the special reports should be special and targeted. We’ve ended up with three special reports that, if not carefully looked at could actually sprawl quite significantly in terms of their scope, and, actually, any of them could be constructed in such a way that they, effectively, could preempt quite a lot of the main AR6 report itself. So, I think in terms of the scoping, and I don’t mind saying it, in terms of nudging the process of whatever, I will personally be pressing to get them as focused as possible. So, for example, with the 1.5C report, why is 1.5C different from 2C degrees world and to pick out the things that would be different, rather than to go through all the things that you need to do to get to 1.5C, much of which might be covered in the main report.

CB: Maybe just finishing off on that point, how will you get the correct balance between covering both the climate impacts of 1.5C and the pathways required for 1.5C? How do you get that balance right? Presumably, that means you working with WG2 colleagues for this special report?

JS: One of the key things is the difference between the working groups and the special reports in this cycle from the previous cycles. In the previous cycles, many of the special reports were in the domain of one working group, like, for example, carbon capture and storage. That was a WG3 report. When we did aviation that would involve working with WG1 and WG3. This is the first time that we’ll need two of the special reports to cover the whole domain. It needs WG1, WG2 and WG3 to put them together. And we’ve never really done this before.

CB: There have been criticisms the past that the working groups working in silos and they don’t really talk to each other, or even, to some degree, understand each other’s domains. How do you think in AR6 that gets nailed down?

JS: Based on my experience over the last six months, the first part of the cycle, the idea that we don’t speak to each other enough would strike me as absolutely extraordinary. We’re speaking to each other constantly, actually. Obviously, we have the executive committee that was set up during AR5, but the co-chairs are also speaking to each other on a more informal basis to coordinate activity and for anybody who’s been inside the plenary meetings, or the bureau meeting, the co-chairs are all sitting together and are producing joint presentations to the plenary.

CB: Is that a new thing?

JS: It is completely new. It’s the first time it’s ever happened.

CB: And what’s driven that? Is that a Hoesung Lee [the new IPCC chair] thing, or is it just the personalities of the different people involved?

JS: It’s the personalities and the co-chairs wanting to work together in that way, actually, and recognising that was a weakness from previous cycles. We want to increase the collaboration. It appears to have been successful so far.

CB: Hoesung Lee has said that he wants a solutions focus for the next IPCC report and that seems to largely fall on WG3 to deliver that. What’s your plan for pushing on from the overriding message of AR5 WG3, which was essentially we need to urgently act? How do you change gear and move into this solutions space?

JS: I was again hoping you were going to ask me for the most three important things. [Laughs.] And this was the second one of my three that I was going to pick up on, the solutions-based approach. I should say first of all that I think WG2 has also got a big solutions agenda on adaptation as well, so it’s not just WG3 that’s involved. But the challenge that we’ve got is to form a better bridge between what you might call the top down and the bottom up when we’re thinking about the mitigation agenda because, as you say, the messaging out of AR5 came from the models and this has to be done and there was less emphasis on the “how” than what needed to be done by when to actually achieve it. So it’s very much a priority for myself and Shukla, my fellow WG3 co-chair. Without very little effort, we are moving in the same kind of direction on this – that we will much more emphasise the specific technologies, measures, techniques that are needed to deliver the kind of ambitious decarbonisation scenarios, with much more attention to the kind of the timetables by which things would need to happen, for example, and what kind of supporting policies and frameworks might need to be put in place.

CB: The risk of that is that you now end up moving into that risky area of picking technology winners. That AR6 WG3 may say this technology is better than that technology…

JS: There’s no risk of us ever saying that because we know it’s absolutely doomed at the summary for policymakers stage.

CB: So how do you communicate solutions and deliver on what Hoesung Lee is wanting without tiptoeing around that?

JS: Because you need to produce portfolios of solutions or present the choices that are available to policymakers when you’re doing it. For example, I think one of the big debates that we may have between different communities is whether this is all a technology fix, energy supply kind of thing, or whether it’s more consumer-led demand-side, and how you integrate it with the sustainable development goals. If you’re getting these different communities and perspectives in one place, this is an offer to the policymakers about the choices that are available to them, but making it very clear that it’s the policymakers’ choice and this is not the scientists telling them what to do.

CB: So you present them with a buffet and ask them to eat?

JS: Exactly.

CB: At the Berlin plenary of AR5 WG3 in 2014, there was a reference to, quote, “70% of carbon emissions coming from just the 10 largest countries”, and that was cut from the final version. Can the IPCC continue to tiptoe around the issue of who is largely to blame for rising emissions?

JS: Well, I think the word “blame” is probably not one that will appear in any chapter, or summary for policymakers. I think we need to feel our way round that one and see how it plays out. I mean the fact that 70% of emissions come from so many countries is a simple fact. It’s an incontrovertible fact.

CB: And that fact is still within the WG3 underlying chapters. It just didn’t make it into the summary for policymakers…

JS: That’s absolutely right and it’s quite clear that things are acceptable in chapters which, perhaps, if I can put it delicately, have a lower readership than those of the summary for policymakers which is one of the foundations for the negotiations as well. Countries are not going to accept things in the summary for policymakers that will compromise a subsequent negotiating position.

CB: And, in a way, that’s the SPM’s power, right? Because they have actually all been signed off by the nations, so it immediately, by default, becomes almost like an established position?

JS: Yes, once you’ve agreed the SPM, nobody can ever row back on it, and that’s part of it power.

CB: Following on from the Oslo meeting earlier this year which looked at communications, how does the IPCC improve its communications? Does it, for example, have the correct diversity of spokespeople and representative scientists? I know Hoesung Lee mentioned this in his candidacy in the run for the chair last year. A lot of the candidates said we need to get more people from developing nations and a better gender mix, etc.

JS: This is something that we’ve actually been paying a lot of attention to even as we get into the scoping meetings for reports and it will come up with authors. One of the things that I kind of made the pitch for in my stand is it’s not just a case of getting the numbers of developing country people involved in it, it’s making sure that they have a more equal status and that their voice is heard and given the same weight as people whose native language may be English and, frankly, are more mouthy than some of their colleagues. So, one of the things, again, that myself and Shukla have been giving a bit of thought to is when you get to the first lead authors meeting, what kind of induction training processes, facilitated processes you get to make sure that there’s a more even involvement of people in the process. Because that was something that very much struck me from AR5, just because you’ve got the numbers looking right – that’s one box to tick-  but it hasn’t actually solved all of the problems.

CB: Moving on from that bit, how should the communication of the 1.5C report be handled, given the very politicised environment in which it will be landing in 2018? For example, that’s the year that we’ll also see the so-called Facilitative Dialogue promised at Paris, which will obviously inform the next round of pledges. So, it feels that the UNFCCC road and the IPCC road are getting ever closer and I guess they’re designed to do that. But I guess with this 1.5C report, particularly, it’s an invitation of the Paris Agreement and you’ve got to communicate how and when those roads begin to open up…

JS: Just to say it, one of the impressions I got when I was at the SBSTA meeting in Bonn in May was a little bit of terror at the high level of expectations that was being placed on IPCC by the convention. Personally, I think a little bit of expectations management wouldn’t actually go adrift there because it’s not just the 1.5C report, it’s the playing into the global stock take…

CB: Do you know the sequencing of them yet? Does the IPCC report land first and then the Facilitative Dialogue comes after?

JS: It’s not clear what form the Facilitative Dialogue will take. So, we don’t know that. OK, so the IPCC report is approved in the September and then COP24, or whatever it is, then comes in November or December. I can’t remember the exact details. But, of course, countries will have seen the drafts before that, so they will have a fair idea of where it’s actually going.

CB: Playing devil’s advocate, when it comes to the plenary of the 1.5C report, given the politics and everything that will be jostling around at that time, I’m just wondering how much of that will spill over into the hammering down of specific wording in that plenary?

JS: Well, I think it’s going to be an exciting plenary. [Laughs.] You’re absolutely right, but, I mean, we actually have quite a timetable now that has all the lead authors meetings and all the intermediate processes figured out for the 1.5C report. So we know when the literature has to be in, when it has to be approved for publication, when all the lead authors meetings will take place. So, we’ve got our timetable. I think there’s a bigger uncertainty about the UNFCCC, actually.

CB: Just going back to the Paris Agreement, I just want to reflect on Article 4 and just read out the specific wordings. There seems to be a very key bit of the wording within the agreement. So it says: “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goals set out in Article 2, parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognising that peaking will take longer in developing country parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science so as to achieve” – and this, I guess, is the key bit – “a balance between the anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century on the basis of equity and the context of sustainable development in efforts to relegate poverty.” This has widely been interpreted to mean net-zero emissions sometime after 2050. What is your own interpretation of Article 4?

JS: Well, I’m very fluid about my interpretation of Article 4. But, just to say, the thing about peaking of emissions – and this was one of the questions that a lot of the policy people were asking IPCC people when we got to SBSTA in May because it’s one of the key questions –  the traditional approach is to fix a year and we maybe have a range of uncertainty around how much you should reduce. Now we fix the quantity, but we’re uncertain about when we will actually do it. And I think, realistically, it will be very hard to tell when you’ve actually hit a peak, because it will look more like a plateau probably looking back.

CB: So you’ll look back and realise 5-10 years ago it peaked?

JS: It may be sometime because one of the slides I actually showed when we went to SBSTA was of 12 countries whose emissions have peaked already and looked at whether you could’ve actually told whether they had or not. And in some cases, you went back 20 years and actually their emissions dipped…

CB: Because they plateaued for so long?

JS: No, sometimes they dip and then come back again. So, for example, that’s probably the case with China at the moment. We’ve seen emissions reduction. It’s unlikely to be the peak…

CB: But on a global scale, we’re having a little kind of pause moment…

JS: Yes, there’s all sorts of oddities. I mean countries don’t peak randomly. They often all peak at the same time because of some big external event or pressure. For example, the changes in 1990 with the economies in transition, or the Kyoto Protocol, which meant that a group of European countries all tended to get to some peak around the same time as well. So it may be easier to tell for some countries than others, but the date of peaking is really difficult. And the net-zero, I think we’re all kind of puzzling over that one because renewables is zero, but it can never be negative, nuclear is zero, but it can never be negative. So it does, in a sense, involve taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and afforestation can only take you a certain distance and when you’ve covered the land, that’s the end of it. You can’t go on planting forests forever. So you’re into the area of taking carbon out of the atmosphere at some point…

CB: Do you think we’re already too locked in and heavily assuming or relying on various slightly sci-fi versions of negative emissions, which haven’t really been invented or demonstrated yet?

JS: We really need to do that. And certainly if you look at the questions for the scoping meeting for the 1.5C report, these questions are raised. But they’ve been raised, they haven’t been answered and that’s where we need to go. My own view on things like direct air capture, for example, I don’t think there’s any engineering reason why you could not do it, but if you think that the flue gases from a power station have CO2 concentrations of 150,000 parts per million and the atmosphere has 400, thermodynamically, it’s kind of telling you what the easiest thing is to do first.

CB: What will WG3’s role be in this special report on oceans and the cryosphere?

JS: We’re figuring that one out at the moment. We kind of see that as a dominant WG1 and WG2 kind of challenge. The oceans and cryosphere report was different…

CB: But is there a kind of sinks question around the ocean saying WG3 would say, “Well, oceans could play a role in drawing down CO2…”

JS: Well, there will obviously be some measures as part of it, but, interestingly, it’s taking it into places into which WG3 communities have yet to go. So we’ve kind of done bioenergy, land-use, forests, energy, basically, agriculture, kind of done that. But it’s the non-terrestrial issues, such as blue carbon and coastal zones is an interesting one, obviously, because it’s at the margin between oceans and terrestrial systems and that will need to be looked at. But the way I would see it is that a lot of the WG1 community have perhaps looked at that, but looked at it through a more scientific lens than a policy lens, if you see what I mean. So the traditional WG3 communities, I’m not sure really that there’s a strong literature from that side to look at.

CB: How will AR6 produce an assessment of the avoided impacts of not going beyond 2C or 1.5C? This was missing from AR5, no?

JS: Yes, that is an interesting question because it’s obviously the question of how you get WG2 and WG3 to work together with maybe a kind of spine of emissions pathway scenarios hat joins it together. One of the things that it touches on is the kind of the framing of the questions for the overall report because last time round, I think there was a bit of a push back against the idea of using cost-benefit frameworks to think about the climate change issue. There was a strong decision to use risk assessment as the kind of integrating framework. A lot of the not IPCC meetings, but scientific meetings I’ve been to in the last few months have been raising that question you have about avoiding impacts, about a more cost-benefit framing. What are the benefits of actually reducing emission in terms of reduced impacts? So people are raising these questions. So that’s when you get to the scoping. You think it’s how you put it into there. And I have to say, personally, that I’ve seen so many different ways of framing it that I’m not really tied to one way. I think you almost need to frame the framing, if you see what I mean, and put them all side by side and ask, “What does this usefully tell me about the climate challenge?”

CB: Climate action is often framed by its critics as, I quote, a “cost” or a “burden”. Others, for example, such as the New Climate Economy report, frame it as an investment or as an opportunity. Both two different ways of looking at it. How will WG3 approach this?

JS: Well, just to go back to the old point that IPCC assesses literature, it doesn’t do new research. The challenge is that there’s much more literature that’s done within a conventional paradigm and if you run a computable general equilibrium model, for example, you cannot show a benefit because that’s the way the model is constructed, and it will need other kinds of literature that’s framed in a different way in order to do that. So, the appeal for people who sort of critique IPCC for not considering other approaches is please produce papers, write books for us to assess, because if it goes through peer review and you do it, we will assess it and that’s the challenge.

CB: A bit related. Are you concerned the integrated assessment models do not fairly reflect the real world cost curves of renewables? Conversely, they sometimes seem to have somewhat heroic assumptions about the contributions of, say, CCS, nuclear power, BECCS, etc.

JS: I think it’s quite interesting because the integrated assessment modellers, if you get them off into a small room or talk to them over a beer, are very well aware of the limitations of their models and what kind of questions that they’re actually qualified to answer. And I think that’s right. We should be more measured in the way that we actually interpret them. They answer some questions, but they don’t answer other questions and I think it is impossible to develop a model that does everything, that goes into detail. They don’t, because of the lack of detail in them, handle, say, things like the intermittency of renewables as well as they might do. But, on the other hand, you can kind of tweak them and fool them into doing it a bit better. And what you actually need is to assess the literature that has all kinds of modelling, that takes all kinds of perspectives, that’s national, regional, global, that is addressed at specific sectors, but doesn’t address the whole system. The challenge for the IPCC is to assess, in an integrated way, these different strands of modelling and types of literature. I’m on the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and we use an integrated assessment model kind of approach to think especially about the long-term issues, but we use lots of other models as well and we don’t believe any one model and that’s the secret, I think.

CB: Final question. We heard it in the Brexit vote. We hear it often in the kind of discussion around climate change, that there’s a kind of overhanging issue of intergenerational responsibility with something like climate change and about today’s policymakers and scientists delivering for tomorrow’s people who are going to inherit this world in the generations to come. How do you talk about climate change to children or younger generations? What’s the best approach for communicating and discussing what is such a challenging issue?

JS: The expert on this in IPCC is Valérie Masson-Delmotte in WG1 because she is especially concerned with communicating with younger people. But I think that they’re actually quite absorbent of the kind of messages that come out of the modelling. I mean, frankly, it’s people my age that are much more difficult to communicate about climate change. [Laughs.] They’ve lived off the benefits of the high-carbon lifestyle. For me, that’s a bigger challenge in a political sense.

CB: To a younger generation, presumably the WG3 topics are possibly more pertinent. I don’t know if you’d have such a big challenge communicating to younger generations that climate change is issue. It’s more about, “OK, well, we know it’s an issue. How do we go about fixing it?”…

JS: I think the challenge when you take WG3 kind of issues out to a wider set of publics, it is actually more difficult in some ways because you’re instantly talking about things that everybody can have an opinion on. You can’t have an opinion, basically [with WG1]. It’s either science, or it’s not science, how the climate system works and how the oceans work, but everybody can have an opinion about supporting renewable energy or behaviour change for energy efficiency or transport, or whatever. So, in that sense, I don’t think you can kind of tell people what the answer is. You kind of need to produce the evidence to provoke the debate. And it’s why I don’t think the IPCC can do that job all by itself. When it comes to the communications side, we need other people to take the kind of messages that we give which will all be about options and you can do this and you could do that and you can take an economist and tie their hands behind their back cause they’ll never give you a single answer kind of thing. It’s up to people, other groups – NGOs, communicators – to help us.

CB: That’s interesting because “other people” is a big term. It could mean the media, it could be NGOs, it could be politicians, it could be whoever. You mention NGOs, but what do you mean, specifically, by other people communicating the IPCC findings?

JS: Well, the point is that you can’t be specific because there’s so many potential audiences out there. We know that the audience for a summary for policymakers is climate negotiators. They’re the primary audience for it. If you look at the detailed chapters of IPCC, it may be targeted at national policymakers who have the job of implementing policy and you have the kind of what do you do on a Monday morning kind of issue. I think for wider publics, people at large, if I can be unspecific about it and decline the invitation to be specific, it is actually the big kind of narratives about what kind of society do you want? Will we be covering all the hillsides with wind turbines? These are the kind of issues that are going to play. I think we have such a variety of audiences for this that we need to think about it carefully. And it is beyond the resources of the IPCC, I think, to do a completely professional job of communicating it and that was the message of the communication workshop in Oslo. We do need to collaborate with other people to make sure that the messages get over more widely.

CB: OK, fantastic. We appreciate your time.

JS: Thank you very much.

Main image: Professor Jim Skea at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London. Credit: Association for Decentralised Energy via Flickr.

The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman on 4 July 2016 at Imperial College London.

Sharelines from this story
  • The Carbon Brief Interview: Prof Jim Skea
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