C2GTalk: An interview with Johan Rockström

Is it time to consider additional climate-altering approaches to tackle the planetary emergency?

8 December 2020

This interview was recorded on 3 December 2020, and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

The world faces a planetary emergency that requires considering all possible options to tackle it, said Johan Rockström, in a C2GTalk interview. Speaking just before the December 12 Climate Ambition Summit, he said this was a critical moment to put the world on an irreversible path towards decarbonisation, to ensure that any consideration of additional approaches—such as solar radiation modification—would not undermine that essential work.

Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam. Mr Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist for his work on global sustainability issues. He spearheaded the internationally renowned team of scientists that developed the planetary boundaries framework, which are argued to be fundamental in maintaining a “safe operating space for humanity.”

Aside from his research helping to guide policy, he acts as an advisor to several governments and business networks, and at noteworthy international meetings, such as the United Nations General Assemblies, World Economic Forums, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences (UNFCCC).

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Click on the play icons below to watch the quoted parts of the interview

Your work suggests that the world is alarmingly close to various tipping points and may in some cases already have surpassed them. Can you give a sense of the urgency of this moment how much time we have left to avoid crossing the key boundaries that could tip the world into a hothouse earth scenario?

We’re actually today in a forced scientific dialogue on whether we need to consider this to be the moment when we are, based on the evidence we have in front of us, forced to consider declaring a state of planetary emergency—not only a climate emergency.  But the fact that we are at risk, and we don’t have the exact, precise numbers on how far away from thresholds we are but we have to consider the real risk today of us, humanity, being in a position of destabilising the state of the Earth system. And when we talk about destabilising the Earth system, what we’re talking about is the risk of irreversibly pushing the Earth system across tipping points that would lead to, not the planet falling off a cliff, but the planet drifting off irreversibly away from the only state we know for certain can support our modern world, which is the Holocene equilibrium state we’ve had since we left the last ice age some twelve thousand years ago.

So we’ve had this extraordinary stable interglacial, the Holocene, and now we are already beyond the maximum variability in global mean temperature for example, this is an interglacial that has had a mean temperature oscillation with only plus minus one degree Celsius. Compared to the pre-industrial average temperature on Earth, we are already at 1.2°C. So we are at the warmest temperature on Earth since we left the last ice age. And the latest Earth system science shows that, conclusion number 1 is that we know that Earth system is a complex, self-regulating biogeochemical entity. So the biosphere, the ocean, the hydrological cycle, the whole climate system, the cryosphere, the ice sheets and glaciers, they interact to regulate the state of the planet. That’s conclusion number one.

But importantly, conclusion number two is that we now have quite a good handle on the so called tipping elements, the biophysical systems on earth that not only contribute to regulate the state of the planet, but they also have evidence of multiple stable states. So the big rain forest systems can, if we push them too far and in terms of global warming, drying out and deforestation, we can push them over a threshold so that they irreversibly move towards a Savanna state. And looking at the latest science on the 15 known large tipping elements, we can today conclude that nine of the 15 are on the move in the sense that they are showing signs of either slowing down or higher variability or destabilisation—for example, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (the heat circulation in the North Atlantic) which has slowed down with 15%, which is a typical sign of destabilisation of one of these large regulating systems of the planet.

So if you put all that together, the conclusion is that we are still on a planet that is in the Holocene equilibrium, functional state. So we are not beyond a tipping point of no return, but we’re starting to get warning signs—very significant warning signs from the biophysical systems on earth that we depend on for the stability of the Earth system.

From the hothouse Earth research, we concluded that if you scanned off the uncertainty in science—which is very high; today, one should really recognise that—but if you scan off the science, our conclusion is that if we go beyond two degrees Celsius global warming, and continue losing the functioning of the living biosphere, the ecosystems on land and in oceans, then we may on two degrees Celsius, trigger a whole set of cascades of domino effects that that could take us along a hothouse Earth trajectory. Again it’s not falling off a cliff, but it could put the planet on a drift which would put all future generations of humans on Earth on a planet that would just irreversibly just have worse and worse and worse life support capabilities, which means that we would hand over a planet to our youth and their youth that would be in a lesser and lesser capacity of supporting humanity.

Given the dangers and challenges you just outlined, how important do you think it is for the world to start considering some of the additional climate altering approaches that some have proposed – for example ideas to reflect more sunlight back into space, known as solar radiation modification – in addition of course to reducing emissions and removing CO2 from the atmosphere?

So to start with, that the scientific conclusion that we may be forced to consider declaring a state of planetary emergency is not only based on the assessment of, you know, now that we’re now scientifically able to map out real catastrophic risks, it’s also that we’re running out of time. So any emergency statement is always a combination of risk multiplied by time. And it’s the urgency in time that takes the scientific community to this point where you can talk about a planetary emergency point because we need to, you know, cut emissions by half globally over the next decade, to have any chance of staying below two.

So in that sense, you’re right, that there’s a need to now, whether we like it or not, put all the cards on the table. We have to consider all the options. So the question is, apart from decarbonising the energy system and keeping all the natural carbon sinks intact, what do we need to do beyond that?

Well, my conclusion at this point is that I would still keep an arm’s length, arm’s distance from geoengineering that goes beyond technologies and systems that are well proven to not have unexpected side effects that we potentially cannot handle. So, that would include, in my conclusion, for example, solar radiation management, which I would strongly argue for very significant carefulness vis-a-vis I would definitely encourage assessments of consequences and understanding governance implications and technologies. But I would not have that as a high priority solution—just like I would be very careful with stratospheric aerosol pollution from aircrafts or fertilising the oceans for heightened carbon dioxide uptake, because these are geoengineering options with potentially very dramatic, catastrophic side effects.

On the other hand, there is a there’s a whole set of conventional geoengineering systems that are more in the realm of known technologies, and that we very, very likely are dependent on to have any chance of avoiding self-reinforced warming because of pushing the climate system too far. And these are of course, the more conventional carbon capture storage systems, the biological carbon capture storage (BECCS) systems. So these are working with well-proven technologies or working with nature in ways that can be handled in terms of trade-offs or side effects. But I would be very careful when it comes to SRM.

In terms of being careful – how would you think about research and the governance of that research into these ideas?

I would welcome research on governance. It’s one of the lessons in resilience science that abrupt changes occur. We know that we are living in a turbulent reality. We have a world of global shocks—the pandemic just being one of them. And that the lessons from empirical experiences in history is that the way to be able to transform in a crisis is that you have the solutions on the shelf. You have tested them, you have learned, you have advanced them, you have solutions at hand, when you need them, you can pick them off the shelf. So, in that sense, I think it is definitely important to understand and map out all the challenges. For example, there is tremendous complexity on how to govern something as say Earth system-impacting as SRM because of course, you can just foresee, you can just play out different narratives of one nation setting up solar radiation management systems affecting the monsoon system in other parts of the world, which in turn affects food production, which in turn destabilizes society. So you need to have not only ideas, but well-proven assessments or analysis of how would any type of technology that has direct impacts on the whole planet be governed by all nations in the world.

Given the amount of time it can take to do the research and build governance systems, even though clearly you are urging caution on this, do you think it’s time for more countries to get involved now and actively looking into this? And to that extent, how ready do you see various countries in terms of being willing to dip their toes into this water and start even considering to consider it, so to speak?

I think there is, let’s say, an important learning journey that is required for, not only nations, but citizens in general. Again, if you are at an emergency point, that’s recognition, number one, insight number one, which is not well understood. And then from that, you have to act and of course, the action point number one is to put all hands on deck in reducing what is what is damaging the system, which is of course, decarbonising and taking care of the functions of the Earth system.

But the second path is that, if that is not enough, what other what other stones do we have to turn and understand those different options. So I definitely support that, we have to  bring up the level of knowledge on all forms of carbon dioxide removal and different forms of geoengineering. But again, doing it in a very careful way. The risk, of course, is that you open an uncontrolled agenda. The last thing we want—which has been  haunting any type of carbon capture discussions or global warming-reducing engineering efforts—is that as soon as some of the slow-acting nations or industries in the world start smelling opportunities here, that that slows down the hands on deck on reducing the damage even further.

Now, my conclusion at this point is that that we’re not beyond that point, but we’re very close to being beyond that point: that we are on an irreversible pathway towards decarbonising, we’re leaving the fossil fuel era behind. It’s not a question if; it’s just a question, we’ll be doing it fast enough. So we are in a much more mature point to also discuss: okay, if that will not be enough, what then? What more? And to allow a more open discussion here. But I would not isolate it to SRM. I would then put everything from silicate weathering to all the types of aerosol management, but also biological systems and the conventional carbon capture and storage (CCS) and SRM, so that you have a broad smorgasbord of different options to carefully assess pros and cons with.

You touched then on what is sometimes called the moral hazard problem whereby by considering, even just considering let alone developing, some additional approaches might reduce the pressure for the all hands on deck as you described it in terms of reducing emissions and so on. Are there ways to avoid that moral hazard? Are there means of governance so that you can put these idea on the table without undermining other forms of action?

Yes, I think there are. And I think we get better and better in posing them or securing that commitments on mitigation pathways are so legally binding, and so hard in terms of associated with monitoring and verification and reporting, that, that we don’t risk that kind of behaviour. We’re not really there yet, because the Paris Agreement, despite being a legally binding global agreement, has all these voluntary national plans. But I think that what we’re seeing, for example, in the European Union with a climate law being adopted with a net zero 2050 trajectory, with control points: 2030, 2035, 2040, 2045. In line with the Paris Agreement, we’re seeing a similar pathway in China. We’re hopefully going to see a similar pathway for the US with a Biden administration. We know it in South Korea. We have it in Japan.

So I think we start gradually—or gradually yet a bit too slowly. But we are let’s say decisively—but a bit too slowly—but still decisively moving towards countries in the world understanding and implementing legally binding, five-year time-step pathways taking us out of the fossil fuel era. So that of course opens up for a much, much more low-risk discussion on alternative options.

But we’re not really there yet. So it’s quite a decisive moment right now, actually. And if there’s any place in the world where we’re countries are almost ready to bring in carbon dioxide removal, or SRM discussions, without risking any deviation from mitigation pathways, that’s Europe. I think Europe is the climate leader in the world today. It is the region that has turned a corner. There’s no turning back in Europe now when it comes to mitigation pathways. Now the discussion is, what’s the speed rather than are we going or not. So of course, you can start. I would start in Europe, rather than starting in the US, for example.

In terms of cementing this movement towards emissions reduction and mitigation, how important will the Climate Ambition Summit be this year and leading towards COP26 next year? Is it mood music or is there actually something that could work over the coming months to really cement this action?

It’s certainly more than music. I mean, you can always and should have a critical eye, of course, all the time. But it’s a very new tune we’re hearing since at least a few years. I mean, the race to zero dialogues over just the last few weeks replacing the COP26—so this year’s equivalent of the COP was, I think, the first time we could see the high ambition dialogues being equally ambitious as previous COPs, but with much more concrete credibility and a stronger narrative on the inevitability of moving along these pathways.

One of the difficult to abate sectors is transport and in that sector, heavy vehicle trucks is the most difficult to abate and it’s also having a significant spillover effect on all other economic sectors because essentially, all industries depend on delivery of goods and services, so transport is key. Now if you look at what’s the dialogue today in this difficult-to-abate sector, well, it is the race to zero. It is it is a race to survive as competitive companies on an electrification journey—that’s basically where we’re at now both on trucks and on cars. I mean, it has a mixture of hydrogen, electricity, bio gas, biofuels. But it’s quite clear today that we’re on a race to zero—which is not only driven by a climate crisis, but also driven by a technology innovation pathway.

So, in that sense, you could say that, you know, we’re seeing this happening in construction, we’re seeing it happening in mobility, we’re seeing it happen even in aviation, we’re seeing it definitely on, you know, basically, look at the textile industry today. It’s a survival strategy for different sectors in society that the next step in competitiveness is a sustainability step.

So that’s why my conclusion is that it’s more than just rhetorical. We should always be very careful in scrutinisng and following up and assuring implementation of political promises. But there’s a shift here. There’s a shift in what’s happening: that these decarbonisation and sustainability discussions fundamentally have changed their very rationale.

And we see that also, not the least, that the whole agenda is moving. If you look at the bank sector, the finance sector, but also companies—it’s moving into the boardrooms. It’s no longer only in the corporate social responsibility or environmental departments. So that’s also why I think there is a lesser risk of using the kind of carbon removal or geoengineering agenda as a scapegoat path.

On a practical basis how would policymakers assess the risks against risks – in terms of the risks of the perils of overshooting various planetary boundaries against the potential risks both known and unknown of deploying, for example, SRM technologies? How do you go about weighing those two things against each other?

I think you’re posing the holy grail question. Ultimately, that’s what we need to do and we don’t have the answer on that. Of course, as an entry point, we need to do what we are good at doing in terms of trade-off assessments or cost-benefit analysis. The drama here is that we have to be able to compare catastrophic outcomes of overshooting planetary boundaries with a high degree of uncertainty and the timelines being often over long periods of time. I mean, more than a decade, with catastrophic risks, with high uncertainty also playing out over long timelines. So it’s comparing two very complex issues. I think we need to start doing that. I think you’re putting your finger on one of the scientific questions that should be addressed quite urgently.

In terms of framing, you talk about planetary emergency, and the Club of Rome recently launched the planetary emergency plan on the sidelines of the Climate Action Summit in New York last year. First, could you describe and help us understand what’s the difference between the planetary emergency and climate emergency or biodiversity emergency? And second, how useful has this framing been? Has it helped produce faster action or different types of action or focused attention?

The difference is very significant and it’s important that we understand that a climate emergency is generally understood as being a question of burning too much fossil fuels while, de facto, we are facing something that is much, much more severe than that because we are undermining the life support systems that support human wellbeing on fresh water, air, biodiversity, nutrient overloading, chemical and microplastics, and climate destabilisation. So basically, transgressing the key boundaries that directly supports human wellbeing.

But it’s even worse than that. The big drama is that we’re undermining the system that regulates the stability of the whole planet. Now, scientifically, we can today—not really, but not far from it—think of the climate system as being a representation of the entire planet, because we know that the final outcome of the climate system on the global mean average temperature or the degrees of extreme events is a reflection not only of how much fossil fuels we burn, but also how far we transgress the other boundaries. I mean, they all add up in the end to the climate system.

However, that is not how the climate system is understood. So that’s why I find it very useful and very important that I take this as a responsibility as a scientist, as an Earth system scientist, to make it clear that it’s a planetary emergency because we’re transgressing so many of the boundaries that are undermining the stability of the whole Earth system, both in terms of direct support, and in terms of regulating the stability of the planet. So there is a there’s a big difference.

So has this planetary emergency dialogue received any response and action? I would say remarkably more than I had expected. So we gathered, as you mentioned earlier, at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2019, and had a first heads of state dialogue. Today that has emerged into a broad global network of actors engaged in the planetary emergency dialogue—and this is hundreds of NGOs and scientists and universities. That has aggregated towards a dialogue that, for example, at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, the virtual meeting had over 50 heads of state backing the Declaration on a people-planet agenda, which was basically aligning with the planetary emergency agenda.

António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, yesterday held a long speech on the urgency to deliver not only on climate but also on biodiversity referring explicitly to the planetary emergency agenda. And I and Sandrine Dixson-Declève of the Club of Rome always emphasise that the purpose of declaring a state of any emergency—why do you declare an emergency? Well, you declare an emergency for only one reason, and that is to get all hands on deck to get some adrenaline in the system and start acting to solve whatever emergency you’re facing.

So the purpose of a planetary emergency is of course, only to open up the emergence of solutions—scalable acceleration of solutions. So I think the timing is perfect right now. More coincidentally, but it’s perfect right now because we very lucky in that sense that we see scalable solutions at hand. So it would have been very depressing to declare a state of climate emergency with absolutely no solutions. It’s like having a house about to burn down and you declare a state of fire brigade emergency but you have no water hoses, you have nothing to get rid of the fire. But now, we have the solutions to a large extent—and you’re adding an element here which I find very important to say: well, okay, you have scalable solutions. But the Earth system is a hardwired biogeophysical system that does not negotiate. There’s no wiggle room with the Earth system. It’s not like it can say, “Oh, you’re not delivering fast enough so we’ll pause. We’ll pause the melting of the Greenland ice sheet 30 years for you guys because you’re a little bit slow here.” Oh, no. The Earth system will simply just go ahead with or without us. So in that context, it’s important to put all the cards on the table. Say, okay, the equivalent of, if you have an asteroid on its way to smash on Earth—another emergency, very low likelihood, but catastrophic outcome. So it’s an emergency issue, you have to put the cards on the table, what could you do? So it is important. So I think that emergency framing, given that it has so strong scientific backing today—unfortunately, but that is the case—I think is is a constructive contribution.

You mentioned the term depressing. How important is it for you working in this field to maintain a sense of optimism, hope but also how do you do that while staying honest about the size and the gravity of the challenge?

Different scholars handle this in different ways. I’m of the very strong opinion that we have, in the scientific community, a responsibility to give the full diagnosis of the patient, and the patient is severely ill. And I think that is a responsibility for us as scholars. Now, if you go to a doctor, you expect the doctor to give you a full diagnostic, with the sole purpose of finding a cure. So I try always to provide diagnosis and cure. And if I put all the diagnostic in one bucket and all the cure options in the other bucket today, then despite the fact that the catastrophic risk bucket is filling up, and continuously filling up, I, on balance, see enough light in the tunnel to continue constructively acting in a quite  hopeful way. I think there’s a high likelihood of failure, unfortunately. So there’s real reason to be deeply, deeply concerned. But you know, it’s not lost to us, and the window is still open—though, just narrowly.

So it’s a question of continuing the work of trying to communicate and see more and more important. We have to recognise today, that emergency means that we have such a short timespan to transform, that we need to start at the source of things, you have to start at the tap of funding. So that’s the financial institutions. You have to start with the political leaders and the CEOs and big companies, because we need to see such decisive, large, structural change—top down today. We need to have actions bottom up as well. But we’re beyond that nudging will take us out of this. We have to find for example, what the UK declared a few weeks back when they said the UK will stop selling combustion engine cars in 2030. It’s finished. I mean, the UK, one of the countries that that basically introduced, the modern fossil fuel-based industrialised era to the world has now declared the combustion engine is now in 10 years time history. I mean, that’s the kind of leadership we need to see at this juncture.

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