C2GTalk: An interview with Youba Sokona

How do we include sustainable development when considering climate-altering approaches? 

19 May 2021

This interview was recorded on 24 February 2021, and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

Context matters and without clarity on the impacts that climate-altering approaches will have from different perspectives, it will be difficult to deal with the ethical and governance dimensions, said Youba Sokona during a C2GTalk interview. He highlights the need for research that not only considers the global level, but seeks to understand the national and local levels where people’s lives are impacted.

Youba Sokona has over 40 years of experience addressing energy, environment, and sustainable development in Africa and has been at the heart of numerous national and continental initiatives. Professor Sokona was elected Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2015.  Prior to this, he was co-Chair of the IPCC Working Group III on the mitigation of climate change for the Fifth Assessment Report after serving as a Lead Author since 1990. In addition to these achievements, Professor Sokona has a proven track record of organizational leadership and management — for example, as inaugural Coordinator of the African Climate Policy Center and as Executive Secretary of the Sahara and Sahel Observatory. 

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

How would you characterize the state of debate and action today to address climate change within broader efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? 

This debate I think depends at which level the debate is taking place: If it is at the global level with big organizations like the different United Nations bodies; or at the industrial countries level; or in developing countries, particularly in Africathat is not the same debate. 

Also within the climate discussion there is a linkage between sustainable development. What we see is that in the SDGs, the discussions and the issues are not discussed within the climate discussion during the negotiation in other settings.  It looks like we are dealing with two different and completely separate issues, while they are interlinked, as it has been clearly indicated in the various IPCC assessments since the Fourth Assessment Report. 

Why do you think that it’s so difficult to have those linkages in the international level of conversations?  What are the challenges and how do you overcome that? 

The challenge is that going back to 1992 at the Rio Summit, we all thought that we would approach the development issues in a holistic manner. This was how the Agenda 21 had been conceived. Slowly we would move away from that and into the traditional sectoral civil approaches, such as the Climate Convention, the Biological Diversity Convention, the Desertification Convention, and so on and so forth, and then the discussion of the Sustainable Development Goals outside the context of the development issues.  

Then, starting with what they call the Millennium Development Goals for the developing countries, all of them have been piecemeal, siloed and ad hoc interventions rather than taking the problem in a holistic manner as it has been stated in the Agenda 21.  

Can you suggest ways to get back onto that more holistic track, because obviously some of the things we are going to discuss later bring together so many considerations?  How does the world start to get back on that way of thinking about things? 

The problem is that the type of institutions through which we are operating and we are working did not allow for having a much more holistic approach. That is one of the deficiencies. 

The kinds and the types of the issues we are dealing with today are completely different from when they had been set out 50 years back. That creates a problem unless we bring all those different elements in because they are all interrelated. One cannot separate climate issues from development issues, and one cannot separates development issues from climate issues, because we need to make development more sustainable, and making development more sustainable ultimately will bring in the climate perspective. 

Even within the climate discussions, when they started it was only mitigation, it was only economics. If you go back to the IPCC First Assessment Report, they hardly mentioned the issue of sustainable development and the issue of adaptation. It was slowly brought in because we realized over time that we were missing a holistic approach and that we needed to acquire that. 

This upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which is being described as a crucial meeting—all these meetings are crucial, but this one is being given a very big status, as it were, to get the world on-track dealing with climate issues—do you think that it can be a place where we start to see this more holistic approach? Can that start to come in there? 

I am not seeing that emerging for various reasons.  I see some discussions, some indications, going toward the promotion of some of the approaches, such as the so-called nature-based solution approach in the discussions. 

I have seen also some discussions in energy transition.  All of them are related to a certain type of not looking at the bigger problems, the bigger issues, in order to try to find a solution. 

But at the same time, looking at the IPCC various assessment reports, if one compares some of the things in the Fifth Assessment Report and the Sixth Assessment Report, there is a huge improvement addition. In the previous assessment report, the mitigation aspects in the short term and in the mid term were not explicitly addressed, while in the Sixth Assessment Report this is explicitly addressed. That means development issues, how to make development more sustainable, taking the long-term perspective, are captured there.  Those may inform some policymaking at various levels.  

In addition to the essential work of cutting emissions, the IPCC has said large-scale carbon dioxide removal is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. How might the world govern various approaches to carbon dioxide removal — nature-based, technology-based — specifically in light of their potential tradeoffs and synergies with the Sustainable Development Goals?  How does one start to make decisions about carbon dioxide removal in light of this more holistic approach? 

Here again let me give my personal view and approach to a different issue. Here again, it is a siloed and sectoral approach. One has to deal with climate issues and then how to respond to the climate problem and climate issues. Unfortunately, we start by looking at a sectoral-specific approach rather than approaching it in a holistic manner because there is no distinction between mitigation and adaptation. Both need to be looked at at the same time.  And then, unfortunately, the process misleads that some are only interested in mitigation and some are only interested in adaptation, that adaptation is most important. All of them are climate responses. You cannot do mitigation properly without adaptation. You cannot do adaptation without mitigation. 

We made a lot of delay in taking concrete actions because mitigation was almost easier 30 years ago when we started the climate talks. It was difficult, but it was much easier to deal with. As we did not get in action in enough time, adaptation became prominent, critical and fundamental—not only for vulnerable countries, but even in industrial countries it became prominent. And then, even adaptation became somehow in some contexts impossible. 

And then, there is a number of other elements that need to be looked at. For instance, in the current discussion—and this is what I think C2G is dealing with—there are the so-called geoengineering approaches. But the point is we cannot apportion any of those issues in isolation from the others because adaptation will never function properly without mitigation, mitigation will never properly function without adaptation, and geoengineering will never function without the two others. 

It is in the context of the overall governance of the climate issues that the specific element of each of those three components should be discussed, not in isolation—and this is my personal view on the governance issue.  Each of them has constraints, each of them has trade-offs, limitations, and we need to better understand those. 

Within those three as it were categories that you mentioned—mitigation, adaptation, geoengineering—of course the term geoengineering means different things to different people and has all sorts of assumptions. But just to pick one aspect of approaches that sometimes come under geoengineering, carbon dioxide removaldo you consider that as something different or a special form of mitigation? To some extent, carbon dioxide removal is just expanding the old idea of removal by sinks. 

There are two aspects of that.  As we said and I indicated, there are two aspects of geoengineering.  One is carbon dioxide removal and the other one is solar radiation modification. 

If we say carbon dioxide removal, there are two approaches: the biological approach and the chemical approach. The enhanced biological approach is storing carbon in land or storing carbon in the ocean. Those are the two biological approaches. In a certain sense, those are related to what in the IPCC context considers as mitigation. The chemical approach is different because that is related to the removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide—direct air capture with storage.   

Those are quite different and one has to have clarity and distinction between those because the knowledge gap, the understanding, and the perspectives are completely different when considering those, even if you take the biological approaches of the land-based and the ocean-based. We need to have a clear understanding of all aspects related to all those other aspects in order to approach how we deal with the governance in the context of the governance of climate responses. 

Taking these two approaches you identified, the biological and the technological, what sort of level of debate do you see in the Global South in general and in African fora about these approaches? How might some of those potential debates be enhanced and improved and so forth? 

The problem is, unfortunately, at the global level, despite the fact that within the scientific findings that give some information to policymaking and the implementation, despite the fact that there is a lot of evidence, the discussions are highly taking place at the global level and they are not looking at the regional implications. Actions and decisions are not taken at the global level; they are taken at local national levels. But those conversations are not taking place. We have no idea of the different perspectives at the regional level. This is one element. 

Second element: There are a lot of issues where we do not have a clear understanding, a lot of gaps. I can list many of those you will find in a piecemeal approach, but we need a much more coherent approach than that because of the efficiency, feasibility, scalability, and sustainability, and so on and so forth. 

Unless you look carefully at those different aspects—not at the global level, but at the much more regional and national level—then we will only be repeating the rhetoric on “this can be done and this is the way to go,” and then we are not considering also the other aspects. 

If you are in the context of an industrial economy and in the context of developing countries—because there is a wide range of developing countries, the LDCs, and the others—how you approach those different issues is completely different. How sustainable development is approached in the context of those three categories of countries is completely different. How you approach the climate issues is completely different, even if the ultimate objective is that at the end, they all need to converge on responding to the climate in a much more sustainable manner. 

Do you see any things that could be done in the near term to enhance this conversation in, let’s say, the African region and within the different types of countries that you identified?  Are there any specific steps that should be taken now do you think to improve learning and discussion? 

I think that there are two different aspects related to the various clusters that need to be involved in this conversation. 

Broadly, we have the policy cluster of actors: those who are setting the policy at the various levels from the local to the national to the regional. Then we have the knowledge cluster: those who are generating knowledge, assessing knowledge, and who are rooted in the regional and the national context. And then we have the practitioners. We need to have a conversation among those three different groups. 

If you look at all the issues related to carbon dioxide removal, I do not see in the knowledge cluster real work that has been undertaken for various reasons—maybe related to funding, maybe related to custom, maybe related to institutions—but this needs to be done in order for them to engage with the two other clusters, the policy and then the practitioner clusters. 

To look at also the policy cluster, the conversation that is taking place preeminently is only at the best cases, when they have the opportunity to attend a COP or when they have an opportunity to have a big meeting. But it is not part of their policymaking agenda.  That will take time. We need to invest in that. 

And this goes for practice also, because carbon dioxide removal is not something new. We know it and there is a number of experiences, but at a very small-scale level. The issue here is how to work beyond the small scale to the massive one. That has huge implications, and they need also to bring with them some of the things they are doing, some of the experience they have, so that can be part of the climate responses. 

Those are not taking place at the national level nor at the regional level; they are only taking place at the very global level, and we need to bring in those different elements. As someone said, it is down to the Earth, to the reality of the context, because context matters. 

On the issue of one form of solar radiation modification proposed approach, which is stratospheric aerosol injection, one of the aspects of this is, perhaps unlike many other climate interventions, it could theoretically be deployed relatively quickly at a relatively low price by a group of countries with an impact that affects everybody. Do you think it would ever be possible for there to be a global, regional, or national level of conversation that leads to a fair decision about deployment or not of something that works like this? 

And as these various considerations go ahead, do you actually already see potential instances where powerful civil society organisations in the North, particularly governments, are already framing the debate about this potential approach and technology? How does access in the Global South start to influence that debate? 

Maybe I did not make myself clear enough. You cannot take that in isolation to the two other responses at the current level: what needs to be done and should be done in mitigation (because if we stop emitting greenhouse gases today, we will continue having the raising of the temperature) and what will be also an adaptation requirement. In addition to those two different elements, what can be done in what you indicated as coming from the solar radiation management or modification?   

You cannot take one aspect because that will mislead. It will give the impression this is a solution, it is a substitute for the two others, because the mindset is we are dealing also with the policymakers at various levels and we are dealing with many people who do not understand the interlinkages of those different aspects. 

This is why I indicated that we need to bring those in a holistic manner. For the current situation, at the current level, for the current effort, those are the three different elements.  Those can be done at that level with different consequences. But to take only part of that will be a bit misleading. Those are my views on that. 

I was wondering in a world of unfair power relationships whether you see a risk that one group could hijack this conversation and bypass that process that you’re talking about. 

We had experience on that. One has to learn also from the experience we had with nuclear power, because there is a big risk at the world level of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  This an obvious key question. Who is controlling the possible or the not possible is a few number of countries. Is it fair? I don’t think so. But it can be done for sure because we have no idea how the proliferation will take place, and this is a kind of dilemma.  

And then, to be fair, to be equitable, and then to consider the ethics at the same time, and then controlling the risks—those are the things we need to also consider in any kind of emerging technology, that we all know enough, and then to explore, and that we don’t know enough about the unintended consequences.    

So we have to be very careful and not give to a few countries that dominate—they are dominating the economy, they are dominating the decision-making at the global level—so that we will not reinforce that dominance on the global system when we are dealing with a common good issue. 

Perhaps I could wrap up on a personal note. You spent a long time in this field.  The more people learn about the challenge, it could start to feel quite depressing and crushing, some of the level of the challenges at the same time.  At the same time, people manage to maintain hope. How do you think the world maintains hope while recognizing the gravity of the situation, and what personal philosophies do you turn to, to help guide the way you think about these challenges? 

I think going back 30 years, in the early days of climate discussion conversation with the Director of C2G, Janos Pasztor, we tried together to promote one of the critical articles of the Convention, Article 6.  Article 6 is about  information, communication, and education on a continuous basis because we need to change our behavior in order to cope with climate issues.  But behavioral change takes time. 

I was a bit desperate, but during the past few years I have seen the schoolkids going out of school engaging and dealing with the issue.  This is a kind of awareness raising for the people at the lower level. 

In 1992 I tried to convince the African Ministry of Environment to consider climate issues.  They told me, “Don’t waste our time. This is not an issue for developing countries.  This is an issue for industrialized countries.” At that time they did not understand it. 

At the Paris Summit, almost all the heads of the states of Africa were there. That means awareness has been taken. The African heads of the state and government have set up a committee on climate change. They have not set up a committee on desertification; they have not set up a committee on development issues. That means awareness is gaining momentum.  

Lastly, I thought that it might be very difficult to change behavior in a short, limited time— that will take generations—but experiencing COVID-19 indicated to me that it can be done far faster than we thought. 

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