“If we had listened to scientists 30 years ago, we wouldn't have had a big problem as we have now,” says Svein Tveitdal, the former Division Director in the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and current director of the climate change consultancy Klima2020, when he was asked how much time humans have left to fight climate change. Tveitdal created Klima2020 to share advice with companies and local authorities who want to implement environmentally-responsible change. Its objective is to "bridge the gap between climate science, policymakers and the general public.”

In an exclusive interview with Blasting News, Tveitdal shared his thoughts on how to act effectively and quickly to tackle climate change.

Tveitdal's solution would be to reduce emissions by 6-7% per year over the next decade worldwide. “If you ask me, I don't think we'll be successful,” he said. However, Tveitdal is hopeful that people will realize that our planet is facing “big threats” and that it is their role to act now.

You said that your fight against climate change started when you found the 1987 Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development to be an eye-opener. What specifically struck you in this report?

I was very close to nature as a child and wanted to do something that would keep me in touch with it. After being a civil engineer, I started working in a consulting company where we used modern information technology to make pretty good environmental maps. The Brundtland report recommended to further develop the network of GRID (Global Resource Information Database) centers managed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), with the aim of bridging the gap between science and politics, as well as the general public.

I realized that I could use my technology here and established GRID-Arendal, a non-profit center in the small city of Arendal where I lived in 1989. Brundtland herself came to the inauguration, I served as a director here for almost 10 years. Then I was chosen by the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program to serve as a division director at its headquarter in Nairobi.

Part of my responsibility was the secretariat to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Geneva. After serving the UN, I established the company Klima2020 in 2007. So after reading the report in 1987, I have been working full time on this topic.

You started in the 1980’s, would you say that mindsets have changed around climate change?

I could divide this development into four groups: scientists, politicians, people and businesses.

If we had listened to scientists 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the situation we’re in now. There has been broad consensus about the threat Climate Change poses since then Politicians have known but not acted. For example the first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Berlin in 1995.

It was chaired by Angela Merkel, then Minister of the Environment. Already then she made a point that global warming according to scientists, needed to be limited to 2 °C to avoid dangerous warming. So politicians have been talking about climate change for a long time, without doing much.

On the other hand, when it comes to people, there is a growing awareness. Fifteen years ago, about half of people took this topic seriously and the other half didn’t. Today there are more people realizing the urgency, but there are still quite a few climate deniers. On top of that, fake news makes it difficult to gain awareness because people believe everything.

As far as businesses are concerned, there is a division between those who work with renewable energies and who provide tools to educate us, and the fossil fuel industry which does a lot of lobbying.

Thirty years ago the big oil and mobile companies knew what they were doing was dangerous and harmful to nature and people, but they just started to grow their business because it was very profitable.Today, there is rapid change underway because more and more companies are now withdrawing from investments in fossil fuel companies but also because coal is declining. Hopefully oil and gas go in the same direction. In short, it is going in a gradual direction, but it is going too slowly.

It’s the hottest decade on record. How many years do you think we have to save the planet? How can we implement concrete actions on the ground?

The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming to maximum 2 °C, preferably 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, but it is currently warming at around 0.2 °C per decade.

So 1.5 °C will happen in maybe 20 years. If we want to limit global warming to 1.5 °C, which we will not do, then we must multiply by five the ambitions of pledges made in Paris five years ago. What we need to do to achieve this is to reduce emissions by 6-7% each year for the next decade. This year, we managed to reach this goal during COVID-19, with 7%. But now, it looks like as soon as we recover from COVID, it will increase again. The challenge of continuing to reduce by 7% each year is therefore huge. If you ask me, I don't think we'll be successful. We have about 10 years to sort that out.

Do you have specific examples that illustrate the urgency of climate change?

If we are talking about tipping points, an example is the Arctic.

The sea ice coverage has shrunk by 50% in 30 years, and the North Pole could be ice-free in September around 2040-2050. This is a big problem because ice and snow reflect 85% of the solar heat while water and earth absorb 85% of the energy. So this part of the world is going from being a heat shield to a driver and accelerator of global warming. I was until recently chairman of the board of the Norwegian Rain Forest Association and one very serious thing is the tropical rainforests in the Amazon. If the temperature rises in these forests, let’s say by four or five degrees, the rainforest will not survive, it will die. It could turn into a savannah. If we enter a world without rainforests, we probably won't be able to live here.

So there are very big threats ahead. The situation is really serious.

These natural catastrophes lead to migration, famine, economic crisis and thus are not only about climate change but are also related to societies in general. Do you think that people have to feel threatened personally to act?

People must feel threatened to take action.There has been a debate amongst NGOs, because somebody has been saying that you should tell the “Inconvenient Truth”, which reveals the urgency around global warming by focusing on a reality that affects the situation as a whole, like Al Gore did in his 2006 movie. And then someone said you shouldn't do that, you should just focus on the positive sides of a green and sustainable world, and then people will act.

I do not think this is sufficient. I think people really need to feel the threat. It may be too late when they’ll realize they have a problem. I still hope that it will be so clear to people that they will want to do something about it.

As a former director in the UN Environmental Programme, could you explain the difficulties that prevent authorities from reaching their goal?

Thirty years ago it was politically correct to worry about climate change. People talked about it in their speeches, but they didn't take it very seriously. Today state leaders realized that it was a little more urgent and they see that we have a serious problem. The next phase is to do something about it. They are acting but not strongly enough.

On the other side, you have a very powerful lobby from the fossil fuel industry. They have very smart techniques to make people believe we don't have a problem. This is why people are reluctant to make the necessary changes. For instance, when I was a child we made clothes so that they would last, now we use clothes to look nice.

You started KLIMA2020 in order to focus on bridging the gap between climate science, policy makers and the general public. What can be done to incite new policies and actions?

The problem is that the market will not solve the problem if politicians are not setting rules for the industry to behave responsibly. Renewable energies are cheaper but the shift from fossil fuels doesn't go fast enough.

Existing coal plants have to be closed down and 80% of the known reserves of coal. Oil and gas need to be kept in the ground. EVs are still coming and more than 99% of the cars in the world run on fossil fuels. If we had the time, we could just wait for the market, but we don't. Politicians need to set rules to solve the problem. They can put a fair price on carbon. If polluters were to pay the real price for the damage they make, the change would go very quickly.

The second thing politicians need to do is stop deforestation. Today, 10-15% of global emissions are due to deforestation and loss of biomass around the world. If politicians agreed to put a fair price on carbon and to stop deforestation we would have a 35-40% reduction in emissions fairly quickly.

Do you think that COVID-19 has helped shift priorities and could result in more funding being devoted to the fight against climate change?

We have mobilized a lot of money during this health crisis, which shows where there’s a will, there’s a way. If we put a similar effort into stopping climate change, we can fight it. Unfortunately, there is now more rescue money going to the fossil fuel industry than to renewables. It's unfortunate because if we manage to spend all these billions to get back to business as usual, we are not a step closer to solving the great climate crisis, which is bigger than COVID.

The UK declared it will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. How is that possible? How will it affect people’s lives?

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I've seen this Climate Change Committee (CCC) you have in the UK, and they're pretty optimistic. Boris Johnson has set himself a very ambitious target of reducing UK emissions by 68% by 2030. That's more ambitious than the EU, which agreed to 55% in 2030, last week. The Committee envisages air travel staying near current levels and meat eating, which is already falling, being reduced by just 20% by 2030. Changes in how people live “need not entail sacrifices”, the CCC said. It said mixed woodlands covering an area three times the size of Greater London should be planted by 2035, capturing CO2 and providing new green spaces.

Do you think the UK’s lead will incite other countries to follow this example?

This is exactly what the world needs to see. I'm a little more optimistic now because more and more people, businesses and politicians are starting to see the problem. But we are still not on track to resolve the issue.

Protests by school-aged children around the world have blossomed thanks to Greta Thunberg. Would you say that global youth is more aware of the urgency around climate change? Are they the ones who have the power to change things?

I travelled extensively to make a presentation entitled “Hope or disaster”, through which we already met 12,000 young students. I love to tell them that they are the ones who have contributed the most over the past two years to the fight against climate change. The most important speeches at the summits were those of Greta Thunberg and not those of national ministers. This is exactly how things are going to change, by doing what young people who participate in these school strikes are doing. I thank them for that, because it is the most important thing that has happened in recent years.

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