By Justus Wanzala
The Belgian national aiming to be the chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) holds vast professional experience and enviable institutional memory. This is because he is a scientist with vast knowledge of policy issues and has literally seen seasons come and go on the global climate change discourse and research. He now aims to cement his legacy by clinching IPCC’s apex position and drive its agenda.
As the race for the chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) heats up, candidates have lined up and are looking forward to taking up the leadership of this critical global institution. IPCC is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations. Its role is to advance scientific knowledge about
In the elections that is due next month in Nairobi, Kenya, two male candidates, Prof. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele from Belgium and Skea Jim from the United Kingdom. Others are female candidates Thelma Krug, a Brazilian national and Prof. Debra C. Roberts from South Africa are in the race.
For Prof. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele who was born in 1957 in Brussels and a holder of a PhD in physics from the Université Catholique de Louvain, the climate story is intrinsically tied to his life.
He has been part of the climate change story for close to 50 years now. As fate would have it, he arrived in Kenya in 1973 as a young intern at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), where he had already realized that human activities have an impact on climate despite a large number of naysayers even by then.
During the same year, he was part of an expedition to watch the longest solar eclipse of the time at Loiyangalani, near Lake Turkana, northwest Kenya and immediately embraced the subject that had many naysayers, climate change.
Currently a full Professor of climatology and sustainable development sciences at UCLouvain University, and boasting 40 years in climate science and diplomacy, he has participated in all UN conferences on climate issues.
It is no surprise thus that in 2015, he mounted a strong opposition to Hoesung Lee from of South Korea who was then elected as the chairperson against him by 78 votes to 56 votes.
Already, his second attempt to become a candidature for the IPCC chairmanship has attracted home support after the Belgium Council of Ministers approved the Federal Government’s support for him in October last year.
An internationally recognized expert on climate science, Prof. Ypersele has a strong passion for sustainable development and the socio-economic aspects of climate change.
A strong negotiator, his scientific expertise, historical knowledge of the IPCC, and widely acclaimed performance as Vice-Chair are key motivating factors that have seen him enter the race.
Plans for Sub-Saharan Africa
Prof. Ypersele who steered clear of talking about his opponents by only saying that they are worthy competitors, clarified recently during a breakfast meeting with the Journalists in Nairobi, that whereas the IPCC is not in charge of policies around the world and is neither involved in organizing the Conferences of Parties (COP) which are organized by their Secretariat and the Presidency of that specific year, he is keen to work with African governments under the existing mandate.
“The IPCC’s role is to advise looking at the scientific, technical, and social aspects of climate change. It has looked at what is happening, what might happen, and solutions that could be offered by the UN member states,” he says.
He points out that in the latest IPCC report on impacts and adaptation to climate change, there is a specific chapter on Africa with a justification for the statement that is often mentioned in COPs that “Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents” as far as climate change is concerned.
“The continent is vulnerable to droughts, floods but we need to note that other times it is important in offering solutions because it has a lot of forests which store a lot of carbon for instance in the Congo basin surrounding areas. These are issues that I recognize and I will emphasize as chair,” he says.
Meanwhile, he states that issues related to agriculture and the provision of clean water that are important to the health of the population are close to his chest, and will attend to them.
Other than the elements of solutions that Africa has to offer both in terms of adaptation and mitigation, Prof. Ypersele says it is clear that if Africa fails to change its development pattern, it will equally be a heavy contributor to pollution in the future.
It is the reason he says why it is important to keep the earth’s warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade, which is the most ambitious target of the Paris Agreement that was signed by member states in 2015.
“It’s also the reason I wear a tie with the same message because keeping the warming below 1.5 degrees is crucial as per the latest IPCC report on the basis of scientific literature on the global temperature. If it goes beyond 1.5 degrees in warmth, and we are 1.1 already now adaptation will become more difficult, much more expensive, and in some parts of the world, simply irreversible,” he emphasizes.
Prof. Ypersele says it’s key to combine adaptation measures, policies, and mitigation to reduce the emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) so that the warming does not go beyond 1.5 degrees centigrade and that adaptation remains possible.
On whether developing countries should tap their fossil fuels to stir up economic development and even fund their transition to clean energy, Prof. Ypersele reiterates that the role of the IPCC is not to prescribe what countries need to do in the face of climate change.
“The IPCC mandate is to be policy relevant with its assessments and ensure interesting to policymakers without being prescriptive. Its role is not to dictate what a country should or not do,” he adds.
Nevertheless, he notes that the IPCC is clear on the fact that if all the fossil fuel reserves are used, it will certainly go above the 1.5-degree centigrade level which is so important to keep below as reached in the Paris Agreement.
On the other hand, he says that climate change mitigation and adaptation is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 and in that context, SDG 1 is about eliminating poverty while SDG 2 is about eliminating hunger. Likewise, energy access and clean energy development are anchored in SDG 7.
‘There are 800 million people in the world with no access to basic energy and it’s a concern too that needs addressing,” he adds.
According to Prof. Ypersele, Africa is endowed with the sun and it will be there for over four billion years providing every two hours an equivalent of the total amount of energy that is used in the world annually.
“We need to note that some places will continue to use fossil fuel and gradually phase it out. It is a tricky balancing act,” he says.
Prof. Ypersele intends to reform the IPCC by making it more visible and to be heard and listened to by the international community and population.
“My programme is to ensure that the IPCC remains a global voice on climate and the only institution that can speak in the climate negotiations,” notes.
He adds that as things stand, during climate negotiations delegates representing their countries speak for their countries but the climate does not speak and climate is the only party that is not allowed to speak in the COPs.
“I want the IPCC to be the global voice of climate and climate science in the future,” he says.
Correspondingly, he reiterates that he wants to do it in a policy-relevant way without being policy prescriptive to address the needs of policymakers and all decision-makers of all times.
He intends to use economic decision-makers and ultimately all people in the world because they are also decision-makers in their daily lives.
“I want to include all players since the IPCC is a world body with 195 members states, it is very important that all that we do is a representative of the concerns, interests, possibilities, and the existing knowledge among all its members,” he observes.
Similarly, he intends to increase the participation of scientists from developing countries in the IPCC process because the majority of scientists currently do not come from developing nations.
In fact, he observes there is a positive trend as witnessed in the increasing number of scientists participating in the IPCC process but this has to be scaled up.
Prof. Ypersele notes that with this inclusivity, research on climate change from the developing south will increase since scientists from the global South know the local situations better.
Moreover, he intends to improve the participation of women and youths in the IPCC since he says the two groups represent more than half of humanity and are fewer authors of the IPCC reports.
His third point is that as the IPCC turns 35 this year, he is keen to ensure that the authorship contains enough young scientists amongst its teams.
“This is to balance both the old and young to be able to benchmark from both ends,” he narrates. Indeed, while in Ghana recently, the don met young activists and youth ambassador for the Nakeyaat Dramani Sam, Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) ambassador for the youth.
Prof. Ypersele equally wants to ensure that the publications are done in other languages and not only English so that assessments are summarized in and published in many languages as possible to enable members to understand the role of IPCC.
“This is why I made a special effort to ensure that my campaign postcards are available in many languages as possible and that is why I have a Kiswahili version. That is what I would like to emphasize should I get elected as the next IPCC chairperson,” he reiterates.
He plans to do a lot of work around climate justice and just transition as his priority.
If elected, Prof. Ypersele states that he will lobby to ensure vulnerable countries find the information they need within the IPCC to address vulnerabilities.
He notes that he will endeavor to ensure that the IPCC seeks more funding to fund climate action.
“It may mean collaborating for example with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to translate some of the IPCC material in a simpler language,” he adds.
He observes that he is not leaving the private sector behind and intend to collaborate with them.
“In both aspects of adaptation and mitigation, experts in the private sector know more about what can be done than experts in academia because the latter are more removed from where the action is taking place,” he says.
He adds that sometimes private companies tend to have the latest findings on climate issues compared to academia although the academia could also be having the latest techniques yet to be deployed by the private sector.
Prof. Ypersele IPCC candidature is anchored on experience having been a lead author of several assessment reports, a strong track record of advocacy, chairing, and partnerships, and standing for IPCC as a global voice of climate.
Assuredly, he is ready to represent the global family by ensuring interdisciplinary science and policy making and, science and decisive action.
The IPCC was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide scientific leaders with periodic scientific assessments concerning climate change, its implications, and risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation strategies.
It is home to many climate scientists who generate climate change assessment reports after assessing thousands of scientific papers published each year to provide a comprehensive summary of drivers of climate change, its impacts, and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce the risks it poses.