Zijn de huidige klimaatmaatregelen genoeg om onze toekomst te redden?

Het wordt heet, onmenselijk heet.

We stevenen af op 2,4 graden opwarming van de aarde en we zijn op dit moment al voorbij één graad van die opwarming. Klimaatverandering is een feit. En het zijn jongeren en kinderen die het meest te verliezen hebben wanneer de temperatuur verder blijft stijgen. Wat moet er veranderen, wat gebeurt er al op vlak van klimaatmaatregelen en welke actie kunnen we ondernemen?

Onze wetenschappers zijn scherp:
“If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.”

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Onze wetenschappers

Professoren Wim Thiery, Audrey Baeyens en Sebastain Oberthür zijn experten in klimaatmodellen, klimaatrecht en klimaatbeleid.

Wetenschapper- klimaatmodellen

Wim Thiery

Wetenschapper klimaatrecht & milieu-advocate

Audrey Baeyens

Wetenschapper - klimaatbeleid

Sebastian Oberthur


Host: [00:00:10] Scientists With a Cause is a podcast in which you discover how and what VUB scientists contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. Those are 17 goals agreed upon by the United Nations as a part of sustainable development and development coordination. How do they work? What goes on inside VUB? The scientists take their turn in this podcast to tell you about their cause.

Wim Thiery: [00:00:35] This is probably the most important problem that we have ahead of us this century. A key challenge if we want to reach a sustainable world.

Host: [00:00:43] Wim Thiery is a climate scientist at VUB, investigating climate change and how land plays its role in our climate system. Audrey Baeyens works as a lawyer in environmental strategic litigation, fighting for a clear cause.

Audrey Baeyens: [00:00:57] If you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Host: [00:01:00] This episode puts the focus on the SDG 'Climate action': not only protecting the world we live in, but ensuring that it continues to be a habitable world for generations to come by looking for solutions, inspiring policymakers to act, and simply being ready. Sebastian Oberthür is a Professor of Environment and Sustainable Development at VUB. He looks ahead with confidence in the actions of scientists.

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:01:26] When the politics are right, when the policymakers are ready to move, we can say yes, and this and this and this and this, we can now do. We can be ready. And that's perhaps the best we can do in addition to trying to create momentum.

Host: [00:01:40] In this episode of Scientists With a Cause.

Wim Thiery: [00:01:46] To some extent, I always knew I wanted to work on environmental issues, and I quite quickly became aware that the way in which we influence climate is somehow this overarching problem, which is so deeply rooted in the way we are organized as a society but also has so many consequences. So I quite quickly realized that this was the topic I wanted to focus on because this was going to be the key challenge for our generation. We are using what we call global climate models. These are computer models that we run on these big supercomputers and they allow us to quantify what the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases mean for the climate system. We look specifically at how in these computer models, CO2 emissions are causing, for instance, the occurrence of heatwaves. We are also in our research quantifying how many of those extremes different generations are experiencing. So we are actually bridging at the moment somehow between the study of demography and climate science. We are seeing today these extreme events happening all around us. We are seeing extreme heat waves in Canada. With almost 50 degrees Celsius in Canada, can you imagine? We are seeing these devastating floods that have occurred in Belgium, but also in Germany and the Netherlands in the summer of 2021 that have caused 200 people to die in the region. We know from our scientific studies that there is a clear link between climate change and the occurrence of these extreme events. So climate change is causing these events to occur more often, and to be more intense. The bottom line is that if we want to tackle climate change, it's for future generations. But it's also about us here today.

Host: [00:03:36] As Wim Thiery describes so well, climate change is no longer a problem only of the future proven by research and numbers again and again. Because with the current plans designed by state authorities, we are heading towards 2.4 degrees of global warming and we are already past one degree of that global warming at this moment.

Wim Thiery: [00:03:58] If you look at what that means for children that are born today, those children will experience about three times more droughts, three times more river floods, one and a half times as many tropical cyclones, three times as many crop failures, twice the number of wildfires and seven times more heatwaves compared to a person born in 1960. So that's really the grandparent to the grandchild. There are studies that are showing that the occurrence of combined extremely high temperatures and also extremely high humidity rates cause conditions that are beyond the limits of human survivability. Young people have the most to lose if we go to high warming levels. But you can also turn this message around and you can say that if we increase our ambition and if we increase ambition in those plans that those countries put on the table, and if we also execute those plans and, for instance, achieve limiting global warming to one and a half degrees - this is what is written in the Paris Agreement - well, then we can see that we can really reduce that burden that we have on the current young generations. And for heatwaves, for instance, this reduction in burden is 40%. So instead of seven times more heat waves on the current pledges, young children will face only four times more heat waves compared to their grandparents. If we limit global warming to one and a half degrees instead of those current pledges.

Host: [00:05:24] It's still a lot, but it's a lot less.

Wim Thiery: [00:05:25] Exactly. Exactly. Yes. And this is why I think our research is, and that's always what we show in climate science, that there is a clear message of hope and a clear call to action that arises from this research.

Host: [00:05:45] It may sound like a grim future and a not-so-pleasant task. Nonetheless, it is vital to stay on course and if possible, improve our course. Sebastian Oberthür feels we need to aim as high as possible.

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:06:00] I still hope that the little bit that I can do makes a little difference in the world. That's how we motivate ourselves. And I have actually always tried to achieve, kind of in that sense then, the maximum and not be frustrated by the big part that we can't achieve. To perhaps give a picture of this: I usually also say that in class we have obviously these temperature targets internationally, right. And obviously, if at some point we come to the insight and perhaps we are not too far from that, that or we have to say that we'll overshoot, will not be able to limit it to 1.5 because we are already at 1.4, etc. and we have emitted that much. Then obviously, okay, one can have these solutions of trying to get carbon out of the atmosphere and bring the temperature down again. But essentially, you know, you may be at the point where you say it's very, very difficult or unrealistic to achieve 1.5. You may be at the point where it might be very difficult to even achieve the two degrees target. Let's hope we make both of those. But, it would be wrong to then say, oh, therefore I don't try anymore because we've not achieved the target. Because 2.3 is still worse than 2.1. And 2.7 is even worse and 3.5 degrees is even worse and 4.5 is, you know. So we still have to do the utmost. So my motto for all the past 30 years with all these targets of temperature, etc., has always been we need to do the maximum. That I know. Because I know we'll need time. It will be difficult to achieve what we need to achieve. We just need to do the maximum because that will probably still not be enough. So just strive for the maximum of what's possible, etc. That's obviously spoken as a political scientist.

Host: [00:08:20] Climate action is heavily connected to the policies, plans, and laws made by state authorities, often as a result of international agreements. Lawyer Audrey Baeyens feels that pushing to innovate those laws and policies is not the only way to change things.

Audrey Baeyens: [00:08:38] I don't think it's the only way. I think also there are different actors. You've got industry, you've got citizens, you've got the authorities. They can all do something. Everyone has to work together in the end. But what we have seen is that the environmental policy is a bit lacking. It's not really ambitious. And so through judicial action, we have found a way to put pressure on the governments. We have hopefully a way to make things go faster because the shift we are having to make to a fossil-free society is just too slow. I don't know if you've read the last reports of the IPCC. Well, they are alarming. They are really depressing. So we have a window of opportunity of ten years and then people are being optimistic. So it's now that we really have to change things and we see that the policy is not there and Belgium is a bit particular. We've got three regions and a federal state. They don't really work together. So we really have to have this stick so that they will shift and change things.

Host: [00:09:46] A lot of different policymakers and people changing things in Belgium, does it really make it that more difficult than in other countries, to change policies?

Audrey Baeyens: [00:09:54] It's a bit of a hurdle, yes, it is. Because they are all pointing to each other saying you are the one that's not doing enough. So, it's a problem, yes.

Wim Thiery: [00:10:17] A key point in this context is the Paris Climate Agreement. It was signed in 2015. It says that global warming will be kept to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels and that efforts will be pursued to limit global warming to one and a half degrees above pre-industrial levels. So we already have one degree of warming, today. This means another half a degree left before we reach that one and a half degree temperature target of the Paris Agreement. On the other hand, there was also an agreement on what would be the method. The agreement there was every country in the world is going to do their homework and write a climate plan and they were going to submit that plan to the United Nations. And so if all those plants come together, we will see global climate action. And this is the global climate action that we'll take. And then these plans will be updated every five years and they can only become more ambitious. Countries cannot step back and reduce their emissions, which makes sense, right? So what happened is at the time of the Paris agreement, this first generation of national climate plans was submitted. And what happened? It turned out that those climate plans put us on a path towards three degrees of warming. That's far more than the one and a half degrees which those same countries had agreed to do. We just now had the Glasgow Climate Conference in the fall of 2021. Why was this such an important conference? This was an important conference because this was the time when the countries had to submit their new plans. So their updated plans. So they could only increase their ambition - 

Host: [00:11:58] And we were already behind five years ago...

Wim Thiery: [00:11:59] Oh, yeah, yeah. So their five years have passed and in these five years emissions would just continue to rise. The big question was, now what will those new plans look like? So those new plans were put on the table and ambition was increased. We had the European Green Deal, for example, but we still see that with those plans. We are still at 2.4 degrees of warming. And so we are still, even with that new generation of plans, still far above the climate targets from the Paris Agreement. And in addition, what became increasingly clear is that there is a difference between the plans that the countries put on the table and the actual policies that they are running. The calculations from scientists show that if you don't look at these plans of the countries, but at their actual policies, well, we are rather going towards three degrees of warming. You can say it's like a double failure, right? The action plans of the countries are insufficient for the Paris Agreement, which they themselves signed, and the actual policies are insufficient for their plans. We need to close that gap.

Host: [00:13:01] A difficult gap to close and a difficult situation as it is, because that leeway, that freedom that state authorities have in designing their own plans is also necessary, says Sebastian Oberthür.

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:13:14] It's quite a diverse union of member states where conditions vary a whole lot. You obviously can reflect that also in binding legislation. To some extent, you need different building standards in Sweden than you need in Spain. That seems kind of obvious, but obviously, you can also write that into the law. You don't need to say: "Oh, we do something very loose and then everybody sees what they can do". But it's true that from that angle you need flexibility across the member states. But I think also politically the Union is not a nation-state. It's very clear we call it a supranational entity, right. So also politically, there are cultures grown across countries, etc. There are things like building codes that have been built for decades and centuries that one cannot just, you know, just do away with and permitting procedures, just change everything from a central perspective. But one kind of needs to build on what has grown in the member states. The war in Ukraine kind of also lets us see that things can also change in that respect very quickly, you know. Suddenly things perhaps could change much more dramatically. But at the moment it's such a diverse union that it's probably rational to just give everybody a little bit of flexibility on what to do.

Host: [00:14:44] Now, what if that flexibility does not yield the plans and results we need? What if you feel a state authority completely fails you as a citizen to take action against climate change? Enter the nonprofit Klimaatzaak, translated verbatim as Climate Case. A project to which Audrey Baynes is closely connected.

Audrey Baeyens: [00:15:06] Klimaatzaak is a non-profit organization that is specifically focusing on climate change and trying to shift also the legislation and trying to obtain binding targets, and reduction targets. They already started their work in 2013-2014. They issued subpoenas to the different regions and the federal state. So they started litigation, but again, only in Belgium. Klimaatzaak lost three years just to determine in which language the proceedings had to be followed, French or Dutch. It went to the Supreme Court of Belgium which had to decide if it was going to be French or Dutch. So meaning that in the Netherlands by 2015 there was the first judgment, Urgenda, which was really positive, and we only had the first judgment last year.

Host: [00:16:02] And then at the end, which language did they decide upon?

Audrey Baeyens: [00:16:06] It was French. The Supreme Court decided it has to be French because the Walloon region has its parliament in the Walloon Region. But all the others have their parliaments here in Brussels, which is bilingual. So we had to choose French.

Host: [00:16:23] What are the goals with Klimaatzaak in short term and long term?

Audrey Baeyens: [00:16:27] Well, they focus on this litigation. That's what is a bit of their core business and it's what they want to continue to do. But of course, they are keeping open minds on what other actions they could do. There is, of course, a bit of lobbying. There is, of course, trying to have a shift in mentality, trying to find other pathways. But they are looking at the judicial way and how they can find other ways to make changes. For example, one of the lawyers that is also helping us is Roger Cox, who also was one of the lawyers in Urgenda. So he's also on our side here helping us. And we have also seen that, for example, he did litigations against Shell, which were successful. So we are trying to see what we can do besides that.

Wim Thiery: [00:17:32] One revolution that we have been seeing in the last decades. And this is really crazy, is that the price of wind power and the price of solar has been dropping at a crazy rate. We have seen a reduction between 2010 and 2019 in the price of solar photovoltaic panels by 85%. Now, at the same time, we are seeing other technologies becoming increasingly expensive over time. Think about nuclear power because of increasing safety regulations. Think also about gas. We are seeing today if you look at the hard facts and that's what economists like to look at, that solar PV and wind are today the cheapest technologies. This is really a revolution. These are the technologies that are not only the best for climate, but they are also the cheapest today. Now, the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. So what you need and this is what engineers are working on is sources of flexibility. In Belgium, people have been discussing doing this with gas power plants. But you also see increasingly that this can be provided by these battery plants. We need to redesign our electricity grids by inserting these sources of flexibility. And this can be hydropower in regions where there is already hydropower or where there is a good potential. But it can also be provided by battery parks. So there are many different solutions, also very important trade between countries. Belgium is not an electricity island. No, the wind will maybe not be blowing in Belgium, but it may be blowing somewhere else. So by doing this trade in different directions, intensifying the connections between countries. These are all solutions. We have them and we are implementing them. Engineers are working on this and this is going fine.

Host: [00:19:27] So there are solutions at hand. The research is going well, but it still feels like we need to make bigger strides in climate action. Sometimes we all individually get guilted for maybe not doing enough, but how much can we actually change as citizens? And most importantly, what actions have the most effect?

Wim Thiery: [00:19:47] As individuals, we don't have to blame ourselves too much. We actually have to blame our governments and we have to blame the fossil fuel companies for all the actions that they have taken to block solutions.

Host: [00:20:00] I was going to ask, what is it I think I can do or this listener can do to help? But actually, it's a question I shouldn't ask. Except hold our government and the companies accountable, maybe?

Wim Thiery: [00:20:10] Exactly, because I often get the question, what can I do for climate change? And then indeed you can say things like, Yeah, you can eat less meat and you can take your bike and fly less. And all of these things, they of course have an effect. And it's true that this causes your individual life to reduce fewer emissions. But if you want to do something real for climate change, you can go to protest marches. You can vote when there are elections, for politicians that put climate change at the heart of the political agenda. You can sue your government. So these are the things where individuals can really make a difference, but it's going to go via top-down policies. It's not going to go via bottom-up. Everyone deciding: "Oh, I'm going to stop going on holiday".

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:20:58] The past years have shown that we perhaps not only individually but together as a society and as groups and society, take action to, let's put it, support the policymakers. I think that's a good thing.

Host: [00:21:12] I think that's a good idea to not frame it negatively, indeed, but to support the people who want to make policy changes.

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:21:18] It is important to have a positive message and wording. It's also important still to tell people clearly, perhaps not in catastrophic terms, but clearly what's going to happen.

Host: [00:21:30] Not only shout, "The world is going to end".

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:21:32] Yeah, but still be honest and say, listen, these are the risks and dangers and this is going to happen. We need to be ready with this idealism and with all the solutions that we have for when the politics are right to say. And here's what we can do, right. We have thought about it for a long time. We've just had the publication of the new IPCC report that also points to a lot of solutions that we have the solutions ready when the politics are right when the policymakers are ready to move, that we can say yes and this and this and this and this, we can now do. We can be ready. And that's perhaps the best we can do in addition to trying to create the momentum.

Host: [00:22:18] There is a tough way ahead in the fight for climate action, a route that may sometimes discourage you, as Sebastian Oberthür has experienced himself.

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:22:28] That has happened in the past, to be very honest. I was also in the beginning very much active at the international level and the international climate negotiations, giving advice, and being part of the negotiations. And indeed, perhaps if we look historically then also in the 1990s and early 2000, we thought that a lot the of the impetus would come from the international level because, yes, we all need to move, etc. Countries may not move because they are looking at other countries and their costs etc. So a lot of hope was given to the international level. But as you say. It's perhaps not surprising. Obviously, it's frustrating if and when you are in the process. But it's perhaps not surprising if 190 countries that really face very different conditions negotiate that it will not be fast, right? With hindsight, I'd say yes, perhaps we were a little bit naive, a little bit idealistic and thinking, you know, we can't move things from the international level. At the same time, also, the national politics weren't ripe. So one was hoping, let's give an impetus from the international level. This worked to some extent with the Kyoto Protocol, I think, which was behind some of the early movements of EU climate and energy policy. But I have come to look at the international level from a different perspective. So not like this is the area that will move us forward, but more something that will yes, it will give an impetus once in a while. The Paris agreement is important. Kyoto Protocol was important. But then there are also a lot of things happening and that can happen at National and in the EU at the supranational level, because also some of the solutions have become much clearer, have become cheaper. There are the other levels and they interact, they feedback on each other and that's interesting to see. It has become a more diverse picture and perhaps also one that is less frustrating than it was. Because, yeah, if you go to these negotiations and sometimes you're discussing the same issue for ten years and essentially, at each and every session at the end, their conclusions are essentially always saying the same thing.

Host: [00:24:42] It's also realizing and accepting that no one policy or governing body or one thing is going to be the answer.

Sebastian Oberthür: [00:24:50] Exactly. So you need to act at different levels and then hope that you can move forward at the other level. Also, because you have taken action at the national level, at the European level, and sometimes at the international level. So it's communicating barriers.

Audrey Baeyens: [00:25:05] It's going to be very challenging, that's for sure. But I think it's really necessary and I'm optimistic, have always been and always will be. There is no option to fail, I always say. It's not going to be easy because again, you have economics, you've got legislation, you've got the environment, you've got the social matters. We don't live in an easy area. There are a lot of problems, really a lot of problems we have to focus on. But the environment is also crucial. It's where we live. It's our future. So we really have to focus on it. And I think the era of fossil fuel is just finished. And we have to make this transition now because it's going to cost less, it's going to create more jobs. We just want to see it. We have to want to see it and want to change it now.

Host: [00:25:52] Do we need more people who are optimists rather than people pointing fingers, as you said?

Audrey Baeyens: [00:25:57] Definitely. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Host: [00:26:07] This was Scientists With a Cause. A podcast series of VUB created by The Podcast Planet.