Interview: “It is time to implement the Paris Agreement. If we are not ambitious enough, we will reach 3 to 5°C warming by the end of this century, not 1.5 to 3°C, which was the target,” leading climate change expert Petteri Taalas warns.

 

It’s now or never. We need to start acting today. We have an open window to set ambitions and start implementing the necessary solutions to mitigate accelerating climate change. But the window is rapidly closing. And if we fail, we will all have to start adapting to a new world, where a 3-5°C rise in temperature will radically change the way we live. 

This is the clear, direct warning from one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, Petteri Taalas. “It is time to implement the Paris Agreement. If we are not ambitious enough, we will reach 3 to 5°C warming by the end of this century, not 1.5 to 3°C, which was the target,” he says.

Petteri Taalas is Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization and has authored about 50 publications on global climate change, satellite methodologies and atmospheric chemistry. When he makes a comment on the climate, we should all listen carefully.

Two and a half years after 195 countries reached the common understanding that we need to start fighting accelerating climate change and signed the Paris Agreement, The Sustainian met Petteri Taalas for a talk about the state of the climate. According tothe climate expert, we still have great reason to be worried.

We have 30 years to solve the problem and if we do not act, several future generations for several thousands of years will suffer because of that.

“Last year was the warmest year on record without the warming impact of El Nino. 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded. We have also broken a record of carbon dioxide concentration exceeding 400ppm (parts per million) carbon dioxide, and last year was the most expensive year when it comes to losses due to natural disasters,” says Petteri Taalas, who urges the world not just to listen to these warnings, but to act and be ambitious when it comes to mitigating climate change.

Obama said in his last speech three years ago, at the UN General Assembly in New York, that we are the first generation to know the problem of climate change and we are also the last generation to solve this problem. We have 30 years to solve the problem and if we do not act, several future generations for several thousands of years will suffer because of that. This means we will lose a large fraction of food production and that will be a booster to military crises and refugee crises. It will also have a negative impact on the global economy,” he says.

Climate change: catastrophic consequences

Petteri Taalas says that climate change is already happening, and its effects are tangible. “Already with 1°C of warming, we have seen growing disasters and a negative impact on economies in the southern hemisphere and the whole of Africa,” he says.

With a 3°C warming, we would lose a very big fraction of our planet’s capacity for food production (…)

But according to Taalas, the level of consequences we are experiencing now are nothing compared to the negative consequences of a possible 3°C temperature rise. This level of climate change will completely disrupt the stability of the planet. “With a 3°C warming, we would lose a very big fraction of our planet’s capacity for food production. Africa as a continent is especially expected to suffer and is already suffering. It means we would not be able to produce enough food for the growing world population. We will starve and there is a major risk of migration and various types of crises. Already the Arab Spring, which has led to most of the crisis in Syria, has its origin in part in severe drought, so the climate is already having an impact on crises. That impact may be boosted if we are not successful in climate mitigation,” Taalas predicts.

According to the climate expert, this level of global warming does not mean that we should start writing an obituary for the planet and all of human existence. He is, however, convinced that our stability and quality of life will be completely different in the future: “We will survive, but the conditions will be much worse. One thing to keep in mind is that once we have a high concentration of carbon dioxide, it takes thousands of years to return back to the normal level, and the rise in sea levels would continue for thousands of years. So we will still have human beings on the planet, but conditions will be much worse than today”.

A little optimism for the future

For Petteri Taalas, the current situation is not all doom and gloom. He believes that we have the means to make a change; it is merely a question of implementation. “We have the Paris Agreement and the technical means to start mitigating climate change, to convert our energy systems to non-fossil ones, nuclear, hydro and renewables. We have to convert our transport system to be based more on electric vehicles and we have to pay attention to our diet, to eat less red meat and a more vegetarian diet. All the means are there. And the energy sector is very attractive for investors in non-fossil sources at the moment,” he says.

Most recently, I have seen more change in the private sector. The private sector is very eager to invest in low carbon solutions. So I am slightly optimistic but we have to raise the ambition level.

Petteri Taalas remains optimistic when it comes to the world stepping up and making the progress needed to prevent a global climate change disaster. In particular, he has high hopes looking at current developments in the business sector which, according to him, are spearheading the climate change agenda.

“I have seen major changes during my life by studying sciences in the 1980s, then climate change became known in the scientific community and then policy makers became aware of it. And that’s why they signed the Paris Agreement 3 years ago. Most recently, I have seen more change in the private sector. The private sector is very eager to invest in low carbon solutions. So I am slightly optimistic but we have to raise the ambition level”.

It is not only business that can drive the climate mitigation forward. Consumers – especially the younger generations – can and will play a vital role.

“They (younger generations) are ready for creative solutions. That’s what I also see happening among my children and their friends. They are not so eager to have their own cars… and they have more vegetarian diets and so forth. They are much more concerned and much more responsible than previous generations,” says Taalas. He continues: “They and all of us as consumers have the power to decide what we buy, our transportation use and how we are eating. If we can continue to favor non-carbonized productions, I think that’s going to be the next trend. At the moment fitness is a trend, and my guess is that the next will be a low carbon way of living.”


Biography

Petteri Taalas, born in Helsinki, Finland, is the esteemed Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), currently in the midst of a four-year term that started in January 2016. With extensive experience in managing national and international expert organizations and a robust scientific background, he is well-suited to be the UN’s authoritative voice on weather, climate and water resources.

Taalas holds a PhD in Meteorology fromthe University of Helsinki (1993) and a degree in Management from Executive Education, Helsinki School of Economics (1998 and 2004). Prior to this role, he served at the Director-General of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, 2007-2015 and 2003-2005. And from 2005-2007, he was the Director of Development and Regional Activities at WMO.

Taalas has authored upwards of 50 peer-reviewed articles on atmospheric chemistry, satellite technology and global climate change, in addition to many other publications. He has also held numerous positions for a smorgasbord of national and international organizations.