Changemakers for the future

Niklas Höhne, NewClimate Institute

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Prof. Dr. Niklas Höhne, co-founder of NewClimate Institute and Professor at Wageningen University.

A future without fossil fuels is a much brighter future

When I started studying, I wanted to do something with the environment. At the time, there was no real master’s programme on climate, so I did physics. I worked on some very practical technical work on solar cells.

In 1995, I was at a conference in Berlin. At the end of that conference, the first Climate Change Conference (COP1) was just starting. I went in and asked, “Do you have a job for me?” They said, “Well, yes, we need students that hand out the presents to all the delegates.”

I was so fascinated by the whole climate negotiations: over 190 countries trying to solve one of the most important problems that we have right now. Since then, I’ve worked in different places but I’ve been to almost all the COPs that followed.

Creating impact
When I was working on my PhD, I created a table showing how much individual countries should reduce their emissions. I worked out that by 2020, industrialised countries together should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25% to 40% below the 1990 level, and that they should reduce them by 80% to 95% by 2050. Those numbers were put in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007 and quite a few countries used them to set their national targets.

At NewClimate Institute we look at initiatives that bring together different actors including governments, companies, regions and cities. Some of these initiatives aim to reduce deforestation. Others support renewable energy, clean transport or efficient houses.

In 2018, we analysed these initiatives and we found that if they implement all their ambitious goals, we could be on the pathway towards limiting warming to 2⁰C. This was very positive, because it showed we’re not alone. There are actors with ambitious goals to cut emissions. They still have a long way to go—but at least they have the ambition.

What I like most about our role as NewClimate Institute is that we provide scientific information, so that actors, usually the governments, can take the right decisions. The information we provide is taken up in other reports such as those of the IPCC. Since this has become such a standard, policymakers have to acknowledge it. This means our work has impact.

One step forward, two steps back
But something has gone wrong. I’ve been doing this work now for over 20 years. If you look at greenhouse gas emissions in that period, they have gone up by about 30%.

When I looked at that figure I thought: “Oh my God, what happened?” I was there all the time and we all were trying our best to do something. Then it went so horribly wrong that we are now in a much, much worse place. We need to reduce emissions much, much faster than we thought 10 years ago.
We know that national governments have a certain power but they can’t do it alone. They need other frontrunners to help them and to create an ambition loop, where everyone helps each other to be more ambitious.

Threats and opportunities
Now, we need to flip to emergency mode. To limit the global temperature increase to 1.5⁰C, we need to cut our global greenhouse gas emissions in half in 10 years.

This is super ambitious, much more ambitious than anything we had thought before. Just a little bit here and there is not enough. The opportunity is that the world has understood that we need to move out of coal, oil and gas. It’s now not a question anymore of whether that will happen. It’s a question of when it will happen and whether it will be fast enough. And that changes the picture.

If everybody has the expectation that the future is without fossil fuels, then all of a sudden you want to be the first one to be there. Because then you can sell the technology, you’re a frontrunner and you can benefit from that. If you’re too late to change, you’ll be left behind. And that’s the great opportunity we have now. People start saying: “OK, it’s happening. Then let’s do it. And I want to be the first.”

Hopes for the future
If I had 10 minutes to speak at the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, I would give away my speaking slot to Fridays For Future or the other youth campaigns. They are supersmart. I don’t need to tell them anything—they are the ones that should be heard more. Because they will suffer the most from the impacts of climate change and they have not caused it at all. They come new to the stage and they understand that we are in a crisis.

One thing that makes me hopeful is that the horrible COVID crisis, with all its negative impacts, has shown one thing: we can do things we thought were impossible. If we had spent the same amount of money that we’ve spent on COVID recovery on reducing emissions, it would have been enough to put us on a 1.5⁰C trajectory for ten years. So if we, as a society, are really threatened, then we can achieve things we thought were completely impossible.

Change is an opportunity. My hope is that, as a society, we get over our resistance to change and understand that a future without fossil fuels is a much brighter future. Once everybody understands that, then hopefully the whole thing gets rolling. But we are not there yet.

Niklas Höhne co-founded NewClimate Institute, which analyses actions on climate change on a global level and national levels, helping individual countries to set up the right climate and sustainability policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.