INTERVIEW: Climate change is the biggest threat to human kind

Ashraf Amin and Nermeen Kotb, Friday 8 Jul 2022

Ahram Online spoke to Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), about his cooperation with Egypt to prepare for the UN Climate Change Conference 2022 (COP27) and their efforts to empower African Nations with early warning services to predict extreme weather events.

 Petteri Taalas
Petteri Taalas


Professor Taalas also stressed on the need that developed countries their commitments and the Asian economies to agree on reducing their dependence fossil fuel.

Ahram Online: What were the outcomes of your latest visit to Egypt and the aspects of possible cooperation with respect to the coming COP27?

Petteri Taalas: First of all, we are very grateful that Egypt will be hosting the next COP in Sharm El-Sheikh; that is highly appreciated. We are also supporting the fact that this meeting will be in Africa. Personally, I have excellent cooperation with his excellency Mr. Sameh Shoukry, the minister of foreign affairs, and the Egyptian Ambassador Ahmed Gamaleldin in Geneva concerning the preparations of the COP27.

We have three interesting items that we have been discussing with the Egyptian authorities: first of all, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has asked us to prepare a major early warning service initiative. At the moment only half of the members have early warning services in place which means that the impacts of climate change are more dramatic once you do not have early warning services in place.

That situation is quite common in many African countries and island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean. So, we have to establish early warning services globally to save lives and avoid economic losses. That is one of our common interests as an outcome of the COP27. We hope that countries agree on investing more in early warning services capacities especially in less developed countries who are members of the WMO.

Another related item is water. Many of climate change impacts are causing melting of the glaciers, rise of the sea levels in some regions, drought and water scarcity in other parts. In Africa, agriculture is a key part in most countries' economies and as we see all the climatic conditions are moving towards less water availability, that for sure will have a negative impact on agriculture. As part of the early warning technologies, it is important to pay attention to water resources management and that is also among our common interests at the WMO.

The third item is greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions, all these gases have a warming impact on our planet. At WMO we have ground base stations and satellite measurements to monitor the concentrations of these gases. Our aim is to create a real time monitoring system to see what is happening and have a better understanding of the behavior of those emissions for climate science and for further implementation of the Paris agreement for climate change. These are the three items that we have been discussing with the Egyptian government and we are more focused on those items as part of the COP27.

AO: Is the early warning system related to the Systematic Observation Financing Facility (SOFF) that WMO has launched?

PT: Yes, today, less than 10 percent of required basic weather and climate observations are available from Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries (SIDS/LDC). The world urgently needs this data and this is why SOFF will be a partnership of equals where everyone has a role and responsibilities. It will support countries to generate and exchange basic observational data critical for improved weather forecasts and climate services.

It will provide technical and financial assistance in new ways applying internationally agreed metrics to guide investments, using data exchange as a measure of success, and creating local benefits while delivering on a global public good. It will strengthen climate adaptation and resilience across the globe, benefitting in particular the most vulnerable countries.

AO: How long would it take to overcome this climate data gap?

PT: We have an action plan for the coming five years. Last week we had a steering committee meeting for the SOFF and we already have seven donor countries behind this project. Our aim is that by 2027, we will be having these observing systems in function, providing the required global data. This project will be a powerful way to adapt to climate change. Based on our studies, we will need $1.5 billion for that purpose. We will also need $50 million annually for the maintenance and the running cost of the network.

AO: Is WMO climate data available to the general public?

PT: Last October, the WMO country members approved a new open data policy. All the key and observational data that we are collecting and the early warning service data are freely available for governments, companies and citizens. It is important for us that any person gets easy access to this data. We are now collaborating with the private sector to create friendly mobile applications to access all our data.

AO: How could this climate data be used to boost the loss & damage file of climate mitigation plans?

PT: According to the data, we see a growing number of weather-related disasters like droughts, floodings, tropical storms, coastal invasions and heatwaves. In order to avoid human and economic losses of high impact weather events, it is highly recommended to have early warning services so that countries could be better prepared and protect their people from such damages. You can also use such information to enhance the agriculture plans and have better management for water resources.

By having such systems countries could save about twenty folds of the investments in early warning services which means that we could save $30 billion of damages by investing $1.5 billion in early warning technologies.

In addition, last year, we gathered at the WMO socioeconomic benefit expertise and we are currently working with them on studies, some of which might be released during the next COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. 

AO: How early could we predict the weather events?   

PT: We have three scales that we could monitor. The high impact storm events and heatwaves could be predicted one to two weeks ahead. The seasonal predictions functioning at low latitude areas could be predicted three months ahead to know whether the season will be dryer than normally or not. The third scale is related to measuring ocean temperatures, global precipitation features. This data could be provided half a year ahead.

AO: What is the pattern of the extreme weather events?

PT: We have already seen an increase in the number of heatwaves worldwide, an increase of droughts in the Mediterranean region, southern Africa, the far east and the Americas. We have also seen an increase in flooding events especially in the Eurasian continent and some parts of central Africa. We have also seen a growing number of tropical storms because of the oceans. These cyclones are now hitting south east Africa for the first time like the unusual four consecutive storms that hit Madagascar this spring.

AO: Could we have a forecast scenario of the possible extreme weather events that we might witness in the future?

PT: We have climate scenarios for the coming decades, we also have a decadal scale and we can say that the risk for the intense heat waves, droughts and flooding is growing as well as the intense tropical storms. According to our studies we are expecting to see an increase in all these negative impacts till 2060. If we are successful with climate mitigation, we could reduce these negative trends after 2060, what is clear is that these extreme events will continue and increase over the next four decades.

In addition, we know that the impact of ice melting and rise of sea level will continue for centuries due to the high concentration of carbon dioxide unless we create tools to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

AO: How could developing countries profit from these climate models?

PT: As a matter of fact, in many parts of the developing world we do not have enough observing systems, we do not know the baseline and what is the normal climate in several African countries and island states. That is why we need to invest in these countries to have an accurate prediction of what will happen in the coming years and decades. This kind of climate models that we produced are available through the IPCC reports. We have been also helping countries with their national adaptation plans to climate change and how to minimise climate risks.

AO: Following the COP26 outcomes, is the 1.5 C warming limit that was cited in the Paris agreement still achievable? 

PT: The COP26 in Glasgow was partly a successful meeting, the rich countries and the G7 countries and the European Union countries made pledges to keep us on the 1.5 degree increase. Unfortunately, the big emitters in Asian countries like China, India and Russia in addition to Brazil were not able to make such commitments yet. That means that we are heading for a 2.5 to three degree increase in global warming.

Though there has been some progress in climate mitigation we are not heading to the Paris agreement of warming limits. If we could enhance the mitigation action plans, I would say that the two degrees limit could be doable but the 1.5 degree limit will be quite challenging. The longer we will wait till we reach a global agreement, the more challenging it will be to have a global warming limit.

AO: What is your advice to reach success in COP27?

PT: It is important that the countries who made pledges fulfill their commitments and to get additional countries onboard, especially the big Asian economies. Without their commitment it will be quite difficult to stay on the Paris agreement targets.

AO: How could the nations fulfill their commitments during the COP, especially amid the current global crises, including war and the pandemic?

PT: It is important to keep in mind that the biggest threat to humankind is climate change. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine hopefully will be over in one or two years. If we fail with climate mitigation, we will face much bigger problems than the problems of the wars and the pandemic combined. These problems will stay for the coming centuries.

We are competing with the attention of the governments and it is going to be for sure challenging in the presence of the current global crises.

AO: To what extent does the non-governmental and private sector initiatives have an impact on reducing carbon emissions?    

PT: The key issue is to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel worldwide. That is the biggest challenge we are facing. We have to get rid of coal, oil and natural gas consumption. Those are the key issues. The good news now is that the prices of energy from solar plants and wind turbines is becoming cheaper than fossil energy. Also, the prices of batteries and electric vehicles are now dropping. We have better tools to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel for the coming five to ten years and to be successful in climate mitigation. Beside governments, the private sector is currently more interested to be part of the solution and they see climate mitigation as good business opportunities for them.

Petteri Taalas is the secretary-general of World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) which is the UN specialised agency for weather, climate, operational hydrology and related geophysical sciences. Before 2016, Prof. Taalas held several leading positions as Director General of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, 2007–2015 and 2002–2005. Director at WMO for Development and Regional Activities, 2005–2007. He is also a research professor on remote sensing and ozone studies.

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