"The demands have been tabled, it is now up to the politicians to act"

November 29, 2015

The UN climate summit in Paris begins on November 30. What expectations do politicians and scientists have of this major event? What challenges does global warming present for humanity at a global and local level? Jochem Marotzke and Martin Claußen, Directors at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, discussed these issues at the Max Planck Länderforum with Hamburg’s science minister Katharina Fegebank and Oliver Geden from the “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik” (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin. Ralf Krauter from the “Deutschlandfunk” radio station hosted the event, which was held in Hamburg for the first time.

Text: Ute Kehse

Once again, the global game of poker over the climate enters another critical stage on Monday. The delegations from 195 countries will meet in Paris at the global climate conference to reach a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. A new agreement with binding climate objectives for all member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is planned.

The goal of international climate policy is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that the average global temperature only increases by a maximum of 2° Celsius by 2100, which is known as the two degrees target. The hope is that mankind can cope with such levels of warming without catastrophic consequences.

Great efforts are nevertheless required if the target is to be achieved. The latest assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 2013 that mankind could only emit a maximum of 1,000 gigatons of carbon in the form of CO2 if a higher rise in temperature was to be avoided. Half of this allowance had already been used up by 2011. Global emissions would therefore have to be halved by 2050 in comparison to 1990 and no more fossil fuels could be used at all until 2100. To date, however, the trend has been going in the wrong direction, with emissions continuing to rise.

In view of this situation, it is doubtful whether the negotiations in Paris will ultimately result in a binding agreement. “I don’t believe that’s realistic,” remarked Jochem Marotzke, whose expectations of the UN climate summit are moderate. “In my view, it would be a good outcome if the right course is set for the future,” said the Max Planck researcher.

Progress has nevertheless been made in the tough negotiations on the fight against climate change over recent years. “There are grounds for cautious optimism,” revealed Oliver Geden, who leads the EU/Europe working group at the “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik” in Berlin. Over 160 countries have now drawn up national climate plans which aim to restrict emissions. “Just a few years ago only the EU and three other countries had produced such plans,” indicated Geden. The 2014 climate agreement between China and the US also represents a step in the right direction.

However, the efforts made to date will not be enough to limit the global rise in temperature to two degrees. Germany has in fact succeeded in reducing CO2 emissions by 27% compared to 1990 levels whereas the decrease in the EU as a whole stands at 23%. Germany is nevertheless still a long way off achieving the self-imposed target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020. The climate plans of many other nations only exist on paper thus far. “No conclusions about the state of the climate in 2100 can be drawn from the national climate plans,” remarked Oliver Geden. “While a speed limit on climate change has now been set, nobody is sticking to it at the moment.”

The lack of activity is not down to insufficient scientific evidence. “The IPCC’s latest assessment report from 2013 sets out the level of emissions still permitted,” pointed out Martin Claußen, an expert who was part of the German delegation at the last climate summit in Stockholm. “The demands have been tabled, it is now up to the politicians to act,” urged the Max Planck researcher.

More frequent storm tides and inland flooding

The federal state of Hamburg illustrates how large cities can contribute to climate protection. The city presented a concept in 2013 known as the “climate protection masterplan.” On one hand, this takes account of adjustment measures to climate changes. Martin Claußen and Hans von Storch of the Helmholtz Centre in Geesthacht published the second climate report for the metropolitan region of Hamburg in 2013 which is a kind of local IPCC report. This indicated that Hamburg had to adjust to more frequent storm tides and inland flooding during the winter in future. “The winters will become damper,” reported Martin Claußen. “The dikes will be sufficient for several decades but then we’ll have to see how the rise in the sea level develops.”

On the other hand, the Hamburg masterplan also contains specific measures on cutting the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 – for example, through the recycling of raw materials, the building of cycle paths, the promotion of renewable energies and building renovations. “We are actively working towards achieving the objectives set,” remarked Katharina Fegebank. The city has to contend with typical problems – climate protection goals often run contrary to the interests of the economy and few citizens will change their lifestyle to protect the climate. “To establish acceptance for climate protection, we do not need idealistic debate but instead creative solutions,” pointed out the business minister. It would appeal to industry if locational advantages, for example, were produced through climate protection. While citizens will not switch to cycling for environmental reasons, they might because it enables them to reach their destination more quickly than by car.

Measures at local level and even at the level of the EU as a whole are ultimately not comprehensive enough to curb climate change. The rise in CO2 levels is a global issue. The EU accounts for just 10% of global emissions. The participants at the Max Planck Länderforum nevertheless agreed that the efforts being made in Germany and Europe were not in vain.  Jochem Marotzke strongly believes that “Unless someone takes up the lead role, nothing will happen in other countries.” “In Germany and the EU, we have to demonstrate that we are enjoying economic prosperity in this lead role. The wheels will then also start to turn in other countries too.”

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