“At some point climate conferences won’t be needed”

Interviewed by Astrid Dähn, 5 Jan 15
The meteorology professor Mojib Latif talks about the opportunities presented by global climate agreements, Germany’s role in the worldwide negotiations on emissions limits – and why he likes to take it slow on the road.

new energy: Another negotiating marathon on global climate protection was recently concluded in Lima. Do experts believe the climate can still be saved?

Mojib Latif: Yes, of course. For this to happen, politicians simply have to agree on something. It must unfortunately be said that climate protection has been practically non-existent up to now. There is one figure that shows this very clearly: global carbon emissions have risen by 60 percent since 1990. So up until now these negotiations have not exactly been crowned with success.

ne: Was some progress made at the Lima conference?

Latif: None whatsoever. There was no reason to expect anything different. According to the official line, Lima was only a preparatory conference for the 2015 Paris summit where a far-reaching new climate agreement is to be signed. I’m sure that a new global climate agreement will be reached in Paris. But it will probably be very weak. The procedure in place allows every country to set its own climate goals. That’s why an agreement will be reached, but it will certainly not ensure that global warming can be limited to a maximum of two degrees above pre-industrial levels, which is what governments are actually aiming for.

ne: Yet US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, recently announced new climate targets for their countries in a joint press conference…  

Latif: Well, the targets themselves are rather half-hearted. What’s important here is that both countries have acknowledged that there is a climate problem and that something must be done. That’s the core message. But there is a small sleight of hand behind Obama’s pledge to reduce the carbon emissions of the US by nearly 30 percent by 2030: he changed the reference year. Almost all countries refer to 1990 in such cases. For example, the EU said it wants to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent compared with 1990 levels. Obama, on the other hand, chose 2005 as the reference year. However, the US massively increased its emissions from 1990 to 2005. So if it now achieves a reduction of 30 percent, this will still be just barely below 1990 levels. In other words, Obama is offering almost nothing compared to the European states.

ne: And what about China?

Latif: The Chinese government says it wants to allow the country’s emissions to continue to increase until 2030, and perhaps reach peak levels after that. If you consider that China – with a share of 27 percent – is already the world’s largest emitter of CO2 today, then that sends a devastating signal. If these pledges remain the same, we will definitely not be able to stay below the two-degree limit.

ne: What would happen if we abandoned this goal and did little or nothing to combat global warming?

Latif: Average global warming, which measurements show to have already reached about 0.8 degrees over the past one hundred years, would continue unabated. If the current rate of carbon emissions is not reduced, temperatures could eventually increase by four, five or even six degrees. These numbers are very abstract. What this means becomes clearer when you compare them with the difference in temperature between an ice age and an interglacial warm period, which is on the same scale – approximately five degrees. We would thus bring about an incredible transformation in just 100 years, for which nature usually needs many, many millennia. Since records began, land temperatures have already risen by more than one degree on average, and sea levels by about 20 centimetres on average. Although the oceans react sluggishly, their levels could very well rise another metre by the end of the century and then several more metres over the following centuries even if we stopped all carbon emissions. The frequency of extreme weather conditions would also increase – depending on the region, we would see torrential rains, floods, droughts or heat waves – and we certainly don’t want these things to occur.

ne: Scientifically speaking, what countermeasures must be taken?

Latif: Let’s look at carbon equivalents, which are the aggregate of all greenhouse gases expressed in terms of carbon. The course of action must include a 50 percent reduction of global carbon-equivalent emissions by 2050, and a 100 percent reduction of these by 2100. At the same time, we should also focus on reforestation in order to further remove carbon from the air. Taking such measures will likely keep us within the two-degree limit. 

ne: How much time do we have to change direction?  

Latif: It is difficult to specify a time window, but I don’t think we need to panic. There are still 85 years left until the end of the century. If you consider everything that has happened in the last 100 years and the technological advances we have made, I’d be surprised if we didn’t manage to turn things around. 

ne: Are you an optimist?  

Latif: In principle, yes, and in this case, very much so – because I see renewable energies as the best way to reduce emissions. I also believe that the global energy transition got underway quite some time ago. The public has simply failed to recognise this fact. Even a country like China is now investing a lot in renewable energies. In my opinion, the sum of all this is going to create an irreversible momentum. The steps that the major energy companies are currently taking are just the last rearguard actions. We have recently seen this here in Germany: Eon is planning to set up a “bad bank” for conventional energies. This shows that these companies have now accepted that their old business models are outdated; the future requires different approaches even if this takes quite a bit of effort.

ne: Of all the various areas of research, why did you decide to focus on such an arduous and contentious topic as climate protection?   

Latif: I took a few detours before I came to this field. As a child, I already had a tendency to tackle things thoroughly. For example, when I was made to write an essay as a punishment, I always selected scientific topics such as diabetes or freshwater polyps – partly to annoy the teacher. When I was considering what to study, I wanted to choose one of the natural sciences, but my parents said, “No, do something proper that will allow you to earn a good living.” So I enrolled in economics at the University of Hamburg. But after three or four semesters, it was clear to me that that was not what I wanted to do. So I switched to meteorology and subsequently wrote my doctoral thesis on climate research at the Max Planck Institute. I’ve stuck with it ever since.

ne: What do you specialise in?

Latif: I specialise in natural climate fluctuations that occur from year to year or decade to decade and overlap with the long-term warming trend. You should not make the mistake of believing that temperatures are constantly rising as a result of human influence. That’s not how it works. Instead, temperature changes come in waves, sometimes up and sometimes down. The fluctuations and chaotic elements in the climate system are what I find exciting from a scientific point of view. Although the Earth’s climate is constantly warming overall, a lifetime is hardly long enough to experience this first-hand. Temperatures in Germany have risen by about one degree since 1900 – that’s approximately 0.1 degrees per decade. Such a difference is not readily noticeable. That’s perhaps why many people do not feel that anything has changed – and are inclined to believe those who deny climate change.

ne: Climate sceptics often vehemently attack scientists whose research shows climate change is real and caused by humans. Your expertise has also been loudly questioned, for example, on the web. How do you deal with this?

Latif: That leaves me cold. I tell myself that paper doesn’t blush and that neither does the internet. But the facts speak for themselves. All theories put forward by fellow meteorologists – some more than a hundred years ago (climate research has been around for quite some time) – have eventually been proven correct: temperatures have increased in proportion to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and sea levels have risen. I can’t see that we have been massively mistaken on any particular point. That’s why I don’t respond to the claims. That’s the best strategy because then they fizzle out.

ne: Why are climate debates so emotional? Such a tone is rather unusual in scientific circles.

Latif: This is partly because these debates are often fraught with ideology and drawn into the usual party bickering. But the most important thing, in my opinion, is that the solution to the climate problem would impact almost every aspect of our lives. This means that we would have to change many of our cherished habits.

ne: For example?

Latif: I’ll mention one thing that affects one of the most important elements in the Earth’s climate system, namely the sea – I would ban plastic bags. We didn’t have them when I was a kid, and we managed just fine. Today plastic rubbish is severely damaging our oceans. What’s more, oil is too valuable a raw material to end up as plastic debris in the sea. At some point, we will also introduce a carbon tax: those who use lots of fossil fuels will be made to pay proportionately. That will perhaps make it too expensive to drive big SUVs in urban areas, as is common today. Is that a bad thing? We will have to reach a point where environmental pollution carries a price tag. That will naturally touch a nerve with people and fuel discussion.

ne: Does this also apply to the private sector?

Latif: It certainly does. Industry is significantly affected as well and is trying to influence the debate accordingly. But I believe the private sector recognised a long time ago that renewable energies are the market of the future. Opinions may be divided as to Germany’s role in climate protection, but it can at least claim credit for one thing: it has pushed renewable energies to the forefront. It has shown that power from renewables is viable and can be produced at more or less tolerable prices.

ne: And is the energy transition paying off for Germany?

Latif: Yes, I think so. Even if the energy transition has cost a lot, it is an investment in the future. We’re not learning the hard way; instead, we’re making ourselves competent and independent. Because for a country like Germany that has few raw materials of its own, an adequate supply of fossil fuels is not necessarily guaranteed. In light of the Ukraine crisis or the developments in the Near and Middle East, we can’t be certain that fossil fuels will always be available in the amounts that we require. We must also make sure that wars aren’t fought over energy, as was the case in the Iraq war to some extent. From an energy policy perspective, there are lots of reasons to switch to renewables.  

ne: How do you appraise the climate package that the German government put together at the beginning of December?

Latif: It contains too many ifs and buts, in my opinion. The target of reducing greenhouse gases by 40 percent by 2020 is appropriate, but I can’t see how that can actually be achieved through the proposed measures. And it would send a disastrous signal to the rest of the world if Germany failed to meet this target. This is especially true given that our carbon emissions recently rose again after years of decline – just because we are once again relying more heavily on coal for electricity production. Coal is currently very cheap because the European emissions trading system is not functioning properly, and Germany is partly responsible for this.

ne: So what should Germany do?

Latif: Along with expanding renewables, it is necessary to invest in the appropriate infrastructure. We need an intelligent grid structure that meets the demands of renewable energies. In my view, electricity motorways running from the North Sea to Bavaria don’t make much sense. We need a closely meshed grid that can flexibly handle fluctuating energy sources while also supporting small-scale energy solutions that are specially adapted to on-site conditions. It is only possible to realise the full potential of renewables if they are part of a decentralised system. For this to happen, we have to restructure the grid. This is not being done at the moment.

ne: And what should Germany’s policy be on coal?

Latif: Simply stop using coal to generate electricity – not least because coal, like oil, is a valuable raw material. It can be used, for example, to make carbon fibres and other similar materials. What are we going to tell our grandchildren when they ask us, “Why did you burn oil, why did you burn coal? That was the worst thing you could have done with it!” I’m convinced that it’s possible to abandon coal within the next 20 years.

ne: How we will then ensure security of supply? 

Latif: Abandoning coal doesn’t mean to stop using fossil fuels entirely. We will have to replace a part of the coal plants with gas power plants. They generate electricity with far less emissions. We could also develop processes to manufacture renewable natural gas, for example, by reacting carbon dioxide with hydrogen. The hydrogen needed for this would be produced through wind power and electrolysis. This method is still not functional on a large scale, but there are already smaller-sized pilot plants manufacturing renewable natural gas, such as Audi’s plant. This is not some crackpot idea from environmental wackos, but a truly serious innovation.

ne: Even if Germany rigorously implemented all of these measures, this would barely benefit the global climate…

Latif: That’s certainly true. Even if Germany suddenly cut its emissions to zero, this would have practically no impact on global climate protection. But we can show the world how it can be done. If other countries see that Germany is doing well economically although it has lowered its emissions, then that could serve as a blueprint for others. I hope that through these efforts Germany can provide the impetus and that renewables will ultimately become a global phenomenon like the smartphone.

ne: So it’s about showing that it’s possible to enjoy economic growth and prosperity while drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels? The newly industrialised countries have so far pointed to Europe and the US and argued: If we want to become as wealthy as you are, then we need to use these energy sources, just like you did.

Latif: That’s correct. But Germany has still managed to lower its greenhouse gases by a good 20 percent since 1990, and we have almost always had good, if not very good, economic growth. So it’s possible. And China, for example, has recognised this. A declared goal of the Chinese government is to separate economic growth from carbon emissions. 

ne: Does this mean you place more hope in role models, such as Germany currently is, than in climate conferences and emissions commitments?  

Latif: I believe we need both in parallel. The degree to which some countries – including, for example, Denmark – show that the switch to renewables is possible, will also put these pioneers in a correspondingly better position in the negotiations and enable them to influence other countries. At some point the momentum will hopefully be so strong that we will no longer need climate conferences.

ne: How can we get people on board? In Germany you currently have the feeling that – instead of momentum – a certain fatigue regarding the energy transition has set in.

Latif: It’s time that we finally move on from thinking it is all about making sacrifices and complaining that everything is too expensive. We have to highlight the benefits that come from switching to renewables. 

ne: Such as?

Latif: Take driving, for example. You can quickly save a couple of hundred euros a year by simply easing up on the gas pedal, that is, by becoming more conscious of energy efficiency. If you clock 20,000 kilometres a year and knock off one litre every 100 kilometres – which is very easy if you stop driving with a lead foot – then you’ll save EUR 300 a year based on a petrol price of EUR 1.50. You’ll never receive a tax-free raise like this. That has to be emphasised. Plus that it’s ultimately about core values such as health and quality of life.

ne: How do you mean?

Latif: Let’s continue using the driving example. In a city like Hamburg, where I live, I’d never consider using a car to get around. You have to search for a parking space and get stressed because of heavy traffic and congestion. I learned all the intricacies of driving because I financed my studies by working as a taxi driver. But I feel better when I take the tube or the bus. I’m simply more relaxed.

ne: Do you have a car?

Latif: Yes, I do. And sometimes I have to drive; people want to drive. It’s not about completely turning the clock back. But I adhere to my own personal speed limit. I only go 100 kpm and no higher. There’s a lot that you can do if you organise things in an environmentally conscious way or at least don’t harm the environment too much. That’s what I want to get across.

ne: You’re very committed to this. You often participate in the public debate on climate protection. What motivates you to make the same arguments over and over again without becoming frustrated with the slow pace of political progress?

Latif: (laughs) Well, I suspect there’s a missionary streak in me. My father was an imam and came from Pakistan to Hamburg to help establish a mosque. That had a deep effect on me. But the real reason is something else. I’m convinced that you have to take a long view if you want to achieve anything. Look at the anti-nuclear movement. It was around for decades before it eventually bore fruit and the nuclear phase-out was written into German law. Or German reunification. The people no longer wanted the DDR system, they grew more and more confident and at some point the revolution took place from the bottom up. I believe that we have to advance the energy transition from the bottom up as well – then it will succeed in the end.

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