This September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report urging accelerated action if we want to stabilise global temperatures at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. We spoke to Professor Joyashree Roy*, co-lead author of chapter 5 of the report, which focuses on the relationship between climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The IPCC has been warning about climate change for decades now, but no action seems to be taken. What can we do to change this?
This is a very pertinent question. To achieve faster action, I think we must make clear every day that we need to accelerate our transition to cleaner fuels, to a less wasteful a lifestyle and reduce wasteful food consumption. In economics, we use the term bounded rationality: if people do not have complete information they can’t take optimal decisions, so they take opportunistic ones. To help people, we need to tell them what will happen if we don’t take action and the different options they have to avoid that path. We need to show people the economic, social and political opportunities that are available in the new paradigm.
If people do not know what can be done they feel incapacitated. So we should focus on what is feasible and possible, tell people how much they can contribute. What can be done right now, in two years or five years later. If we keep doing this, people will get rid of their fear.
This needs to be done at the individual, household, national and global level. We need to have everyday dialogues, at all scales, and everyone comes together and start projects. We are not talking about ten, twenty or a hundred projects, but billions of projects. By talking every day about it, every project needs to get a climate component.
Chapter 5 focuses on the relationship between 1.5C global warming and sustainable development. Why is this important?
If we want human wellbeing and humanity to progress, we really need to be accelerating our efforts, so that we can minimise losses and costs. With 2C warming, achieving the SDGs will be harder. There will be more damage, more impact on coastal cities, on people’s health and in many other areas.
We assessed whether the pathways needed to achieve the target of 1.5C warming are compatible with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Are fast mitigation actions going to harm realising the SDGs? We conclude that most mitigation and adaptation actions have positive synergies with the SDGs, but there are also some negative trade-offs. We identified options to stabilise at 1.5C warming, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals at the same time and ways to offset trade-offs, such as redistributive policies. We need to electrify energy supply in developing countries to achieve 1.5 C global warming for example, as a result electricity prices could rise. We need redistributive actions so that people living in poverty are not the hardest hit. With the right choices, it is possible to have both the long-term benefit of lowered global warming and the short-term benefit of achieving the SDGs at lower costs.
The "High Energy Planet – Adaptation" report that you co-authored argues that focusing on reducing deaths by natural disasters is a non-political measure to increase climate change adaptation as well as mitigation. Why this measure?
We are not well adapted to climate variability even now. With 1C warming above pre-industrial levels,natural disasters are increasing in number and strength and many deaths are occurring due to a lack of adaptive capacity. If you look into scenarios with 1.5C global warming, the impact in zones with low adaptive capacity will be even higher. By prioritising measures which help us to reduce deaths, we’ll build sustainable development while creating climate change adaptation at the same time. We can also look for win-win options between mitigation and sustainable development while reducing trade-offs through policy action and technological intervention.
Increased energy access is indicated as pivotal to achieve this goal. How can this include mitigation as well?
This is crucial in countries like Bangladesh, where adaptive capacity is low. In developing countries there will be an increased demand for energy, so we will enter a high energy growth path. This does not mean emissions have to be high. By including modern technologies, we can create growth while avoiding emissions. It’s not about total energy demand and demand reduction but about avoiding emissions with a high energy demand. So avoiding emissions can be one of the elements which the developing countries can contribute. The cheapest option to do this right now is by increasing resource efficiency. Energy efficiency has very high synergies with multiple development and climate goals.
We can increase energy, water, material efficiency and reduce waste. You can save the energy, which is getting wasted and save on the supply side. This has many added benefits, such as increased economic activity and employment. To achieve this, we need to look at the supply and demand side together and we should be thinking in terms of leapfrogging technology. That should be a priority for developing countries I think.
How can we achieve this in areas that are currently off-grid?
These actions are not separate. For example, if we continue to use inefficient appliances, combined with renewable energy, then we are increasing wastefulness. Renewable energy and efficient appliances should be one bundle. I always compare what is happening in Africa to what happened in rural India 30 years ago and I'm really surprised that the same mistakes are being made by the multilateral funding agencies. They are using the same old template, not aiming to increase energy efficiency in unison with expanding renewable energy use. This is where we need to leapfrog. We have to do it in one go, energy efficiency and renewable together.
To achieve this, we cannot put in the same old appliances and have the market sort it out alone. Solar panels are a good example. Twenty years ago I met many solar panel investors and they were leaving the market. Some stayed and developed more capacity and they are now benefitting, as the costs have come down. What we need is market and policy signals to work together. Investments for example, are made based on either market or policy signals. Therefore, if we want more finance to flow to the climate change solution direction, we need to revisit these signals. Global good is created so there can be global cooperation. There are so many instruments and known methods to achieve this. This links back to what I said before: we need to work on this every day, at different levels and different scales so that all these things can happen at once.
What is your vision on the climate change challenge?
We lucky to be at a time in humanity's progress pathway where we are able to see ahead of our time. We can determine, where our actions will lead us. This is a fantastic moment. We are foreseers of our own future. We can make the right choices with the right information. We need to be scientifically minded, relying more on facts, technological advancement and scientific understanding. Science needs to drive our policy and humanity’s progress pathway.
Watch Professor speak about the power of human solutions at TEDxGhent:
*Joyashree Roy is currently Bangabandhu Chair Professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand. She is also Professor of Economics and Founders of Global Change Programme and SYLFF Programme at Javdapur University in India. Professor Roy has published more than 97 peer reviewed journal articles, authored and edited books. Professor Roy has been a member of the IPCC for over 10 years and was part of the IPCC-2007 Nobel Peace Prize winning panel. She is co-lead author of chapter 5 of the 2018 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15).