“We’re living in yesterday’s future scenarios”

ETH Professor Sonia Seneviratne has been elected as Vice-Chair of the Working Group I of the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In order to take on this new responsibility, she is stepping down as Associate Vice President for Sustainability at ETH Zurich. In this interview she talks about her old and new positions.
Sonia Seneviratne in conversation. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Anne Morgenstern)

The IPCC summarises the state of research on climate and climate change in its reports, formulates new research questions and coordinates global climate research efforts. The IPCC Bureau is leading this extensive work. It is elected by member governments, provides guidance to the Panel on the scientific and technical aspects of the Panel’s work and advises the Panel on related management and strategic issues. Thirty-four scientists sit on the IPCC Bureau, but only eight of them are allowed to come from Europe. Being a member of the IPCC Bureau is considered a special honour, but it also requires a lot of work.

You have been involved with the IPCC for some time, but you are now a Vice-Chair of Working Group I, “The Physical Science Basis”. What does this change?

I have been involved as Lead Author or Coordinating Lead Author on IPCC reports, including the Special Report on 1.5°C global warming and the last assessment report for the chapter on climate extremes. However, the IPCC Bureau has above all a strategic function. We make recommendations for the planning of the reporting cycle and on which reports would be useful over the next seven years. We then select suitable authors and supervise them. The members of the IPCC Bureau also prepare summaries for policymakers. This gives us the opportunity to play an active role in supporting consensus finding and formulating challenging text passages.

What is on the agenda?

The next IPCC Bureau meeting will be in Geneva in November – that’s convenient because it means I can take the train (laughs). In a further step, in the working groups, we discuss the topics to be covered in the forthcoming reports. We will present these proposals at the next IPCC General Assembly in January.

What will the priorities be?

Right now, we are in an exceptional situation – we are experiencing first-hand the consequences of the greenhouse gases that have been emitted in the past decades. We are now living in the very scenarios we once modelled for the future. We are in the middle of this crisis. A new task is to monitor the current situation even better. There is also a focus on what we call “actionable information”, that is, how we can better support policy decisions.

Is the IPCC too slow to act?

A typical IPCC cycle lasts around seven to eight years. However, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which organizes the yearly climate conferences of the parties, established a process whereby a global stocktake of the climate crisis is to be conducted every five years. This assessment is to be carried out for the first time this year and then again in 2028. Hence, I think it would be a good idea to have shorter assessments on the evolution of the state of climate and greenhouse gas emissions produced more quickly. We cannot wait until 2030 for the next IPCC Synthesis Report.

Where would you like to set a personal emphasis?

The interfaces between the three working groups are very important to me. Simply put, Working Group I focuses on the fundamentals of climate change, Working Group II on climate impacts and adaptation and Working Group III on climate mitigation. However, some aspects are not sufficiently interlinked in the assessments.

Can you give an example?

The idea of planting forests to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is often discussed. What is not sufficiently taken into account, however, is the fact that some of these planted forests would not survive if regional climate became drier and more affected by fire as a result of human-induced climate change.

«If the world were four degrees warmer, society as we know it today would not be able to continue.»      Sonia Seneviratne

Furthermore, there is mounting scientific evidence that indicates that the economy cannot continue as it has done without a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions. If the world were four degrees warmer, society as we know it today would not be able to continue.

You are giving up your position as Associate Vice President for Sustainability at ETH. Why?

It would simply be too much to do both at the same time. My new role at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is going to take up a lot of my time. Alongside my position as a professor at ETH, it will require my full attention. There is also a great deal to do in the area of sustainability at ETH.

What do you mean by that specifically?

ETH needs to and intends to achieve its net zero targets by 2030. However, this gives rise to important questions. How do we actually reduce emissions? In order to really reach net zero, we would have to reduce our current emissions by more than 50 percent by 2030, and compensations for the remaining emissions could only be done with negative emissions. Both of these two steps require investments. In view of the current budget cuts, the implementation of this target is particularly challenging. When the Swiss Climate and Innovation Act was adopted in June, we hoped for more financial support from Parliament, particularly in the area of decarbonisation. In my view, ETH Zurich, like other federal institutions, has an exemplary role to play in this regard and needs the appropriate resources. I am confident that my successor will devote a lot of attention to these issues.

Is it not frustrating to be committed to climate protection and then to witness the slow pace of change? Do you have any strategies to help keep you going?

I think it helps a lot if you actively engage with the topic and feel that you are doing something useful and making a contribution. No one can solve the climate crisis alone. However, each and every one of us can contribute.

There was a lot of alarming news in the last climate report, but I think the positive news have been overlooked. There has been too much talk about the net zero target, rather than about what we can achieve by 2030. For example, a lot of solutions to the climate crisis are in the long-term inexpensive or even cheaper than using fossil fuels with the right investments in infrastructure. What helps me is to focus on the positive and what’s feasible.

About Sonia Seneviratne

Sonia Seneviratne is a climate researcher and Professor for Land-Climate Dynamics at ETH Zurich. Her research focuses on climate extremes (drought, heatwaves) and the impact of human-induced climate change. She was elected to the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in July 2023.