top of page

Walter Robinson: Implementing clean development paths around the world

Walter Robinson, Professor at the University of Illinois

Dr. Walter Robinson holds a professorship in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois and a fellowship with the American Meteorological Society, His main research area is the large-scale dynamics of the Earth's atmosphere in the context of climate change. His recent research includes "Does Increased Atmospheric Resolution Improve Predictions of seasonal Climate?" And Marine Climate Observation Requirements in Support of Climate Research and Climate Information.

Implementing clean development paths around the world

First,since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, many high emission industries in many countries have been shut down for a long time. Why can't they have a significant impact on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global carbon dioxide emissions declined by 5.8% in 2020, yet atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), continued to increase. This can be understood if we think of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere as a bathtub. If the tub is being filled, the water level continues to rise, even if the flow from the spigot is reduced - the tub just fills more slowly. About 1/4 of the CO2 humans release into Earth's atmosphere stays in the atmosphere, with the remainder going into the ocean or being taken up by the terrestrial biosphere. Once in the atmosphere, it stays there for centuries. So reduced emissions, as happened due to COVID-19, do not and cannot reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; such reductions can only slow the rate at which these gases are building up. Moreover, it is worth noting that even if we completely stopped putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the Earth would continue to warm up for a decade or longer. This is because the Earth is not in energy balance. Due to the buildup of greenhouse gases that has already taken place, more energy is coming into the Earth system as sunlight than leaves as infra-red radiation.

Second,UN Secretary General Guterres called on emerging economies to be more ambitious in emission reduction. Apart from China, do you think representatives of emerging economies such as India and Indonesia should further improve emission reduction targets accordingly? If so, how should they achieve emission reduction targets while recovering the economy?

This is a complex issue, but there are some relatively simple underpinnings to any answer. The first is that the climate crisis is an existential threat to all of humanity, so all nations must do all they can to reduce emissions. Emerging economies are especially vulnerable to global warming, because they are in already warm climates. As such they stand to suffer devastating losses from storms, floods, and especially from the impacts of extreme heat on human health and productivity.

The second consideration is the history of colonialism. Countries in the Global South, including those with rapidly developing economies, have fewer resources with which to address the threats of climate change because of the wealth that was extracted from them during the colonial period. More recently, with climate change driven primarily by emissions from wealthy nations, people in developing nations have enjoyed few benefits from the global fossil-fuel driven economy. In addition, they disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change, and this may be seen as a continuation of colonial system, only now, rather than importing raw materials and the products of low-paid labor from the developing world, rich nations export harm in the form of global warming and environmental degradation.Given this history, wealthy nations are morally obligated to assist emerging economies in their efforts to develop without increasing their dependence on fossil fuels. Beyond the moral argument, however, is the simple fact that global warming cannot be brought under control without implementing clean pathways for development everywhere. So, returning to the existential threat that uncontrolled global warming poses to all people on the planet, it is in the essential self interest of wealthy nations to assist developing nations in their transitions to clean energy economies (and also in halting and reversing deforestation).

Interviewer: Sun Chen

Interview date: October 12, 2021



bottom of page