For a Scientist and Mother, Climate Change Is ‘Intergenerational Robbery’
Diana Ürge-Vorsatz is a Hungarian academic; director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University; mother of seven; accomplished athlete; and prolific researcher of energy demand and renewable energy supplies. She currently serves as a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) working group III, which focuses on progress in emissions reduction and how to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
This summer, Ürge-Vorsatz co-authored “A Call for Concerted Action Against Environmental Crises” in the journal Annual Review of Environment and Resources (ARER), a journal where she serves on the editorial board. Together she and her colleagues despaired of the “intergenerational robbery” that has seen humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels steal the future from today’s children — including her own.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Ürge-Vorsatz talks about why she thinks there has been so little progress in cutting emissions, the importance of finding ways to reduce energy use, and how even well-off families like hers will not be spared the impacts of climate change.
Yale Environment 360: This must be personal for you – you have seven kids. How do you feel about raising kids in this altered world?
Diana Ürge-Vorsatz: It is very alarming for me. I am very, very worried for the future of my seven children. But I do hope that I have raised them in a way that they can contribute to the solution of this problem. As a mother, this is the meaning of my life, to ensure a good future for them.
Nature surveyed IPCC authors, and a very high share [nearly half] reported that their decisions relating to their fertility or where they want to live have been seriously influenced by climate impacts. I think 17 perent changed their original plans about having children. It’s serious.
e360: And yet you and I and your children will be buffered from many of the more serious effects of climate change by the privilege of our economic positions — no?
Ürge-Vorsatz: That’s true. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter how much money you have. Tornadoes and fires can affect the rich. The pandemic was an excellent example. If you got the virus, even if you’re rich, you can die. Yes, to some extent, we can try to protect ourselves. This may give us less pressure to act. On the other hand, beyond a certain level, it’s scary for anybody.
e360: How old are your kids?
Ürge-Vorsatz: They are between 8 and 23.
e360: Do you see a difference between them in their feelings about climate change?
Ürge-Vorsatz: Definitely. The older ones see it as the biggest threat, and unfortunately they are not very optimistic. I try to give them optimism and hope. My younger ones went through a climate anxiety period, and that’s not easy to address. There are so many pressures, from the pandemic and the war [in Ukraine, which borders Hungary]. It’s really not easy for children today growing up.
“The world is not working vain. It’s starting to happen. But it’s insufficient. We literally have three years to turn global emissions back.”
They do try to act. They participate in Fridays for Future [the youth-led climate movement]. But somehow NGOs in Hungary are not as open to volunteers, so it hasn’t been an easy thing. It’s fairly ridiculous, but my son had to go to the United States to volunteer on the conservation side, to clean up national parks and so on. And if you take action, you can be discriminated against. It’s a very fine line they have to walk not to destroy the chances of their careers.
e360: This summer marked 30 years since the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. How far have we come since then?
Ürge-Vorsatz: On the one hand, I do believe we have come far. We have the Paris Agreement, which creates a very ambitious goal, which in principle could solve a majority of the problems related to climate change because it states that we have to stabilize global warming well under 2 degrees [Celsius], ideally one and a half. That’s very ambitious.
But on the other hand, we are really not doing so well. The independent agreements [by individual countries to reduce emissions] do not correspond to the same high-level political goals, and the implementation is even further behind.
So, on paper it was a major achievement. It really turned the world around: Today, it’s publicly recognized that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and economic growth and wellbeing of civilizations. We had more than 150 heads of state under one roof, which had never happened [for a UN meeting] before in human history, not for genocides, not for a world war, not a financial crisis, ever.
e360: Why is implementation lagging so much?
Ürge-Vorsatz: We scientists have been trying to get to the root of why we have been not been able to bend the emissions curve. It’s difficult to pinpoint two or three reasons. Nevertheless, from my perspective, the most important thing is it’s difficult for big businesses to change, to recognize they should do something totally different. Like fossil fuel companies that need to shut down — it’s difficult when they are providing so many jobs. They make a lot of people happy; they make governments happy. Even when governments are eager to fight climate change, they are not as eager to hurt these very strong and important industries.
e360: You were the vice chair of the IPCC’s working group III — the group that looks at mitigation. What were the big surprises in your report that came out earlier this year? What was new?
Ürge-Vorsatz: First of all, it’s very new that we have several climate-related technologies that have dropped in price very significantly, for example photovoltaics and wind power and batteries for electric vehicles. As a result, the penetration of these technologies has increased very significantly. This had not been predicted or foreseen.
Another important message from the report was that, yes, climate policies have been mounting. There are something like 18 countries where emissions have been decreasing, even on a consumption basis, for a decade. The world is not working in vain. It’s starting to happen. But it’s insufficient. We literally have three years to turn global emissions back.
Also, it’s not only how you produce clean energy, but also, “Do I really need this energy?” We focus very strongly on demand and energy services, and that has put mitigation into a very different perspective. For example, in the cement industry there’s a strong focus on sequestering emissions. First, we should say: “Do we really need all this cement? How can we replace it, or repurpose it?” This is perhaps the most important part of this report, coming from the perspective of “How do we reduce?”.
“The problem is that many of our actions today are incremental, and this is a time when small is not always beautiful.”
e360: Some people say that the IPCC has grown too big and bulky to run effectively while at the same time suffering from being limited to Northern and Western views and data. Do you see those problems?
Ürge-Vorsatz: The IPCC is placing a very strong emphasis on shifting the focus to the non-Western world. We have been improving. Nevertheless it’s still difficult. There is a huge divide between the scientific opportunities in the Global South compared to the Global North. So, even with our best intentions, there are underlying problems for representing the perspective of these communities, because we need underlying scientific literature. There are heavy initiatives to fill in this gap. Income from the [IPCC’s] Nobel Prize in 2007 was put into a program that’s for scientific capacity building in the developing world, for example.
e360: You often focus on the ‘lock-in effect’—how the choices we make today to build or avoid carbon-intensive infrastructure will impact decades, and how we really need to make bigger, harder choices now in order to avoid future emissions that are even harder to cut. Can you explain?
Ürge-Vorsatz: The problem is that many of our actions today are incremental, and this is a time when small is not always beautiful. Some of these actions are going to lock us into long-term emissions that will be very difficult to reduce later. For example, if we build cities for the car, it’s almost impossible, very difficult, to later redesign them to be walking-centric or bicycle-centric. If you design them the wrong way, you lock in emissions because people can only get around by car. And if you design buildings in the wrong way, it takes more energy to heat them or cool them. It will not be possible to touch that for a long time; you’re locking in emissions for decades. That is a very big problem.
e360: But of our cities are already built; our buildings are built. We can’t just knock them down and start again.
Ürge-Vorsatz: No, that would be even worse. But whenever we retrofit a building it’s very important to do it to net zero level, or energy-postive level. Every time we retrofit and we don’t do that, it’s a huge loss. With cities you’re right it’s more tricky. But the cities we build now, in the developing world, should be built this way. We have an article in Nature Climate Change about locking in positive changes.
e360: What has your most recent research been focused on?
Ürge-Vorsatz: We have tested a high-efficiency building model that looks at what you can do to get rid of Russian natural gas imports in one or two decades through accelerating building retrofit programs. That is really important because we are facing a very big crisis, because Russia is not allowing as much gas into Europe, and we are very dependent on this so that people will not freeze in the winter. What we’re doing is building more natural gas infrastructure, new LNG terminals, pipelines and so on. It’s the wrong way to react to the crisis. We should use this as an opportunity to address climate goals that get rid of energy poverty and also get rid of import dependence altogether.
What we’re seeing now is an increasing number of solar farms being established. In my view, that is a real waste of resources because land is so precious. There’s so much competition for the land available either for food production and ecosystem services, we cannot afford to use it for energy production. In our models, we have shown that we can integrate solar into the present infrastructure that we have [for example by installing it on rooftops]. And that is not only for heating and cooling, but also for power — covering 75 percent of suitable roofs with photovoltaic/thermal systems could satisfy the power needs of buildings.
“We had a very severe drought in Europe. People are starting to understand this isn’t just something we can ‘get used to.’”
e360: The world now stands at a little over 1 degree Celsius of warming over pre-industrial times. Is a 1.5 degree Celcius target for warming still feasible?
Ürge-Vorsatz: I don’t really like this emphasis on numbers. Whether it’s 1.5 or 1.6 or 1.8, it doesn’t matter. We need to aim for as little warming as possible. Where we end up, no one knows. There is so much uncertainty anyway. We shouldn’t be hung up on the numbers, but do everything we can.
This summer has shown, even the previous summer has shown, that heat waves will cause a lot of death, destroy agricultural production, increase food prices. I could go on and on. Now we are in it, we see it impacting us. I really believe our calculations on future costs are underestimates.
e360: How is Hungary faring during this year’s European heat wave? Do weather events like this help to change policies and minds?
Ürge-Vorsatz: We’ve had a very severe drought in Europe, the most severe since records started. Eastern Hungary is the most strongly affected in Europe besides parts of the Iberian peninsula. We thought we were very rich in water resources — we never would have thought we would need severe water restrictions. People are starting to understand now finally this isn’t just something we can “get used to.”
e360: In addition to being a professor, doing research, editing one journal and serving on the board of another, heading up IPCC reports, and raising a family, you’re also a big adventure runner. Is that right?
Ürge-Vorsatz: It’s called orienteering. That’s my favorite sport, running around in the woods.
e360: How has your experience of outdoor life changed over the last 30 years because of climate change?
Ürge-Vorsatz: Fortunately, I would say the forests are not that badly affected yet. It’s still a refuge. Nature still has a lot of biodiversity. But there is one important pine species planted all over Hungary, for example, that is struggling. This year we had serious forest fires for the first time. There were bush fires even in Budapest. And Hungary now has several tropical diseases; one of my friends nearly died from the West Nile virus, which was not present in Hungary earlier. Pests are going to change their abundance.
We have to wake up that the threats we are facing are getting bigger and bigger. We have to restore biodiversity, the natural protection against disease and droughts.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.