Professor Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute talks pre industrial carbon levels for safe climate

BZE Radio talks to Hans Joachim Schellnhuber about the Poznam talks, his work at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) since its foundation in 1992 and Australia’s lacklustre response to the climate issue. He is vice chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change and served as Chief Government Advisor on Climate and Related Issues by the German Federal Government for the G8 and EU presidencies in 2007.

BZE Radio: Aug 2009

BZE Hosts: Matthew Wright and Scott Bilby

Schellnhuber states that we need to:

– go to pre-industrial levels of CO2 emissions (less than 280ppm) to save the planet (current CO2 concentrations are about 390ppm).
– find ways to come to negative emissions and extract CO2 from the atmosphere.
– avoid temperature rises of more than 2 degrees to avoid dangerous climate change.

What are the steps?

– global emissions to be reduced to 220-225ppm.
– reduce emissions by at least 50% globally by 2050 (this means about a 95% reduction for nations like Australia).
– complete phase out of CO2 emission by end of century.
– negative CO2 emissions in second half of the century ie. large scale carbon extraction.

Professor Schellnhuber acknowledged that carbon debt and burden sharing of emission reductions was an issue, but a complex one. A nation such as Belgium, for example, was industrialised early and has arguably a large carbon debt but it has little land and no forests and the industrialising carbon-emitting population of the 19th century were not aware of the consequences of what they were doing. He believes the right approach to stabilise in the future is equal per capita emissions.

Schellnhuber was positive about the election of Obama and opportunities for a global network of carbon trading systems – both positive and negative carbon emissions ie. companies buying a right to emit and paying for clean-ups.

Asked about Al Gore’s We Can Solve It campaign, Schellnhuber thought its direction good but that it was unrealistic.

Shellnhuber thinks Australia has vast potential in renewable energy and CO2 reduction but that this government has not proved to be vastly different from the previous.


Scott Bilby: This morning we will be talking with Professor Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). He is also Vice Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change and was appointed chief government advisor on climate and related issues by the German federal government for the G8 and the European Union presidencies in 2007. As a member of the high level expert group, he also advises the President of the European Commission on energy and climate change issues. He was also research director for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in the United Kingdom from 2001 to 2005. Welcome to the show Professor Schellnhuber.

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes good morning, or good evening actually in your time zone.

Scott Bilby: Now, it would be nice to start off hearing just a little bit about yourself. Now, what got you first interested in science.

Professor Schellnhuber: Oh. Well you see, already as a young child I was very much interested in mathematics and statistics for which I had a natural talent, so I went in to the field of mathematical physics as a student and later on I developed a keen interest in complex systems and the modelling of complex systems such as the atmosphere. So, it was sheer scientific curiosity that led me on the path towards interest in climate change and also climate impacts. So, in the end it was if you like, it was a classical scientific career.

Scott Bilby: It’s interesting how often you hear that people who just honestly follow their true scientific curiosity end up on the most amazing paths.

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes, it seems that what I share with [unintelligible] and a number of other people who are still doing pure science and pure mathematics – I keep on doing that – because there is expertise that I can base hopefully my credibility as I am providing advice to government and parliament.

Scott Bilby: You’re in a very fortunate position then to be able to still be doing some pure science, pure mathematics and be holding down the positions you have.

Professor Schellnhuber: It is, in a sense, very fortunate because I can pursue what I am really interested in, on the one hand in scientific terms, and, but I can also try to communicate my insights to the world. But I have to say this is on the one hand something which is quite demanding because it means you have a week that has at least 80 hours professional life but the one thing… and the other thing, I always hoped that I wouldn’t be forced to convey my insights to the, towards society, but since I entered the climate change field 20 years ago, I have to say, that the situation has become more and more critical, actually our new insights demonstrate that we have probably lost 2 decades in fighting global warming and we are now deeply in the quagmire. So, I would rather actually hope personally that all our theories about climate change could prove to be wrong and humanity would be on the right track, but unfortunately the probability of that is very small.

Scott Bilby: Yes, and we’ve spoken to James Hansen on this show, he also lamented the fact that, well, we should have done something several decades ago. Now, our current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are, I think they’re somewhere about 380ppm, now…

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes, 385 or so.

Scott Bilby: Is it? And James Hansen has mentioned we need to go to 300 to 325 ppm of CO2 to avoid deglaciation of the planet. Now, you’ve recently stated only a return to pre-industrial levels of CO2, which is about 280ppm, would be enough to guarantee a safe future for the planet. So, on that are you basically agreeing with Hansen or are you saying that perhaps his target is not low enough?

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes. I mean, first of all I think Jim Hansen and I agree on that we should do everything we can to limit global warming to say, about 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as a transient phenomenon by the way. We should if you like, observe and respect the guard rail which means, two degrees warming, or it means another one degree warming above the present level, is more or less the limit, beyond that threshold, which is not a sharp threshold, but beyond that range you would expect major planetary accidents to happen. I call them tipping point in the Earth’s system, published with a number of colleges a paper recently, or several papers on that, where that would be collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, dieback of the Amazon rainforest and things like that. So, if we talk about climate impacts we really have to talk about global mean temperature and how it scales down to regional temperature and precipitation patterns.

Now I think Jim Hansen and I agree on that. The question is, what is the timeline, what is the road map if you like, for reducing, first of all stabilising CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and ultimately reducing them? What I am saying 280ppm, so the pre-Industrial level is the safe limit. This is a very simple argument. I mean, if you look back at paleo-climatic dynamics and also how our biosphere has evolved it is clear that the Earth was in a sort of, self organised, dynamical equilibrium of many, many hundred thousands of years actually, yes, and we shouldn’t touch upon that equilibrium, which is precisely what we are doing now.

But we have to do this stabilisation, or restitution actually, of the atmosphere in several steps. First of all I think that as an intermediate target limiting CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere to 450ppm is a good target, because it would mean that we probably will not exceed the 2 degree threshold; but in the long run we have to phase out CO2 completely and probably have to try to bring the levels down again. Whether 325 is the right target or 350 or 380, people talk a lot about it, we can not say for sure now. I think the best and the most simple principle is to bring the atmosphere back where it used to work and operate in a very stable equilibrium, that used to be before the Industrial revolution.

So, but whatever we are saying about this it means in the end that we have to find ways if you like, to come to negative emissions. So, that’s the ‘beyond zero’ thing that means to extract CO2 again from the atmosphere somehow, and we can talk of course now about possible ways.

Scott Bilby: So, essentially our trajectory is worse than even the worst predictions because emissions have continued to climb. It’s heading for about 450ppm of CO2, its going to probably exceed that a little bit, but we need to pull it back down as soon as possible and get a trajectory that is going to take us down to 280ppm. By what sort of time frame do we need to get back to that 280ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere?

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes, yes right, that’s a very good question. I mean, first of all let’s try to be realistic and pragmatic. If we honour the 2 degree target, which I think in a sense is the best scientific evidence we need to respect in order to avoid really dangerous climatic change, then we have to go in a number of steps.

So, we have to first bend the global emissions curve down around (the year) 2020, 2025 at the latest, because otherwise the reduction gradient becomes simply too steep; no economy could deliver that. So, that means the global deal which we hope to strike in Copenhagen ( in Dec 2009) will help to bend this curve down.
Then we need to reduce emissions at least, at the very least, by 50% globally by 2050, which means by the way for industrialised countries like Australia a reduction of 80-90, maybe even 95%, then as I said a complete phasing out of CO2 by the end of the century.

Probably we should, in the second half of the century, really come to negative emissions with respect to CO2, because what I just outlined the scenario of, which is more or less the G8 scenario, means you have only perhaps a 50% chance to avoid an overshooting the 2 degrees line. And if you take into account what is making the whole situation worse, but we haven’t seen the full potential of already if you like programmed global warming, that means the effect of the past emissions, that this would potentially be still masked by aerosols, ordinary air pollution, unlike sulphur and so on. What it means we will probably have to do even better than just following the 50% reduction by 2050 when bringing down the curve. That will probably be around, this is speculation now because nobody has set up a master plan yet, but it needs to be explored, I think starting from 2030-2040, I guess, we need to start developing large scale carbon extraction methods, and you know these things have been discussed about in terms of geo-engineering, but I think there are simpler solutions which we can talk about now.

Matthew Wright: Now, Matthew Wright here, Professor. We’ve got a situation where there’s accumulated carbon emissions that can be allocated to each of the historical emitters. We call this the carbon debt, and I was wondering whether it was worthwhile to bring forward, once Copenhagen’s through with, this idea that we allocate the carbon debt to each sovereign state and then they start to pay to pull that out whether it be biochar or some other means of extraction from the atmosphere. Is this a good way forward to allocate the carbon debt?

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes, it’s an interesting thing. I mean this is in line, in a sense, with the so-called Brazilian Proposal that was discussed before Bali in the past years of climate negotiations. So, what are the obligations in the burden-sharing of emission reduction? What are the obligations, historical obligations, of the various countries?

I mean I have to say, again for pragmatic reasons first before I come to your proposal, I think something like an equal per capita emissions rights approach which has also been sort of promoted by the German chancellor, Angela Merkle, is a good starting point because it’s something that the Indians for example, and the Chinese would accept, I guess, at least I know it from the Indians. So, in the future, we’re not talking about the past emissions, for the future emissions we would have a convergence towards sort of, every person on this planet would have an allowance of about 2 tonnes of CO2 per year, per annum, and that would help to stabilise the situation.

I’m not sure whether this idea of carbon debt is politically feasible, although in a sense from a scientific point of view it is a reasonable thing. I would be happy already if we would go towards this equal per capita approach but that does not exclude that industrialised countries, who in a sense have a much bigger carbon debt, would be the pioneers, maybe not really by sort of convention and by law, but would be the pioneers by insight, and also because it is a very important technology, in extracting carbon. And you could do it in particular if you grow forests and if you sequester the carbon, and you take the energy out of the biomass for example, but there are other countries who cannot do much afforestation for example.

Take a country like Belgium for example, in Europe yes, it’s a small country. It was actually the second country that promoted the industrial revolution in the 18th century. So after England, it was Belgium and Germany and other countries. Belgium has almost no forest and has almost no land which could be afforested again, so how could this country really try to get rid of its carbon debt?

So, it is not so easy actually because the people who accumulated carbon debt, say in the 19th century, we’re of course not aware at all of their responsibility because they didn’t understand the greenhouse effect. So, it’s not so simple but that does not mean that we (shouldn’t) have to have international schemes, and of course national aggressive programs to explore carbon extraction can be done at the large scale.

Scott Bilby: Now, we’re listening to Professor Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Professor, I’d just like to say, you mentioned Belgium. Now, in Germany and in Europe in general, they seem to be, that seems to be the place that’s most likely to, well, they’re really setting the path on renewable energy and reaching the highest levels of emissions reductions. So, how do you see Germany, or Europe in general, in the next say 10 years or so, like how far do they need to go if we’re, if they’re really going to lead the way and have other countries follow.

Professor Schellnhuber: Mmm, I mean I’m not so sure any more. Thanks for the nice words about Europe first. I mean, there is in parallel to Posnan, there is the European Council Summit tomorrow and after tomorrow, where the European Climate Package will be discussed, it’s 20% reductions across the board in Europe by 2020 of greenhouse gas emissions. Plus a pledge that if a global deal is being struck in Copenhagen next year or little bit later, another 10% reduction. So, that means a 30% reduction by 2020.

Now, Germany has a national program, not much known in the world, that by 2020 we want to reduce greenhouse gases by 40%. I think that’s the only national program so far in the West or in the industrialised world which is on track with the scenario which I sketched before, yes, that’s towards a true climate stabilisation.

So, that is all very good but I have to say that we have to figure in and take into account now two factors. One is a negative one. We have the economic crisis, or at least it is knocking on our doors. Then, all the people who have been silent regarding climate protection in Europe, although they were against it but they didn’t dare to say something against that because it was the overall political mantra, yes, Europe has to be a pioneer in climate protection. Now, all these people that have been hidden, or have been hibernating, are coming to the fore now and saying, ‘Oh, we cannot afford climate protection anymore’. You know, these are stupid arguments because the climate crash will be much more devastating than the financial crunch we’re in now in the long run, but this short term thinking is prevailing again. So, it will be very difficult for a European Union really to honour their own pledges and to stay the course, but I hope it will happen.
Now, we have also positive factors. I mean, in Australia there’s been a change in government but certainly more important, because of the sheer mass of the industry and the population, is that Obama has been elected as President of the United States. So, there will be a cap and trade system, a national cap and trade system in the United States, I’m pretty sure about that. And hopefully this can be linked, and here Australia comes in again, this can be hopefully linked to the European Emissions Trading System and hopefully also to some Asian components. It could be Australia, it could be Singapore, it could be China or Hong Kong.
So, I hope that in parallel, to the sort of conventional negotiations within the United Nations about climate protection, there will be a sort of bottom up, if you like, global network of emissions trading system. And here your idea comes in again, within such a trading system of course you should be able not just to buy allowances for emissions, but you should also be able to sell in a sense qualifications in a sense that you are reducing emissions, but not only reducing emissions you are removing carbon from the atmosphere through afforestation for example, biosequestration and so on.
So, it’s negative and positive emissions that have to be traded on this emerging international market, and that’s a very interesting thing because it may go forward even if Copenhagen is not a success, and we all are not very sure that Copenhagen may become a success.

Matthew Wright: So in essence, down the track, companies might have to buy a right to emit – and there’s a limited number of rights as the years go on until eventually you end up with zero – but also they might have to pay for a premium for a clean up as well, so they might have to pay for a right to emit plus some biosequestration.

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes, right, absolutely. So, we should really take into account in a trading system the sort of negative emissions which could be sold and could actually produce a lot of revenues in the future. I’m pretty sure this will become part of an international system.

Matthew Wright: And does that give you hope, you mentioned Barack Obama, but Al Gore now has come out with his ‘We Can Solve It’ campaign and they have a particular website called Repower America, and they’re lobbying in the United States with a $US300 million campaign for zero carbon electricity within 10 years and that would be at least 30 – 50 % of the US’ emission footprint. Where do you think that could lead the world if that really took hold?

Professor Schellnhuber: Again I mean, with all respect for Al Gore who has done so much for making the global public aware of the whole issue, first of all, I do not think that such a scheme could be really implemented within 10 years in the United States. You can only claim this if you know the experiment cannot be done, so you cannot be in a sense disproved. While I think the direction is absolutely right and solar energy in particular, of course a smart grid and so on will be the future of the energy supply, the energy production in the United States, but this is fairly unrealistic because as I said before, we could have started this thing 10 or 20 years ago but we lost these decades.
Now, the other thing I have to say is that in Europe this idea about, and not just the idea but the practice about renewable energy is much more advanced. So, Germany is one of the world leaders both in wind energy and in solar energy and there is the idea within the European Union to create something like a African- European solar partnership that would be a super smart grid, which would link for example the North African desert with Europe, and you could, in a sense, transport and convey energy from various renewable sources. It could be wind, biomass, it could be hydroelectricity, but in particular solar thermal and photovoltaic energy, could convey it across that grid. And with this is being discussed already in very concrete terms, so I think again Europe is ahead of the United States in this context but it has not been in a sense published by such a charismatic figure yet.

By the way, this is something I think when we do our studies, I am a scientist and we do our models and we do our studies regarding solar in particular, biomass also, etcetera, other renewables, it turns out that Australia has a tremendous potential which has not been exhausted in the least so far. So, I’m actually interested, vice versa, to learn about Australia’s plans to tap renewable energy.

Scott Bilby: Well, that would be a whole another half hour talk I’m afraid and…

Professor Schellnhuber: I’m sure. It would be another hour.

Scott Bilby: …it would be quite a depressing one. Yes, yes. Now, I just wanted to talk to you about the current meeting in Posnan, that’s happening right now, it’s from the 1st to the12th of December (2008) I think. Now, what are your thoughts on the Posnan talks and have you heard anything about Australia’s role as being part of that group that’s undermining that process there?

Professor Schellnhuber: Yes, I mean I haven’t gone to Posnan yet, although it’s just around the corner of Berlin, but as I said, the really important decision probably this week are being done in Brussels on the attitudes and on the strategies of the European Union regarding their climate and energy package, but I may actually go to Posnan just for a day or so only if it turns out to be useful.
Now, the first question is, Posnan is just a sort of intermediate stage, it’s a station if you like, on the road towards Copenhagen. A lot of technical issues are being resolved. There will be probably important talks about adaptation because that’s something also the developing world is very much interested in. But there will not be any breakthroughs, it was never designed like that, on the real global deal, on emissions reductions.

But many proposals are on the table already, and they have been made by preparation groups, preparation processes well before Posnan. So, there are many, many ideas and many potential documents on the table now and Posnan in a sense is just a sort of, if you like, a stock market, a stock exchange for ideas, for concepts, for political boundary conditions and so on. So, I do not expect much very important, and certainly not any breakthrough. The next year (2009) will be extremely interesting in this context, as we go towards Copenhagen, although Copenhagen may not be the end of the story, but at least in Copenhagen everybody will have to put their cards on the table, including Australia.

Let us say, I mean I have been in continuous contact with Ross Garnaut, for example, with the Garnaut Report for the Australian government, we exchanged ideas. I have been to Bali last year where I heard that speech by your prime minister, (Kevin Rudd) who at the time had just been elected two weeks ago, was on who signed (ratified) the Kyoto Protocol. I have to say that most people, in particular in Europe, expected stronger leadership now from the Australian government regarding climate protection. I think the cause was ok, more or less, so far, but it was not really in stark contrast to your former government (Howard government), what your former government did. So, what our hopes are in Europe is that Australia would gear up, would accelerate, would brace themselves for a much stronger role, representing in a sense Asia, and the Pacific region, in the Copenhagen talks, or in the run up to the Copehagen talks, but you will be able to judge much better than I do whether there is potential for improvement.

Scott Bilby: Well, we certainly hope that Australia will ramp up their targets and etc. coming up to the Copenhagen talks, but I’m afraid it’s been very poor at the moment and we are pretty much a ‘coal captured’ country here.

Professor Schellnhuber: Of course.

Scott Bilby: Professor Schellnhuber, we’re going to have to end the interview there because we’ve just run out of time, but we’re very pleased that you were able to join us.

Matthew Wright: And we’d love to have you back on the show again.

Scott Bilby: Now, that was Professor Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. For more information visit their website [remove broken link]

Transcript by Tim Rodsted and Beyond Zero Emissions

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