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We're not suggesting developing countries stop using coal immediately, says IPCC co-chair

Developing countries such as Vietnam can't be expected to stop using coal right away, despite the urgent warnings to decarbonise in the recent IPCC report, its co-chair has said in an interview with Eco-Business at COP24.

In 2015, leaders of the world convened to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change amid widespread jubilation, committing to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Three years, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro later, the difference in negotiators’ tone at the 24th United Nations climate change conference (COP24) in Poland could not be more stark.

Though the rhetoric from global leaders remains unchanged, it’s hard to imagine coal giants sponsoring a climate change conference in 2015, or pro-climate world leaders such as French premier Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel not attending despite being a train ride away.  

So far, the mood at COP24 can best be described as lukewarm. Negotiations stalled from the first minute, as countries fought over petty issues such as how much time should be spent on each topic, which caused a two-hour delay to the start of the opening plenary. But there remains a flicker of hope amid the squabbling—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

IPCC Working Group I co-chair Panmao Zhai. Image: Eco-Business

The IPCC released its special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees on October 8, two months ahead of COP24. With bold ambitions such as achieving net zero emissions by 2050, the report is expected to spur more action from countries heavily impacted by climate change.

Vietnam is one such country. It ranks 6th on the Climate Risk Index, and is part of the 48-country Climate Vulnerable Forum. However, nearly 50 per cent of the country’s energy production still relies on coal, and there are plans to ramp up the country’s coal power arsenal over the coming decades to meet electricity demand that is growing by eight per cent a year. 

So what, then, was Vietnam’s response to the IPCC report? And how quickly should the country be looking to wean itself off coal? Eco-Business spoke to Panmao Zhai, co-chair of IPCC Working Group 1, at COP24 to find out.

We’re not saying let’s stop using coal immediately. But we are saying the energy transition has to happen using clean energy to replace high greenhouse-gas-emitting fuels such as coal.

You presented the IPCC report to Vietnamese leaders right after the report was released. How did they respond to the findings?

Yes, it was a high-level meeting organised by the Vietnam Panel on Climate Change (VPCC), both IPCC chairs, myself and some other colleagues were there to discuss the 1.5 degrees report. It went smoothly and we shared details about the signs, the warnings and the relationship between the eradication of poverty and sustainable development.

Did you touch on the topic of coal and carbon emissions?

We didn’t talk specifically about coal or fuel. But we did talk a lot about the transition to a low-carbon future. Globally, we have to reduce carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, which is very challenging for many developing countries.

What are your hopes then for Vietnam, in terms of policy changes in response to the IPCC report?

This report is not about any one country. Emissions reduction is very ambitious, and we all have to work together in the world and say that no one country can hide. For Vietnam, as a developing country it’s important to see their part in the issue. We need a well-managed way for developing countries like Vietnam to actualise the development they need for the future. In other words, we’re not saying let’s stop using coal immediately. But we are saying the energy transition has to happen using clean energy to replace high greenhouse-gas-emitting fuels such as coal.

As the co-chair of IPCC Working Group 1 on Physical Science, have you received much scepticism about the science behind the report from Vietnam or other countries?

Some countries and some media outlets have raised questions and doubts, mainly due to a lack of communication than people questioning the science. Even some scientists are sceptical. But I think they don’t know much about the work that IPCC is doing. Some of them are not scientists in this particular field [climate science]. IPCC has done research on this topic for many years. We know this topic very well. But we need to find better ways to communicate the subject to the general public.

IPCC assesses all of the responses to the report. If a scientist has doubts they should publish a paper and go through a peer review process. Only in this way can IPCC check their theories and see if they have merit. The critical principles for IPCC are transparency and objectivity, so points of contention can be openly discussed.

What are the most common misunderstandings of the report?

We’ve received more than 42,000 comments that we have to address. Many people look at a specific period and are confused about the scale of the report. The IPCC report is of a global scale and stretches from pre-industrial times until now—not just a few years like some people think. To look at climate change, we need to study a long period of time.

We cannot afford to reject coal in some countries like Vietnam in this day and age. But we can take steps to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants are reduced.

What form do responses to the IPCC report take?

We have a website and a time-period when we review the comments. If people have questions or don’t agree with our findings, we have to give them answers and sometimes publish those conversations on our website.

Going back to Vietnam’s response to the report, do you think there’s been adequate interest in the issue of climate mitigation?

I met your prime minister [Nguyen Xuan Phuc] last year and the year before, and he recognises that climate change is a very serious problem—Vietnam is the only country that accepted the report immediately, only one day after the IPCC chairs and scientists released it. When we were there, Vietnam organised a large event around the report. This shows that the country take it very seriously.

Does our decision to build 16 more coal-fired power plants by 2030 contradict this?

We cannot afford to reject coal in some countries like Vietnam in this day and age. But we can take steps to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants are reduced. Of course, in the future, we have to transition to renewable energy, but different countries have their own circumstances and unique set of challenges.

Xuan Mai Hoang is a COP24 fellow at Climate Tracker. She is currently reporting from Katowice, Poland. 

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