The role of climate scientists in reaching the sustainable development goals
by Tore Furevik, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research
On Christmas Eve soon 50 years ago, 24th of December 1968, the two other astronauts aboard Apollo 8 could hear Bill Anders shouting: “Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” They saw the Earth, with its blue oceans, its green continents, and its white clouds, rising above the desolate surface of the moon. For the first time humans could grasp the beauty, the fragility and the loneliness of our world, a blue spot in a vast darkness.
Since the iconic picture of the Earth was taken, the population on the planet has more than doubled; CO2 emissions have increased by a factor 3, electricity production by a factor 4, world economy by a factor 6. It has been a fantastic journey for the human population. Most of us will die of age, or age-related diseases, not wars, not epidemics and not hunger. But it has also become increasingly evident that our success has come at a tremendous cost for the planet. Its resources are being tapped at an unprecedented pace, with huge negative consequences for our climate - and for our environment.
The surface temperature of the Earth has increased 1-degree Celsius. Ice is melting, oceans are warming, and sea level is rising. We have seen more intense precipitation and flooding events, more extreme temperature and drought events, more serious consequences for food production, for water supply, for human welfare and prosperity. This week we learned about the city of Cape Town preparing for day zero in April, when they face water shortage, sanitation failures, risks of disease outbreaks and anarchy. Oceans are becoming more acid, oxygen depletion more frequent, coral reefs, home to 25% of all marine life on the planet, are under increasing pressure. Half of the wild animals have disappeared, and scientists warn about an ecological Armageddon after 75 % of the insect population in nature reserves in Germany have vanished in only 25 years.
The global goals for sustainable development came as a response to the recognition that we are living on a finite Planet with finite resources, and that current policies are neither environmental- social- or economical sustainable. The SDGs are not following traditional disciplines, and they are interconnected. This means that actions designed to target one goal, will sometimes make it more easy, and sometimes make it more difficult, to reach others. This calls for holistic thinking and challenges us to collaborate not only across established disciplinary borders within our universities, but also between our universities and the general public and private sectors. The international research community, and especially those educating the next generation of citizens, has a particular responsibility to pay attention to the SDGs, to evaluate the different pros and cons of proposed strategies, and also to raise their voices when wrong actions are taken.
The carbon budget tells us that we already have used 75 % of the fossil fuel that we can consume if we want to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees as agreed upon in Paris. The carbon budget also tells us that 80 % of already proven resources of fossil fuel has to remain in the ground. Still many resource-rich countries continue to give licences for more oil and gas exploration and production, even in some of the most pristine areas of the globe. Some often used arguments in Norway are that we extract oil and gas more efficient than many others, our gas replaces coal in Europe, and there are one billion people without access to electricity in the world that desperately need our energy. This seems as a perfect win-win situation, we both provide affordable and clean energy and at the same time take climate action.
It is of course not that simple. Many countries produce oil and gas with less emission than we do. Our gas also replaces, or delays, renewable energy projects. And the one billion people without access to electricity have not seen, and will likely not see, the energy coming from Norway's production of oil and gas. What they do see is the negative impacts, sometimes catastrophic, of the climate change that our oil and gas contribute to. Many places will become uninhabitable due to climate change, leading to mass migration and climate refugees. Lack of sufficient progress on climate, will make it more difficult to secure the life below water, the life on land, the food production, the water resources, good health, reduced poverty, reduced inequalities, and so on. Some have argued that it will be impossibly to reach any of the SDGs if we are not able to handle the climate change. And it can probably also be argued that the same holds for energy. So what can we do?
The very good news is that there is enough energy for everyone, it is everywhere, it is continuously supplied, and it is free. There is five times more wind energy available than the entire amount of energy consumed by the human population. And there is thousand times more solar energy than what we need. These energy sources have been very difficult, and very costly, to extract. But in recent years we have seen that technological development and mass production have led to an astonishing reduction in costs, and a fantastic increase in installed capacity. Renewable energy from wind and sun is now becoming cheaper than fossil fuel, and the world is on the brink of becoming fully supplied with clean energy. The transport sector follows, with electric cars, electric busses, electric trucks, electric ships, and soon also electric planes. This is the true win-win situation for energy and climate, it also contributes positive to most other of the sustainable development goals.
It all sounds easy, but it is not. There is still need for technical innovations in industry, to bring down costs, to increase efficiency, to replace sparse minerals and materials with more common and easily accessible ones. There is also need for innovation and new thinking in how we organise our societies, how we live and work, how we interact, how we solve our daily needs. The societal transition away from fossil fuel towards renewable energy will impact all sectors, and there is a huge demand for research - and candidates - from all disciplines at a university. Much of the work can still be done, and should be done, within each of the established disciplines, but many tasks will require more collaboration across disciplines, more holistic approaches. Some will welcome such opportunities, while others will be frightened.
Climate scientists are used to work across disciplines, often outside their own scientific comfort zone. In a community such as the Bjerknes Centre here in Bergen; there are meteorologists, oceanographers, geologists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists. Across these disciplines, all admittedly within natural sciences, we have collaborated for more than a decade. We have learned each other’s language, habits and culture. What we also have experienced in recent years, is that an increasing number of our scientists also collaborate with disciplines far from the natural sciences, with industry, and with municipalities. This is partly driven by funding priorities; both EU and Norway put more emphasize on societal challenges and societal transformations, but it is also driven by the scientist's own personal motivation to make a difference. We are increasingly aware of the value of our knowledge and we want to see it contributing to a better future.
I will mention a few examples. We do climate prediction and climate services, where the information we can provide is being used in planning processes for risk reduction or for maximising opportunities and profits. This requires tight collaboration with public and private sectors. What are their needs? Is 10 minutes precipitation the important variable? Is it the number of times temperature is crossing zero degrees? Is it the soil moisture? Is it the number of days the malaria mosquitos can be active? Is it the onset of the monsoon? Is it the frequency and duration of extreme heat waves? How can we co-design the projects, co-produce the knowledge, that the society needs?
We measure and model both emissions and uptake of carbon, anthropogenic as well as natural. What are the consequences of afforestation of abandoned cultural landscapes on climate, on biodiversity, on tourism, on economy? What are the consequences of higher temperatures and reduced PH levels in the ocean for the food web, for the fisheries, for the population living by - and of - the sea? In the new project Mare Nullius, Edvard Hviding combines anthropology with climate and law, and asks: What will happen to the small island states, and their large ocean areas, when their land disappears under rising waters?
Climate and energy transition is one of three strategic areas for the University of Bergen. The topic is in the core of SDGs 7 and 13, and also highly relevant for most other goals. Our ambitions, and expectations, are very high. We will establish pilot projects, courses and study programs that span across the faculties, combining natural sciences with social sciences, laws, health and the other disciplines. And we will seek funding from public and private sources for concrete projects, where we build on the strengths of the University that includes world-leading scientists with a unique breadth, to become a central provider of knowledge for approaching and implementing the SDGs here at the University, in Norway, and internationally.
The challenges and tasks are many, irrespectively of if it is planning for smarter, more resilient and climate friendly cities, sustainable growth in food production, or zero emission energy production and transportation systems. It takes time to turn a big ship, and it takes tine to change the governance of spaceship Earth. The insight and the knowledge have been with us for a long time. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came in 1962. Ten years later United Nation held it's first major conference on international environmental issues in Stockholm. Wally Broecker warned about global warming in 1975. The Brundtland report our common future came in 1987. During the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, we got the UN framework conventions on climate change, on biodiversity, and on Combatting Desertification. 26 years later we meet in this room to discuss the sustainability development goals. Hopefully this is a sign that the ship has finally started to change its course.
this I will end my talk. I am looking forward to the following discussions, and thank you all for listening.