“Technology alone won’t solve the climate crisis”

An interview with professor Heleen de Coninck last Wednesday, April 6, on the IPCC report was appreciated by over 150 people in the Blauwe Zaal and several dozens of viewers online. There wasn’t enough time for the professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change to answer all the questions, which is why she stayed behind afterwards to talk to a group of students and staff members.

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photo Bart van Overbeeke

Gijs van de Sande, program maker at Studium Generale, opened the meeting in the Auditorium with an alarming quote from the third part of the IPCC report, which was published last Monday: “We are not on track at all and we radically have to limit greenhouse gases right now.” De Coninck is being interviewed about her work on the IPCC report, but the first question is about her current level of stress, after having spent so much time working on the report these past few weeks. “There’s no need to worry, I’m not that sensitive to stress. However, the approval of the report by all involved was a rather intense process that took much more time than previously.”

The governments who had to approve the report had committed themselves prior to publication and can therefore not deny any of the report’s findings. But even though the report has relevance as far as policy is concerned, it can’t force governments to adopt a certain policy. Nevertheless, governments are very keen to see that the wording of the report is to their liking, since it does play a leading role in the development of new climate policy and has an influence on the economy. De Coninck: “There are two review rounds, one with experts and one with experts and governments. We received 59,212 comments in total, in giant Excel files we had to go through one file at a time.” The authors are allowed to ignore comments, for example when a government requests that a certain finding be removed from the report even though it came from a research paper. This is a safety buffer against too much government influence.

Writing the report was a huge undertaking anyway: no fewer than 278 authors were involved, and over 18,000 papers had to be analyzed. De Coninck takes this opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding: “The authors themselves don’t carry out climate research for this report, they only look at existing research and draw conclusions from that.”

System change needed

During the interview, a graph is brought up that shows the current state of the global climate. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination: greenhouse gas emissions have continuously increased since 1990. The largest proportional growth occurred in the period between 2000 and 2010, but the graph shows an absolute increase over the past few years. Another graph projects global temperature increase, depending on the measures we take, or won’t take. “If we continue like this, we’re on track for an average temperature rise of between 2 and 3 degrees,” De Coninck estimates. “We need to do more to fight climate change, so that we will at least meet the target from the 2015 IPCC report: to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

What measures should we take exactly? De Coninck has her own (radial) ideas: we need a system change. “Driving electric cars instead of petrol or diesel cars is no real system change. We need to look at the transport system in its entirety, reconsider human mobility. Car ownership should no longer be standard. That would really be a system change.” De Coninck acknowledges that technology can help in the fight against climate change. “But technology alone won’t solve the climate crisis. We need to change the way we think.”

Additional job

There isn’t time enough to answer every question from the audience. Still, De Coninck tries to answer as many as she can, such as whether she gets paid for her work on the IPCC report. The answer is a simple no, not a single cent. “The work is on a voluntary basis, and in my case, the Dutch government reimburses my travel costs. The UN reimburses travel costs for scientists from low-income countries. In addition, the institutions for which scientists work make some time available, so that the scientist has time to work on the report. But in the end, you spend a lot of your own time on it.”

People also want to know how we should deal with the increase in climate misinformation. And what it is like to work with countries like Russia and China, because they too have authors who worked on the report. “China does quite well,” De Coninck says. “They often exceed their own objectives. Russia is a different story. That country is a major exporter of fossil fuels.”

In any event, the media attention for the report puts a smile on De Coninck’s face. “It’s good to see how well the publication of the report is being covered. The Dutch news journal NOS and Delft University of Technology even livestreamed the Q&A that followed the UN’s press conference. I was really glad to see that.”

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