Subscribe
The IPCC Report’s a ‘Code Red’? Well, Enough Said
Sustainability

The IPCC Report’s a ‘Code Red’? Well, Enough Said

By and | October 12, 2021

Hannes Partl, a Sphera director of sustainability consulting, gives his take on the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as well as the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).

 

The following transcript was edited for style, length and clarity.

James Tehrani:

Welcome to the SpheraNOW podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability and productivity issues. I’m James Tehrani, Sparks editor in chief. Today we will be discussing the latest IPCC report findings, as well as the upcoming COP26 conference with Hannes Partl, a Sphera director of sustainability consulting.

James Tehrani:

Thank you so much for joining me today, Hannes. How are you?

Hannes Partl:

Good afternoon, James. I’m well. How are you?

James Tehrani:

I’m doing great, thanks. So before we begin talking about the IPCC report, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how long you’ve been studying sustainability?

Hannes Partl:

Yep, sure, James. Actually I started studying in the late ’70s. That was at a time when there was no university or branch of study for environmental sciences or environmental management. So I decided to go to the university, which was called Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. Back then, it was focused on agriculture, forestry, water management and food sciences. So, for me, this was the closest to environment and sustainability and circularity. And that’s why I went there, and I actually graduated with a master in agricultural engineering.

I then worked for a couple of years in the forestry commission on a temporary contract analyzing the impact of anthropogenic emissions on Alpine soils. And then from then on I co-founded the first office in Austria, which was selling environmental engineering consulting and planning services, particularly in the fields of waste management and recycling. And this is where, in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, lifecycle assessment started to play a role.

James Tehrani:

Sure.

Hannes Partl:

And this was before the first international LCA [Life Cycle Assessment] standard was developed. And so it went on, and over the years we developed a couple more of those boutique consultancies with just 15, 20 people. Over the last 12, 13 years, I’ve been working as a consulting director for Sphera [and previously thinkstep] where we also provide such services, predominantly in the private sector and Sphera also supported by software and databases, which enables both the clients and us to scale.

James Tehrani:

Excellent. So we’re going to be talking a little bit about the IPCC report. So, as you know, in August they released the newest version of the report. And at the time the U.N. secretary general immediately called the findings, ‘A code red for humanity.’ And he also said, ‘The alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable.’ So it doesn’t get much dire than that. Were you surprised at all by this messaging, or is that what you were hoping to hear from him?

Hannes Partl:

Well, I was certainly not hoping to hear such a dire message. I mean, climate change is nothing new. Twenty, 25 years ago there was already a common understanding amongst almost all societies. And how should I say? Most people are capable of using their brains because climate change was an issue, but back then we were discussing with governments and other stakeholders about the right carbon price. And, as I said, all regional and certainly all national governments in the developed world, at least, were aware of this. So we could be much further down the track than we actually are.

And the only thing is this latest IPCC report is worse than expected. It’s not only that we are far off the right track, but we’ve actually made it worse. We would need a 45% cap in emissions by 2030. And yet this report made clear that if we keep going the way we’re going, that the emissions will go up by 16% rather than reducing by 45%.

James Tehrani:

How optimistic are you that we can reach our goals for net zero as a global community?

Going the Distance - Charting the Journey to Net Zero
E-bookGoing the Distance – Charting the Journey to Net Zero
To help businesses kickstart the journey to net zero, we’ve defined the net zero mindset and laid out a roadmap for how to get started.

Hannes Partl:

Well, I think that’s one of if not the greatest challenge that mankind has ever faced. There is a chance that we can get there, but it’ll take a lot of work and will also require significant changes in the way we do things.

James Tehrani:

And by ‘we’ I assume you mean consumers, businesses, governments, NGOs, etc.? I mean, it’s really got to be a team effort to get there, right?

Hannes Partl:

Well, yes. I mean, recent history has shown that we are capable of dealing with such environmental threats. Just one example would be the Montreal Protocol where we actually were successful in managing and reducing substances that destroyed our ozone layer.

Another one was that, here in Europe, we had in the late ’70s, we had a phenomenon called acid rain. And this led to forests dying or declining, trees died, because of the acidity of the rain, and this acidity stemmed from the sulfur content in fuels, oil, diesel, coal for transportation, for heating, for power generation. And because of this threat, the sulfur content of the fuels was drastically reduced by regulations. This was implemented and the problem disappeared. So it’s just that this time around, I think it affects a much wider part of society and it will require more significant change than just getting rid of some fluorocarbons to save the ozone layer.

James Tehrani:

Sure. And just so everybody’s aware, I want to read some of the headlines from the IPCC report, and maybe you can give your take on them when I do. The first one is the IPCC report says, ‘It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.’ What are your thoughts on that?

Hannes Partl:
Well, I agree. I don’t think there is anything to add to this. It just points out the significance and the scale of the change that has already occurred and that we are likely to experience in the future.

James Tehrani:

Definitely. And so this one, the next one, was really eye-opening for me, where it says, ‘The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole, and the present state of many aspects of the climate system, are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.’ That really opened my eyes.

Hannes Partl:

Yes, James. Well, I think that’s an important aspect maybe worth commenting a little further from my side, because what this means is also over the past so many years, so many thousand years, the climate was relatively stable, always plus or minus one degree, maximum one and a half degrees change. And before that, there was the period the climate changed significantly, but this also meant huge natural events. From a human perspective you would call them catastrophes.

So, in turn, this means that if we push the climate to change beyond those 1.5˚C, there will again be those disasters, changes occurring, disasters for mankind. So we are currently pushing it to the edge, and for people not so familiar with these topics, one example or a great source of easy-to-understand information is actually a documentary by David Attenborough. It’s called Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet. I really commend people who are interested in this to watch this documentary.

James Tehrani:

And that leads into the next point [the IPCC report] makes. And this is something that I know you’ve seen this in Germany and we’ve seen this in the U.S. this past summer, it says, ‘Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region around the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extreme, such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts and tropical cyclones and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the fifth assessment report.” And I know out West in the United States we’re dealing with wildfires, many, many wildfires, and we’ve had hurricanes and so forth. And you’ve dealt with those types of weather events in Germany, too, right?

Hannes Partl:

Yes. I think many people have experienced this already firsthand, and a lot more have at least seen it on the news. So, I mean, it’s just a confirmation between the last assessment report of the IPCC and this one, that the connections, the correlation, has become more certain and the frequency has become much, much higher than what it used to be. And on this trajectory to go up into the future, that really means that there is sufficient reason to try everything to reduce our carbon emissions.

James Tehrani:

Definitely. And so was there anything in this report that really caught your eye as I was not expecting to see that?

Hannes Partl:

Yeah, well, I think, as I said before, I was disappointed by the magnitude of our failure that we’re so far off the track we should be on. Of course, it’s easier to say we need to change than to actually do it. I mean, how many people, as individuals, are conscious about it and are actually committed to reducing their carbon emissions? This is probably less than 1 in a 100, and it would need to be 99 in a 100.

So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of ingenuity and brainpower will have to go into this in the years to come.

James Tehrani:

And it’s interesting, I was talking to Marc Binder recently. He also is a part of Sphera, and he was telling me that he thought that we will need to go beyond net zero to get to where we need to be. And I know he was trying to be a little provocative, but I think there’s a bit of truth in that. What do you think?

Hannes Partl:

Well, beyond net zero means actually removing greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This can be done by some companies, but not by others. There are some technologies available to actually store carbon, some of which make more sense to me and others which makes less sense to me. CO2 can be stored underground, but it can also be stored in products which have a very long lifetime.

Hannes Partl:

So there are also some ideas of using chemicals to bind the carbon dioxide in the oceans, which seems a bit odd to me. But the biggest potentials are in the way we manage our land, our nature, our country sites, our soil, the farms, forests. These are huge things, and that’s reservoirs of carbon, both in the above-ground parts of the plants, as well as in the below-ground parts of the plants and also in the soil.

Even small changes to the management of these ecosystems can either absorb or release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. So these, to me, are the big levers to go beyond zero, which doesn’t mean that increasing the efforts of some industries are not worth being supported.

James Tehrani:

Now, tell me a little bit about the evolution of sustainability in terms of how much you think companies are focused on sustainability now vs. when you started? And do you think that the IPCC report and the upcoming COP 26 conference could push that to another level?

Hannes Partl:

Well, I think it’s become a general thing but I’m not so sure how much the IPCC report and those activities are contributing. They’re certainly significant, but it’s not the only thing. I think that, in general, there is a substantial change happening in perceptions and in public awareness over the last three years. And especially since start of the COVID pandemic, this has increased exponentially. When I think back to the 35 years I’ve been in this game, we’ve mostly supported visionaries. And also with every little economic downturn, it was the environment and measures to protect the environment that were the first things to be thrown out the window.

And this time it’s exactly the opposite. Our economy took a little downturn or a significant downturn in some countries, but the demand for, and the activities in, sustainability, improving sustainability performance and reducing carbon emissions, has increased exponentially. That makes me feel a little bit optimistic that now we are on the right track but at the start of it really.

James Tehrani:

Certainly. And one concept that we talk a lot about in sustainability nowadays is Scope 3. And I feel there’s still some confusion on what Scope 3 actually is. So as an expert in sustainability, how would you define Scope 3 for our listeners, and how easy or how difficult would it be for companies to deal with Scope 3?

Scope 3 Emissions: Why Quality Data Matters
BlogScope 3 Emissions: Why Quality Data Matters
No matter where your organization is in its decarbonization journey, quality data is important.

Hannes Partl:

Scopes are a way of categorizing greenhouse gas emissions of companies. Scope 1 and Scope 2 are the emissions that either occur on site by burning fuels and things like that or by consuming electricity. And Scope 3 are all other emissions that occur at any point in a company’s value chain. And that could be, or they often are, emissions associated with the production of materials or substances that the company purchases to produce whatever it is that they are producing. And there’s a number of allied activities that are also generating those Scope 3 activities, which are defined as activities over which the company only has a limited influence.

It also goes on to include emissions that may occur during the use of the products that those companies have produced and sold up to the end of life emissions that could be associated with when those products are at the end of their useful life. So that’s the concept of Scope 3.

Hannes Partl:

And the reason why companies are considering these more and more is that they have a better orientation with what is their place within the economy, within their suppliers and their consumers and business partners to see where it is most relevant to look at and manage emissions across the value chain?

James Tehrani:

So I think about it as … So if a company’s making a widget and you really have to look at every material that goes into the widget and how it got there and how it was produced and the emissions, is that on the right track?

Hannes Partl:

That’s the principle of it. And what you have just described, James, is basically the product side of things. And now if you add all products together, you sell, I don’t know, a million of those widgets, but you also sell product B and product C, as well, and you add them all together, then you come to those Scope 3 emissions, which nothing else but the emissions, of, if you like, the lifecycle of the company, rather than the lifecycle of the product.

James Tehrani:

So just to play devil’s advocate, so if I’m a company why do I care what my vendors are doing in terms of sustainability?

Hannes Partl:

Well, it’s not the same for each and every company. That’s why we always try to identify and quantify the business benefits for a company when establishing that baseline emissions and setting up their carbon management strategy. And what are the business benefits? For some, it is that they would like to reduce the risks within their life supply chain? What would happen if a carbon tax were introduced at some country or another?

For others, it is more a thing of boosting their reputation. For others it is, again, one of the effects is to make their company more attractive to top talent because they like to work for companies who know they are dealing with those issues. For others it is, to protect or increase their market share. So there’s obviously a lot of different aspects, but that’s one of the things that I believe needs to be part of any strategy because the sustainability strategy cannot be a stand-alone thing. It needs to be incorporated. It needs to be completely ingrained into the business strategy. It needs to become part of it.

James Tehrani:

Definitely. That’s really interesting. So I want to talk briefly about the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, which is coming up in a little bit over a month from now. So what are your hopes coming out of the conference?

Hannes Partl:

Well, they have four stated goals. And if you don’t mind me just mentioning two or three?

James Tehrani:

Go ahead.

Hannes Partl:

First, is to secure a global net zero by midcentury and keep the 1.5˚C within reach. The next one is to adapt to protect communities and natural habitats. The next one is mobilize finance. And the last one is work together to deliver. And out of all of those points, I think it’s the first one, secure global net zero by midcentury and keep the 1.5˚C within reach. For sure, it’s 30 years from now. So there is some time, but that’s part of the challenge. It’s far away in many minds, as well.

And then companies develop their carbon management and production strategies and plans, then they are always setting, or even required to understand, that’s under existing standards, and also under the standards that are currently being developed or finalized. Their companies are required to set the intermediate targets to make sure that they are on track, not just to target for 2050, but one for the next five years, for the next 10 years and so forth. And this is, I believe, the greatest challenge to get countries to commit to those targets, to commit to intermediate targets, to see that they are actually on the track.

Another challenge I think will be … It says, ‘Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats,’ and there was an agreement from one earlier COP where developed countries made a commitment to come up with a large amount of money to support developing countries in trying to adapt to the changes. And this money, this sum, was never actually brought together.
And right now we have, I think it’s the Annual General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, and it was only yesterday that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, he said, ‘Well, the chance that this will ever happen, that this commitment that was already made a few years ago, that the countries bring this money together to support developing countries, nations, the chances are, I think, 6 out of 10,’ he said. So not very optimistic.

James Tehrani:

Sure. If you had an opportunity to address these leaders, what would you tell them?

Hannes Partl:

Well, I don’t think I would have anything to add to what the executive summary of this 6th Assessment report has brought together. Out of the thousands of pages of those scientific documents, which make up this assessment report, the executive summary, it’s a bit long, 42 pages, but this contains everything leaders need to know. And if you wanted to condense it even further, then I will probably guide the people to the address that António Guterres made to the leaders of the nations in association with the release of this report.

James Tehrani:

Before we go through final thoughts, I’m just curious, who do you think can make the most impact on sustainability? Is it consumers pressuring businesses to do more? Is it businesses taking the lead? Is it world leaders? Who is the catalyst for change, the change we need to create a safer, more sustainable world?

Hannes Partl:

I don’t think there is one specific catalyst that I could say, ‘This is one of those groups that you mentioned will be the catalyst.’ I think it needs to be a joint effort.

I’ll give you an example: Maybe 30 years ago, it was mainly governments making the first steps toward an improved sustainability performance by introducing regulations which forbid a few activities that were really, really damaging. But then, over time, it was businesses who took over, large corporations, with visionaries at their top. They took over the lead and they were far ahead of government regulations. And consumers, of course, have also a significant role to play. But all in all, it will need to be a combination.

James Tehrani:

That’s fantastic. Any final thoughts on the IPCC report or COP26 and maybe what businesses can do to make real change?

Hannes Partl:

Well, a couple of thoughts, if I may, James? One, is climate change: It will not destroy our planet. I have no concerns at all about the future of our planet, but if we don’t act now, it will be a different planet, and it’s a threat to mankind, to humanity. And what can we do? Many people, including management, boards, supervisory boards and politicians and consumers alike are realizing that improved sustainability performance, including a low carbon economy, is essential to future-proof our societies and companies. So that’s what gives me hope that we will be able to steer clear of the worst.

But in terms of threats to societies, to countries, potential humanitarian disasters and so forth, this is definitely one of the, if not the biggest, challenge that mankind has ever faced.

James Tehrani:

Well said. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. It was really an interesting topic, and I thank you for your time.

Hannes Partl:

Thank you, James, and have a nice day.

James Tehrani:

OK. Thank you so much. And this concludes our podcast.

 

Latest Insights from Sphera
The Best of Spark Delivered to Your Inbox
Sphera
Sphera is the leading provider of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance and risk management software, data and consulting services with a focus on Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability (EHS&S), Operational Risk Management and Product Stewardship.
Subscribe to Spark
Receive expert content from Sphera about Safety, Sustainability and Productivity.

 
close-link