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Scientist: Probably no big deal in Durban

Climate talks in South Africa will see progress on small things like adaptation and monitoring. But climate expert Schellnhuber is 'realistic' on the outlook for a big, legally binding deal between the worst carbon emitting nations, he tells the University Post

Top German scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber gave the University Post in the first part of this interview , his dire, but realistic assessment of where the world’s climate is going right now.

In the second part of the interview, he goes into detail about his hopes for the current negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

Prior to the 2009 COP 15, held in Copenhagen, there were high expectations of reaching a legally binding climate change agreement, however, this was not achieved. Do you have higher hopes for COP 17 in Durban, South Africa?

Well, it is always good to have high hopes, but we have to be realistic. According to all the things I have heard, and my own assessment, the chances for major progress are not really big. There will probably be no international legally binding agreement on climate protection. But there will be a few elements where some progress can be made. In a sense, the game is more to convince countries, like China and other emerging economies, to consider to becoming a part of an agreement in the coming years. Certain members might also be willing to expand their Kyoto obligations like Denmark, Germany, UK, maybe also Australia.

Middle of this decade is crucial

The idea is to create an atmosphere of trust, where one part of the international community would voluntarily extend their obligations, so that the other big countries become interested in joining the international agreements.

It sounds very complicated and it is. We will have some progress on climate, probably on adaptation, and on monitoring. But the really interesting time will be four years from now, where there will be a review of the goals of the climate convention. The IPCC will publish a new assessment report in 2014. This provides the last really big chance to reach an international agreement.

So we need to have a focus on the middle of this decade, which is the critical one.

Industrial metabolism

Which countries do you think will take the initiative?
It is certainly still the case that the EU is the reliable force in the world, retaining the goals of climate protection and security. I think that one or two of the major emerging economies could be convinced to join such a club. In particular China, Brazil, and maybe South Africa, but China in the end determines the game. The whole system might be tipped into a new mode of operation.

In the end it is not a question of climate protection versus business as usual, regarding greenhouse gas emissions. It is a question of what will be the future industrial metabolism, as I call it. What will be the future energy system? How will we use our land? How will we build our cities? It is actually a question of sustainability versus non-sustainability. If a country like China is convinced that the only way forward is to use renewable energy, then this will be the business model of the 21st century. A country like the United States could become economically non-competitive. Coal and oil will not provide the energy of the future.

Last time you were in Copenhagen the scientific consensus was that an increase of two degrees Celsius would result in a global tipping point. How much closer are we to that tipping point now?

For ecosystems 1.5 degrees Celsius seems to be the tipping point, but for the big systems, like monsoon systems and the Greenland Ice Sheet, we still think that below two degrees we are not absolutely safe, but have the chance to avoid a big disasters. However, it may turn out that even two degrees is too high. On the other hand, we have to be realistic. If we are really lucky and everyone takes on their responsibilities, we will probably stop global warming somewhere between two or three degrees.

New social contract

What happens if our global social contract for sustainability is not taken seriously
Now that is a really interesting question. This idea came up very recently. I am the Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), that is,the chief climate advisor to the German Government. We did a major report this year, with the title ‘A Social Contract for Sustainability.’ We found that, in the end, it all depends on civil society: Whether you are a consumer, whether you are someone building a house, or whether you switch from black to green electricity.

We have a unique chance to tell people the inconvenient truth and to and ask them about their ideas. We have a chance to reinvent modern society, not just through renewables, but through better land use, better use of water, and better cities. It won’t be done like
it was during the Industrial Revolution, which happened more or less accidentally, but through insight and design this time.

I see the social contract as a major discourse on what type of future we would like to see and how can we achieve it. With modern media, like the Internet, we have a completely different basis for that. We can get there. If it is done in the end on Twitter, I don’t mind! It is just about getting there.

See the first part of this interview here.

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