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We must get more from climate data – IPCC’s Prof. Riccardo Valentini

Professor Riccardo Valentini, a leading author of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, believes climate data could be used to help us better adapt to climate change. Photograph courtesy of IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin
Professor Riccardo Valentini, a leading author of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, believes climate data could be used to help us better adapt to climate change. Photograph courtesy of IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin

Climate information should be used not only to address impacts, but also to make agriculture more resource efficient and profitable, starting from regional climate services, according to Professor Riccardo Valentini, a leading author of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report. He explained his ideas in an interview with Horizon on the sidelines of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, an event on 6 May in Brussels to discuss the implications of the IPCC report.

What are the knowledge gaps that you found during your work as the lead author of the section of the IPCC report looking at impacts and adaptation?

‘First of all, we need research that is able to be more holistic and integrated. We have sectorial research addressing climate change impacts, but few models that are able to integrate different sectors and predict overall risks. I think there is a challenge to create a new modelling activity for addressing climate change that would include inter-sectorial assessments.

‘Secondly, we need also to address the cost of climate change impacts. The current economic models are not able to represent the value of nature, for example. There are scientists trying to develop new economic models, but this type of research is still in its infancy, it needs to be further developed.’

How can we calculate the value of nature?

‘I’m not an economist per se, but I know that, for example, there is a cost attributed to the unavailability of something, so how much would it cost not to have something. For example, if you look at water, and the need to have healthy water basins with forests doing their job of allowing water to be filtrated through the ground, you can compare the situation with and without the availability of ground water, and identify how great the economic losses would be if the ground water is lost or reduced.

‘When compiling the IPCC report, we found many examples of where we did not have the research that we needed. IPCC rules state that we can only use existing published research to compile the report, therefore we cannot carry out research ourselves during the IPCC report writing period, and so we rely on results that are already available.'

What else was missing from the existing research?

‘Another area of potential interest is climate predictions at a regional scale, for instance at the scale of a farm, or at the scale of infrastructure such as dams or power stations. Climate prediction at a regional scale is possible now with increased computing power. That is true not just in space, but also in time. For example, having seasonal predictions or decadal timescales.

'Usually we have the weather forecast telling us the weather in three days or so, and then we have to wait for a climate model to tell us what is going to happen 100 years from now. There is a middle scale that is the scale of human operations, the scale of our generation. We call this climate services. The real challenge is in working out how to use the enormous amounts of information we have gathered. Now we know much more than before about climate systems, it is time to use this information to respond to climate effects. This is something we lack: how we use this climate information to redirect our lives every day, or our economies. Agriculture is one of the best examples of how we can apply climate information to reduce water consumption, to reduce fertilisers, to basically have a more efficient, sustainable model of agriculture, this is really possible now.’

‘This is something we lack: how we use this climate information to redirect our lives every day, or our economies.’

Professor Riccardo Valentini

What about extreme weather events?

‘We still don’t have enough literature to really address these particular types of events, but they are becoming more and more frequent. I’m speaking about extreme events like heat waves, floods and dry spells, so these are sudden events that are of course climatic but they interact with a number of non-climatic stressors and the system becomes more vulnerable, sometimes generating a systemic crisis.

‘For example, the hurricanes in New Orleans and New York. There were basically two almost equivalent climatic stressors - two hurricanes of different power. But that was not the real difference, the real difference between Sandy in New York and Katrina in New Orleans was the response by the urban system and the capacity to cope with the impact. In New Orleans, Katrina created much more damage, many more problems for the people in urban areas because they were not planning for this event. The government of New York was already preparing for this type of thing. For example, there was a big plan to green the roofs and try to absorb the water instead of using concrete grooves to drain the water away, which can end up flooding. These are the classic examples where you have systemic crises that are triggered by climate, but they are basically also depending on non-climatic factors: how organised a society is, how prepared it is, how it is planned. This is actually one of the messages that comes from the report: how are we going to manage this risk.’

What’s the biggest priority for research?

‘There are many priorities indeed. Climate services are one priority. We spoke about agriculture, because if its size and importance in Europe. We are the greatest exporter of food in the world, so we have a responsibility to develop climate-smart agriculture that uses fewer resources, emits less greenhouse gas, but achieves economic growth at the same time.’

It sounds like there is a lot of research required. How can research policy take this into account?

‘I am very optimistic, I think scientists can be challenged. We have to challenge scientists more because we have lots of young, brilliant, smart people. There is a lot of human capital in Europe, really a lot. Of course, we have to give them the right questions, the questions which are really important. For this reason, I think the IPCC report is important not only for governments, to give them information for mitigation, for adaptation, but also to stimulate new questions. It’s like the concept of systemic crisis, it came up amongst our group of European scientists as we were writing one of the chapters. When we tried to put things together, we saw that we didn’t have enough information and models on how to handle these particular events, where sudden climate extremes triggered a cascade of multi-sectoral impacts and unpredictable effects. So there should be a continuous flow from this type of assessment to those who are governing research policy, so that they can shape the future of research by asking the right questions and making the research community work on those questions.’

Looking at the implications of the IPCC report

On 6 May, senior scientists who worked on the IPCC report, including Professor Valentini, policymakers, researchers and businesspeople came together at Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, an event in Brussels to discuss the findings of the report.

‘The longer we delay action, the more difficult and costly it will be to sustain current levels of well-being and prosperity,’ Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said during the opening speech.

The EU will spend at least 35 % of the about EUR 80 billion it is setting aside for Horizon 2020, its research funding programme running from 2014 until 2020, on climate-related objectives.

EU-funded research projects such as the sea monitoring study Ice2Sea and the permafrost project PAGE21 have contributed findings to the IPCC report.

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