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African cities and 1.5 degrees: Interview with Debra Roberts

Last month, Robert McSweeney from the website Carbon Brief sat down with Debra Roberts, a member of Future Earth’s Engagement Committee, for a wide-ranging interview on climate change adaptation and policy. A sample of that interview is republished below. You can read the complete interview and watch associated videos here.

In October 2015, Dr. Debra Roberts was elected as the new co-chair of Working Group II (WG2) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). WG2 is the group that examines the impacts of climate change and how to adapt to them. Having served as a lead author of the Urban Areas chapter in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Roberts will now lead WG2’s activities for the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) cycle.

In her day job, Roberts established and heads the environmental planning and climate protection department of eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa. She is Durban’s first chief resilience officer and is responsible for overseeing the development of the city’s first resilience strategy.

Carbon Brief interviewed Roberts during the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam.

Carbon Brief: The recent Paris Agreement put a renewed focus on the more-ambitious temperature limit of 1.5C. From your perspective, how feasible do you think a 1.5C limit is –  it does rely quite heavily on negative emissions technologies, such as bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS)?

Debra Roberts: Again, I come back to where is your smartest and biggest opportunity to make a difference? So, if we’re going to raise our level of ambition and put 1.5C on the potential scorecard in terms of our climate action, where do you get the most bang for your buck in bending that curve? Quite frankly, you get it in the world’s cities. If we look at this urbanisation that’s going to be happening in this century, it’s quite different from the urbanisation that generated, for example, Rotterdam, where we’re sitting here today. It’s going to be a process of urbanisation that generates small, largely informal type cities and the question is, how do you put those onto a new development path so you leapfrog the carbon intensive patterns of development which have characterised the cities of the past? That for me is, if we’re able to develop that new version for urbanisation in an entirely different context and entirely different manner, which allows us to go from intensive carbon reliance in our cities to something that’s obviously low carbon climate resilient – there you stand your greatest chance of bending the curve to 1.5C. Quite frankly, without cities, you don’t get 1.5C. So the question is how do we urbanise the climate protection debate, and I think that’s one of the big challenges that the Paris Agreement has left us with.

CB: So, tell me about you. Perhaps you could just explain your background, how you got to the positions you hold today?

DR: A biologist by training, who very rapidly got frustrated with an academic environment that wasn’t connected to the real world. So when democracy came to South Africa and the country was imbued with a sense of change, I thought this is the moment – if the country can change, I can change, too. So, in 1994, I left academia – where my research had been on urban conservation issues, how one integrates biodiversity into local cities – joined local government, and continued to work on biodiversity issues. But as our understanding of how the African city was going to work, we began the realise that the key to making the African city sustainable and resilient would be people and ecosystems, using those in new and different ways. And then, of course, with that came the realisation that climate change was going to impact on both of those twin pillars of strength that Africa had, so I got into that space – very much as they say in the trenches. Then again got frustrated – so it’s been a life of frustration with the fact that as a practitioner, the researcher would arrive in your office and would interview you for two hours and then go away and write a paper that bore no reality to what you had spoken about – and so got reengaged with the science community at that particular point. So I found myself quite stretched across a broad range of things – remaining a practitioner, involved at the policy level through being involved in the climate change negotiations up in Paris last year – and because I’ve reengaged with the science community to have a discussion informed by reality, I found myself nominated and elected as co-chair. So really, I’m involved in so many fields, I’m not sure I do any of them particularly well, but I’ve got a very broad prospectus of interest [laughs].

CB: You’ve gained much of your education and experience in Africa, but you’ve also studied and worked in the UK and the US. What similarities and differences do you see in the adaptation challenges that Africa faces, compared to those in, say, Europe and North America?

DR: It’s too simplified an answer to say “well, Africa is unique” because I don’t think there’s any place in the globalised world that remains entirely unique. But I do think the set of opportunities for Africa are different to those that might have been experienced in the global North. If you look at the developed path of the global North, that development path pursued without the full range of knowledge that we have available to us today. So, in many cases, that development path wasn’t perhaps as informed or as insightful as it needed to be. In Africa, we’re starting the beginning of our development race in many particular ways. We’ve got the advantage of accessing this broad range of knowledge. We have enormous resources available to us just in terms of space, natural resources. We’ve got the youth bulge globally; we’ve got the largest population of young people – which is where your innovation comes from. So with that knowledge, with that kind of opportunity for innovation, with that enormous resource space, and just having such a huge continent, there’s the potential there to do something really, really different. The question is, are we brave enough as Africans to pick up on that opportunity, to step off the sort of well-trodden path for a bit, to develop our own version? And certainly we can see that articulation of the new African vision – the new African renaissance discussions, and so on – all point to the fact that Africa is ready for that new vision. But it is going to require us to be self-motivated, to utilise all of these opportunities in new ways, and to be confident in ourselves as Africans to make those choices. I think we can take quite a different path. If we don’t do that, we could fall into the well-trodden path and then simply repeat the mistakes of the North, which I think would be unfortunate.

CB: In the plenary session yesterday, you spoke about an “elephant in the room” of how we get from a global agreement, such as Paris, to tackling climate change through local implementation of it. I was wondering if you could you expand on that a little?

DR: I think that the problem is because we’ve worked in central silos, institutional silos for so long, that what we tend to do is we carve up the world into neat little boxes and pursue our objectives in those. And what we fail to do – I suppose a bit like threading beads on a necklace – is to find ways to actually link those opportunities into something that is greater. So, to my mind, what is lacking, you’ve got this ambitious Paris Agreement, but no one’s visualised how you take that and actually turn it into change in the kind of city I work in. And I think in order to do that, it’s really calling on a new breed of practitioner-policymaker-researcher-scientist kind of hybrid, who’s capable of moving those discussions across that complex landscape. Maybe you won’t find all of those skills in one person, but a cohort of people who are capable of moving that discussion back and forth because both of those bookends have to keep triangulating around one another. You know, the Paris Agreement can’t remain a static beast – that’s why the NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] have to be produced every five years and be more ambitious. Those changes and reflections can’t happen outside the changes and reflections of what is happening at the local level, but how do you create that discourse? Who are the people who can move up and down that? So, to my mind, we need to be training a new breed of person in the 21st century who is capable of moving across that range of discussions. We need to create new institutions that allow that linkage to happen. So you’ve got the bizarre situation where you’ve got the Paris Agreement that comes out of the UN system, it acknowledges very strongly the role of non-party stakeholders – cities that have been mentioned in there, which is fabulous – but the UN has no logical place for local government to be part of those discussions. So you’re acknowledging that through the Lima-Paris Action Plan and other initiatives that local is important, but you’ve got no institutional linkages. You need people with a different set of skills, you need different forms of institutions to create those opportunities for those various levels to come together regularly to talk to, to coordinate, around what is happening on either side. So it’s talking to a transformed pattern of governance, which is quite difficult to talk about because many of our institutions are well set – we know them well. But I think it is going to require us to be bold and begin to shift that and change that, create more direct links. So, to my mind, it’s a bit more of a governance issue that we need to change, rather than a science issue necessarily.