When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its new report on “Mitigation of Climate Change” on 13 April, NTNU Professor Edgar Hertwich’s contribution as one of the lead authors of the Energy Systems chapter will amount to exactly 5 pages.
Behind those five pages lie countless hours of meetings on three continents, thousands of email exchanges and two levels of “peer review,” by other scientists and interested parties as well as 24 governments, where Hertwich’s 5 pages garnered more than 500 comments, each of which had to be addressed.
Hertwich’s contribution is a window on the huge effort that goes into producing the IPCC reports, a part of price that must be paid to help the world change its ways. And as an industrial ecologist like Hertwich will tell you, price is everything in determining the kinds of choices we will make to either protect the planet’s climate – or irreversibly change it.
As head of NTNU’s Industrial Ecology programme, and with all of his public contributions to efforts like the IPCC, Hertwich’s mission is to help people clearly see the costs and consequences of their actions so they can make the best decisions possible. And in doing so, save the planet.
Shaped by the energy crisis
If everything had gone according to plan, Edgar Günther Hertwich, 45, would have been a Princeton physicist, perhaps one of the many scientists who have developed the climate models that now tell us that we are in trouble.
But providence intervened. Hertwich, who took his bachelor’s degree in Physics from Princeton University, also took several environmental policy and energy policy courses. And then there was an enthusiastic Princeton professor who saw Industrial Ecology as “the next big thing,” Hertwich remembers.
Industrial ecology is the meeting of engineering and social science, where practitioners find ways to “integrate environmental concerns into economic activities”, in the words of Robert White, one of the fathers of the discipline from the US Academy of Engineering.
Hertwich, who was born and raised in Austria, had always been interested in energy issues, in part because of his father, an engineer, was very affected by the 1970s energy crisis. When industrial ecology as a discipline took shape in the 1990s, Hertwich realized this was exactly where he belonged.
“I wanted to contribute to finding alternatives and solutions, and not just to understanding the problem,” Hertwich said. “I was more interested in energy policy at first, but at some point I realized there was the potential to look at what industry does and how industry needs to change things so they can be more resource efficient and environmentally friendly.”
The result was a PhD from the University of California – Berkeley and a postdoc in 1999 at NTNU, where Hertwich worked with a type of economic and environmental analysis called Life Cycle Impact Assessment. All this experience put Hertwich in the right place at the right time. In 2003 he was named professor and director of NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Programme.
A menu for action
In its own words, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change.” Created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988, the group has released four assessment reports that present ever more sobering appraisals of what humankind is doing to the climate by burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
The Fifth Assessment Report is being released in pieces, with the report of the Working Group II on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” released at the end of March. Working Group III has been charged with studying options for mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. Their report, for which Hertwich was one of four Norway-based lead authors, will be released on 13 April.
The Working Group III report is different from the other IPCC reports because it gives the world an overview – a menu, if you will – of all of the tools at hand needed to tackle what is undoubtedly the most difficult problem ever to face humankind.
Hertwich can’t officially talk about the findings of the embargoed WG III report, as it is called, except to point out some facts that are already being widely discussed.
The most important and unnerving of these is that the past decade has seen an unprecedented rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere as a result of a global rise in emissions. The world is now at the very upper end of the emissions scenarios presented in previous IPCC reports, Hertwich says, which gives new urgency to the need to act.
The good news is that the WG III report will present a full range of options for action. But more importantly, policy makers and the general public will have to take this information and decide what to do about it, he says.
“I don’t think reports by themselves can make a difference,” Hertwich said. “The report itself is not the cause of change, but it can contribute to helping people make the right choices when they are actually willing to change something.”