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South African climate change expert aims to head world body

The world’s foremost body for climate assessments has never been headed by a woman or anyone from Africa. South Africa’s Professor Debra Roberts aims to rectify both by throwing her hat into the ring to be elected chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Roberts is an accomplished climate scientist, a pioneer in urban climate change planning and governance, is Co-Chair of the IPCC’s working group dealing with Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, among many other academic and policy achievements.

Roberts is well supported, and has the backing of the South African Government, the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University, and Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation, to name a few.

We linked up via Zoom as she was preparing to board a plane in Durban, her home city, and she admitted to being under “a wee bit” of pressure. She was heading to Bonn, where the Climate Change Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is taking place, although not as a negotiator but to engage with various scientists and negotiators on the side-lines.

Roberts says “the IPCC is essentially a public service organisation, established in 1988 to provide the policy makers with an objective source of the science to allow them to understand the causes, impacts, consequences, and responses to climate change”.

“Science is not a static thing,” she says. It is “continuously evolving, and new knowledge comes to the table. So that’s our job, to ensure that that new understanding is made available to the policy makers”.

To illustrate her point, she says that, of the IPCC’s six assessments cycles, which assess the scientific literature and present the most policy-relevant outcomes , “for the first five, there was a real focus on the big impacts of climate change, asking ‘what is the risk, and what kinds of impact do we expect?’. We saw a much more concerted move in the recent assessment cycle (which published its final report in March this year) to the ‘so what?’ element. So yes, the science is in. We know that human activities are driving the change we’ve seen, we know there’s risk, we know there’s impacts, so how do we respond? We’ve spent a lot more time in this assessment cycle looking at solutions, and for me, that’s where the seventh assessment cycle becomes really important. I work as a local government official in my day job, so it’s one thing to tell me there are risks; but I also need to know what to do about that. I also need to know that I’ve got a range of possible solutions. But a solution in Bogota is not going to work in Durban, or Hiroshima or in Ouagadougou.”

Given the dire indicators on global warming, what are the prospects for a stable and liveable future?

 “There is the opportunity, even given the very grim circumstances we find ourselves in, to begin to bend the curve on a number of these issues,” says Roberts.

“The problem is: time is extremely short. We don’t have decades, or centuries, in which to make calls around this. We literally have the next couple of years, in which time we have to make big decisions to begin to define which pathways we take in the future.

“We can act. But that requires all of us acting. Literally a whole of society response. It requires a new mobilisation of resources, massive levels of political will and social acceptance to do that. Now: Are we going to act rapidly? Are we going to mobilise finances? If you look at just the finance issue, the $100 billion per year (promised by developed countries) has been a sore point ever since the Copenhagen Accord at COP15 in 2009. It’s still not been delivered, and our finding is that we would need to increase our current mitigation spend three to six times. We can’t get to an exact figure for adaptation based on the literature, but we can say that we would need billions more. Are we going to do that? If we don’t, then we are going to pass 1,5C, absolutely, and it’s more likely than not that we’ll do that in the first part of the next decade, and that creates a much more dangerous world.” Limiting the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels has been identified as the world’s most ambitious climate target.

Roberts says, “I see first hand how climate change worsens existing problems like food and water security”. But she adds that “we can’t lose sight of critical sustainable development needs as we look to increase our climate change ambition”.

Having spent 30 years bringing science, policy and practice together, Roberts says that one of her key objectives for the IPCC is, therefore, to make its work “ever more useful to decision-makers. In this decade, governments face challenging decisions, linked for example to large scale infrastructural development in the global South. I want the IPCC to provide them with clear, feasible and effective options in important sectors such as energy systems, urban development food and water security, and regional evidence to support action, backed up by first class science”.

The next assessment cycle will end between 2028-2030, and Roberts insists that it’s no good just producing a 12 000-page report at the end of it. “Depending on what the governments want answered, I think we need to be smarter and more agile about how to deliver that material. I worry about an organisation saying, ‘this is a critical decade for action’ and then we produce our next best advice at the end of that decade. That’s not helpful. You want to be producing that advice during the course of that decade”, not only on “risk and impact, but thinking the whole solutions value chain through to what can we do and where will it be effective and under what kind of conditions, so governments have a clearer idea of what landscape of choices might be relevant in their particular area.”

Roberts emphasises the scale and the cumulative impact of the IPCC’s work over the years.

“The work of the IPCC led to the establishment of the UNFCCC. It informed the development of the Kyoto protocol. It informed the thinking around the 2-degree debate. You can see the impact our special report on 1.5C of global warming had. That really opened up the debate around the extent to which current climate change at 1.1C is dangerous, what happens at 1,5C and what happens if we exceed it, and that’s led to an increased global debate on Net Zero (cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible), which is now appearing as a policy goal of cities and countries, and that’s all been brought about because of that scientific assessment.”

Roberts describes herself as a bridge-builder, and one of the priorities she would set for the IPCC as chair would be “to secure a more equitable and inclusive foundation for the IPCC”.

“People assume that the IPCC is a group of scientists in a room somewhere, which it’s not,” she says. “It’s an intergovernmental panel. It’s a group of 195 governments, and they interact with the scientific leadership of an assessment cycle, and that’s the Bureau. The chair is the head of the Bureau, which has just over 30 members, and they are drawn from different scientific disciplines, different regions around the world, and they are split between three Working Groups. That’s the realm that the Chair interacts with first. There are ways of making the bureau work more efficiently and on an equitable basis”.

“Then I also think, in terms of being the first woman to lead the IPCC, that sends a really strong message from a gender perspective to female scientists around the world, and I think that encourages greater inclusion. In the first assessment cycle only about 8% of the author pool was female. We’re up to about a third now. We still have a long way to go. Furthermore, the big challenge for the African continent is that we are underrepresented. If you look at the Fifth Assessment cycle, about 8% of our author pool was African, and we moved that to 11% in this assessment cycle. So there is a lot of work to do to improve that regional representation in places like Africa, South America and Asia.

Another of Roberts’ priorities would be to “maintain and enhance the IPCC’s gold standard scientific leadership. I want to work to harness emerging technologies to help us draw on the most comprehensive set of evidence and protect our core values, staying independent of politics, and ensuring strong scientific integrity.”

Staying neutral is vital for the IPCC. “The one thing we never do is comment on what is done with our science. We work on a mantra that the work we do is policy relevant but not policy prescriptive. That neutrality is vital in maintaining the trust of 195 governments who are on the Panel, because any degree of partisanship will break that covenant of trust. So we don’t sit in judgment. We allow the science to speak for itself, and I think the science is really clear at the moment. If you look at our Synthesis Report, without immediate and ambitious action we are more likely than not to cross 1.5C in the first half of the next decade. If we continue on the current development path, we could exceed 3 degrees. Southern Africa is already heating twice as fast as the rest of the world, which means you start questioning the liveability of some areas. We’re very clear in our assessment regarding existing impacts: we live in an extremely dangerous world. The science is clear: we’re not doing enough. We’re heading in a very dangerous direction. That’s what the science says.”

However, as head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit in eThekwini Municipality, she knows what it’s like being in the trenches fighting climate change.

She has been responsible for setting up the first sustainability and resilience function in eThekwini Municipality, and found that “when we began the resilience work, we realised that we would have to talk to the residents of Durban about what resilience means for them. It’s a very contested term, but what they came back with was ‘we think resilience is the ability to deal with change’. That’s different from people who talk about resilience as a response to extreme events and other things.

“Out of our discussions and consultation popped two areas that people felt were potentially catalytic, and if we could tackle those, we could improve resilience.

“The first was tackling the issue of informality. The overall approach to informality is generally ‘well, we need to formalise it, and move it on’, but the analysis showed that we have to think of informality as an obvious part of African urbanisation. For example, we’ve got just under 600 informal settlements in Durban. We also have a got a large informal economy.

“There was a point when the South African government policy was to try and clear all these informal settlements and formalise them. We now realise we have to work with them in more productive ways, but if you take that on board you need to understand where they are, who’s in them, their infrastructural needs etc. We found that there was this huge data hole in the city’s knowledge, so the first piece of work was to build a data management system.

“The second priority was the unique governance challenge that Durban has. We’ve got a traditional city hall, which was modelled on Belfast, believe it or not – the legacy of colonial heritage. But we’ve also got traditional leadership, who are responsible for 40% of the land area in Durban. People felt that until you could improve that relationship between those two governance systems, you wouldn’t be able to improve the resilience of Durban. And this really requires a strong political push.”

Roberts notes that whatever the task of scientists and governments might be, individuals can also act.

“We produced a booklet (for Durban residents) entitled ‘What can I do?’ about climate change. It uses the science to say ‘these are the areas you can do things about’: choices of energy sources, levels of consumption, modes of transport etc.

“But it’s all about where you are in society. For example, you and I. Our key commitment would be to reduce our consumption of all things unsustainable, from ‘what are you having for dinner tonight’ to ‘what transport are you using’. At home our roof is now full of solar panels. We’ve made choices about the kind of power we want to be using. But I’ve got the financial resources that allow me to do that, whereas the people in the informal settlements don’t. In fact, they need to consume more to have a basic quality of life. We need to make options open so that they can improve their standard of living in a sustainable way. For example, using new green building materials to build houses, electrifying end-uses such as transport if we had clean green energy. That’s where government would play a role in enabling those who still need to consume more to do that in a way that still reduces the carbon footprint. But that differs across the world. What you and I need to do differs from elsewhere.

“It’s really up to us”.

Yves Vanderhaeghen writes for Jive Media Africa, science communications partner of Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.

Yves Vanderhaeghen

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