The 59th session of the intergovernmental body of the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is scheduled to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, in July 2023, with an election slated for the IPCC Bureau and Task Force Bureau. Jean Pascal (Prof.), a Belgian veteran climate scientist and candidate for the IPCC Chairmanship, is competing with three other candidates. During his visit to Ethiopia a few weeks ago, he sat down with Sisay Sahlu of The Reporter to discuss his candidacy and the issues of climate change among others. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: Can you tell us about yourself?
Jean Pascal (Prof.): Let me introduce myself. I’ve been working on climate change for 40 years. I’ve also been working at the science-policy interface in the IPCC and around the climate convention for almost thirty years. The IPCC is a panel on climate change in charge of assessing the state of knowledge about climate science and climate change in general in all dimensions: the situation, the projections, the physical mechanisms, but also the impact. What can we do? What can be done to adapt to some of those impacts to reduce their severity for both people and ecosystems, as well as to reduce emissions that are causing climate change? All of that is covered by the IPCC.
I was on the IPCC Bureau between 2002 and 2015. I was vice chair of the IPCC between 2008 and 2015. And now, I’m running for the position of chair of the IPCC. The election is at the end of July this year in Nairobi, Kenya. So, I’m trying to persuade as many nations as I can to vote for my candidacy, which has the full support of the Belgian government, because it’s an election where each UN member country essentially has a vote. The Bureau is the body that manages the IPCC on a day-to-day basis. And actually, there’s a member from Ethiopia in that bureau at the moment, whose name is Diriba Korecha (PHD), from the Ethiopian Metrological Institute.
There are rules of geographical balance so that everyone from every region of the world is properly represented. But there’s one rule that says, and it’s very important to me, that the chair doesn’t represent the country or region; the chair represents the world; it needs to represent all the members of the IPCC.
I’m trying to visit as many countries as possible to be aware of the realities on the ground in terms of climate change impacts and the efforts made in the eye of adaptation and mitigation, and that’s why I also came to Ethiopia. I went on field trips with UNICEF and visited several projects related to water, in particular water provisions, wells, and the like for irrigation, and also the efforts to manage water better to build more resilience in agriculture in Ethiopia, east of Addis Ababa, in an area named Wolenchiti Lake.
We also visited projects in Sebeta, where we visited the big solar pump that is irrigating wheat fields, which is a very interesting and nice combination of clean energy and a way to adapt to drought to irrigate an area that was totally unused most of the year because when it’s not raining, there’s no water in that area. That’s why that terrain could not be cultivated, but that has changed with the use of solar pumps to irrigate their fields. We also saw other revenue-generating activities.
Have you contacted Ethiopian officials?
Yes, I have been in contact with the IPCC Ethiopian focal point, Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority director Getahun Garedew (PHD), Diriba Korecha (PHD), African Union officials, around 20 Francophone African Ambassadors who reside in Ethiopia, the acting executive secretary of the United Nations Commission for Africa, and I also gave a public lecture at Addis Ababa University about the latest IPCC report on East African climate change vulnerability and opportunities.
So you have come to Ethiopia to convince and inform officials about your potential candidacy; how do you see Ethiopia’s stance on voting for you?
It is a bit difficult for me to speak about it; the best would be to ask the Ethiopian authorities, but of course they might be cautious about it. We had very good contact, and I was here not only to introduce my candidacy but also to listen to their concerns and be determined to address the issue if I get elected as the chair of the IPCC.
I have discussed accessing scientific literature from African scientists, access to computer-powered climate modeling, and access to commercial software, which is sometimes important for hydrological assessment, because there’s an issue that has been repeated for decades: too few articles and scientific literature produced and published by African scientists, and it is not an issue of the lack of African scientists.
The issue is that they have much less means in terms of access to literature, the right software and hardware, and access to funding to travel and meet colleagues. It is out of the IPCC’s mandate to deal with that, but it has to assess the state of the scientific literature since there are gaps in the literature and in the data. Particularly in Africa, the IPCC cannot do a proper job in the future if the situation doesn’t change.
Even though it’s not strictly the IPCC’s mandate to solve or help solve those problems, I’m absolutely determined to establish partnerships with other organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the AU, and the European Commission to see what can be done to help the situation, also in terms of funding.
I’m even dreaming about convincing some partners of the Green Climate Fund to aid some activities in that area. I have plenty of ideas, but first I need to be elected.
Climate change is a global issue, and the major contributors to this are the developed nations like the US, China, India, and the like. These developed nations promised to subsidize USD 100 billion in climate finance annually, but it has never been put into action. Why is that?
It is very sad that that promise didn’t come true. I was there when they promised that in 2009. That was more than 15 years ago in Copenhagen at COP15. It’s true that developed countries as a whole didn’t deliver enough of that funding. So it’s a breach of their responsibilities because the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities means that the responsibility for climate change and also for addressing climate change by developed countries is much bigger than the responsibilities of the developing countries.
That’s what I call the “double injustice” of climate change. Those who are experiencing the brunt of the impact are in tropical and vulnerable countries. Most of them are in tropical areas, and of course, Africa is a big part of that. So why are they not delivering? I mean, if I were in their position, I would certainly do much more because the earth is our common home.
When I say it is home, it should not be understood as the only home of humans; it is the home of all the living species on this planet, and a big part of our well-being depends on the wellbeing of nature and ecosystems, and those ecosystems are threatened by climate change.
So it’s a very short assessment that developed countries don’t do much more than include both adaptation mitigation and mitigation of their own emissions first because they are the most responsible actors. If you look at the historical emissions of greenhouse gases, it is very clear that a very large majority of emissions come from developed countries. So today, they have a responsibility much larger than the responsibilities of developing countries.
It is very short-term thinking not to do what’s needed where they can act. They can do so much in mitigating their own emissions, but also in funding, because even at USD 100 billion, as I wrote about it a few years ago, it’s really nothing. For instance, there are now eight billion people, and for argument’s sake, let’s say five billion live in developing countries. So, the USD 100 billion a year translates to USD 20 per person per year. What can you do with USD 20 per person for mitigation, adaptation, loss, and damage? It’s ridiculous.
Sometimes a hindered USD 100 billion seems like a lot, but actually it is not, and even that is not delivered.
Do you think you would succeed in achieving this promise made years ago? Can you convince them?
No, I won’t say that, because that would be a false promise. What I can say is that I will do my best to convince them to deliver on their promise. The IPCC does advise and reflect the state of knowledge and technology about the situation, but the IPCC is not the one deciding what should be done or not done.
The IPCC is an advisory body, and I think that as an advisory body, it must be the voice of climate but cannot speak in climate negotiations. And if I’m the chair, I will be a very strong voice for climate and climate science. And I will push for changes in every way possible, including funding. But you know, the Secretary General of the UN is also doing that, and he’s much stronger than the IPCC’s chair will be in terms of position.
So to answer your question, I will not be alone in achieving that, for sure. But I will work very hard to push those who need to move into action.
In the last five years, east Africa has been experiencing severe drought, and specifically, if you look at Ethiopia, millions of livestock have died and livelihoods are at stake as a result of climate-induced factors. How do you see this climate-induced injustice?
The best illustration of the double injustice is that, at the same time, it is the region that contributes the least to the problem. It is an area with the most severe impact of the double injustice. It is unacceptable. I have done many other things than climate modeling, and I wrote about the ethical aspects of climate change.
I’m very aware of these ethical issues; they are issues of historical responsibility and even iniquity and injustice.
Do you think this historical injustice will be sorted out soon?
Let’s hope. I will work very hard with as many partners, colleagues, and friends as possible to make that happen as quickly as possible. But we all know that it’s not an easy task, and I am not going to make false promises and say that if I’m elected chair, the climate change problem will be solved in five years.
African Ministers of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development have called for decisive action to reform the global debt architecture to enable the investments needed for achieving sustainable development and climate goals around the world. How do you see this request? Do you think it could happen?
You know I’m a physicist; I am not a minister of finance, so I’m not even an economist. There are people who give their opinion about everything, even when they don’t know anything about it. So I’m not really a specialist in that. I mean, at first sight, I would say it is probably a good idea, but at the same time, I am not personally looking into that. So I prefer to be cautious in answering that.
If I am elected, though, I will certainly have a team of people and allow them to see what’s in the IPCC report up to now, and I will try to base my answer on science and what the literature says. There are assessments probably for that specific question. But I must say, I am not aware of them; they may even be in the report now. I prefer to be rigorous.
Why is carbon trading not working properly?
If I may ask you a question, what made you think it wasn’t working? I think that on this subject, like many others, generalizations are dangerous. I can tell you that, and I am saying this not because I’m from Europe or Belgium in particular, but the carbon trading system in Europe works, and it’s helped in a significant manner to reduce EU emissions in the industrial sectors covered by the system.
If it is a general statement, I would disagree. Carbon trading, if it is well organized and managed, can work and deliver emission reductions. When you say carbon trading, it is actually half of the principles behind the system. Because the first half, which is not mentioned in the expression, is cap and trade.
If you imagine the emissions of greenhouse gases from EU polluting industries, for example, as a kind of balloon-sized gas, the first thing to do if you want to have a cap and trade system is to decide how the balloon would shrink over time.
So the first thing to do is to decide on the level of shrinkage year over year. After that comes trading. If you need some time and emit 10 million tons of CO2, you need to buy allowances, but there won’t be more allowances to sell than the total amount of allowances in the balloon. The number of allowances is reduced every year because you have to reduce the emissions by a few percent every year. So every year, those heavily polluting industries in Europe have to buy carbon credits for each million tons of CO2 they want to emit.
If another industry invests to emit less and you have an allowance for the part they don’t use and are ready to sell, then they sell it at the market price, following the laws of offer and demand. And that system took some time at the beginning because of some mistakes, leakage, and trafficking. Like every system, when you start something new, it needs to be adjusted. But now, the system works very well, and it helps. If you look at the numbers, it has significantly reduced the EU’s emissions.
The Chinese government came to the EU, observed the system, and copied it. So inside China now, they’re starting to install a system that is, at least in part, copied from the cap-and-trade system, which has been working in Europe for more than 20 years now.
People in developed nations like the EU or the US talk more about climate change than people in less developed nations like Africa. Is this really an agenda that matters to developed nations?
Well, I’m sure this is related to information in education, and the media has a big responsibility in terms of explaining the issue. You know the process by which human activities are destroying the climate. What are the risks? What can be done about it? There isn’t enough awareness and knowledge about the challenges that climate change represents, but sometimes we also look for opportunities.
You are competing for the chairmanship; what is your vision and plan for this hazardous issue?
The IPCC advises policymakers about the COP process and what can be done. I want to advise those policymakers, decision-makers, and stakeholders in the best and most forceful manner possible, so that they know two things.
One, it is very urgent to act because it’s to our own and our children’s advantage to do so. Second, because there are so many elements of solutions both in terms of adaptation and mitigation, there are so many opportunities, and most of them are better integrated into this. If climate action, which is SDG number 13, is integrated with the others, so many things can be done, not only to improve the climate but also to improve the well-being of people who are facing the consequences of climate change.
I’m convinced it can be done. I want the IPCC to show that it can be done and also show them what needs to be done.