Professor Dr Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), painted a sobering picture of climate change on the opening morning of the GVNW annual Symposium.
He pointed out that CO2 emissions have already caused irreversible damage to the planet and its ecosystems. At the same time, it hasn’t gone far enough to actually threaten our civilisation. At least not yet.
This year has been, to quote Professor Schellnhuber, an “annus horribilis” in terms of natural catastrophes, with fires in Australia, earthquakes and heavy rain in Japan, and flooding in western Europe, particularly Germany.
How much worse can it get and what can we do about it?
Professor Schellnhuber referred to the Paris Agreement of 2015. He pointed out that it’s effectively a firewall, meaning that failure to comply with its targets would likely entail catastrophic consequences for humankind.
Take the 1.5°C degree warming as an example. Meeting this target would prevent north Germany, Denmark and parts of England disappearing into the sea as the ice sheets melt. An outcome that is not beyond the realms of possibility as things currently stand.
So, as life as we know it drinks in the last chance saloon, Professor Schellnhuber shared his ideas on how to achieve a less apocalyptic outcome.
The built environment presents massive CO2 reduction potential. It accounts for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 55% of waste in the industrialised world.
As a solution, Professor Schellnhuber advocated the use of wood in construction. Scientists have developed a so-called super wood, stronger than steel and able to withstand a speeding bullet. This could be used as an alternative to steel and concrete.
To illustrate his point, Professor Schellnhuber outlined a scenario whereby the global population has expanded by two billion by 2050. Were 90% of the additional population to be housed in steel and concrete constructions, it would release more than 71 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
On the other hand, were the same 90% to live in a wooden environment, the CO2 saving would amount to 75 gigatonnes. That equates to a positive impact of almost 150 gigatonnes.
Professor Schellnhuber summed it up thus: “Buildings as a global carbon sink.”
Furthermore, he mentioned the immense potential of technology, such as digitalization and quantum computing, in promoting sustainability. Professor Schellnhuber likened it to a third revolution, following the neolithic and industrial revolutions.
Having painted an alarming picture of what climate change could bring, Professor Schellnhuber concluded with a reminder of nature’s capacity for regeneration.
The Loess plateau in China, for example, has been turned from a desert into a fertile area with thriving ecosystems. A similar project is also underway in the Sinai peninsula.
The planet needs more of that, a lot more. There’s no time to lose.