Limiting global warming is an incredible undertaking, but still possible

06 Apr 2022

The latest IPCC report leave little doubt: we have to put in serious work to keep global warming to manageable levels. A co-author of the report, climate researcher Heleen de Coninck, as well as management scientist Vincent de Gooyert explain what we will have to do.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require herculean effort, but it is still possible. That is the main message in a report by the UN’s climate panel IPCC, which was published yesterday. If we keep doing what we’re doing now, then it will be 3.2 degrees warmer in 2100 than in 185-1900, before the Industrial Revolution. Climate- and innovation scientist Heleen de Coninck, a professor in Eindhoven since 2020 but still connected with Radboud University, was one of the hundreds of authors of the IPCC report.

To which part of the report did you contribute?

‘I helped with the chapter on innovation, regarding the question of how to accomplish the transition to a more climate-friendly world. We do emphasize that technology and innovation alone won’t cut it; it will require a combination of technology and society. In the end, it’s all about what people do.’

Heleen de Coninck. Foto: Dick van Aalst

According to all of you, what is the most important thing that needs to happen next?

‘Not just one thing; it’s vitally important that a lot of things happen at the same time. CO2-free energy systems, coupled with different land use, coupled with greener methods of transportation, coupled with reforestation, et cetera. Above all, things need to happen fast; the coming decade will be crucial.’

That all sounds incredibly ambitious. Do you think it can be done?

‘I don’t have a choice. This is the only way to keep global warming contained. However, my hope is also based on research which shows that things can move faster than you think. A lot of kinds of technology become financially feasible in the past few years. Solar power and wind energy, for instance, or electric methods of transport. That can kickstart a self-reinforcing effect that current models underestimate.’

‘The knife cuts both ways’

‘The same goes for consumer behaviour. By reducing our intake of meat and dairy, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture can be reduced significantly, possibly by several dozen percent. Said land could then be used for reforestation or other nature – after all, biodiversity is also under pressure. But it could also be used for growing crops used in bio energy and biomaterials. Food, nature, and energy are connected through land use. Besides that, a more plant-based diet is better for our health; the knife cuts both ways.’

This won’t happen all on its own.

‘No, it will not. There is already a vanguard of vegetarians and vegans, but it won’t be significant until social norms change. We can see that that is possible if we look at smoking. People don’t smoke indoors anymore, and it’s becoming increasingly ‘not done’ in public places outdoors. Something like that requires that the government be emphatically involved. They can raise costs, promote alternatives, ban things, or start a campaign to get people to eat less meat. So far, the government has done precious little in this regard.’

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