UN climate change panel elects new leader

Prof Hoesung Lee has beaten strong opposition to be elected chairman of the panel. [IPCC/Twitter]

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has elected South Korean Professor Hoesung Lee as its new chair. EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel reports.

Lee, an energy economist, pledged that the advice of the IPCC would move closer towards political reality. “I think if you ask me to choose the most important work in climate change issues, then I’ll choose carbon price,” he said in an interview before their ongoing meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Late on Tuesday (6 October) evening, his proposed direction earned him the chair of the UN-body, beating off strong opposition from three European physicists, an American physicist and a last-minute candidate from Sierra Leone.

Last year, the IPCC submitted its fifth assessment report, a work of over a thousand pages. The report was split into three parts: the first relates to the current state of play of climate research and the physical causes of climate change. The second part is about the consequences of climate change and how we could adapt to it. The third and final part details what possible action could be taken in order to reduce and prevent carbon dioxide emissions.

>>Read: EU ministers’ ‘deal’ on emissions leaves little time for COP21 diplomacy

The IPCC found itself at the centre of unwanted attention as a result of its fourth report, which contained some errors relating to, among others, the rate of arctic sea ice melting and the loss of Himalayan glaciers.

In November 2009, the so-called “Climategate” controversy began in the UK, where the hacking of a climate research unit’s email server led climate sceptics to claim that scientists had been manipulating climate change data to back up their hypotheses.

A further setback hit the IPCC in February of this year, when its previous chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, was accused of sexual harassment, which he denied.

Its scientific reputation has been somewhat restored by the fifth assessment report though. But the mammoth-sized document has not been received all that well.

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), who also led the third working group on mitigation of climate change, proposed fundamental reforms in the scientific journal “Science”.

He believes that the IPCC should produce faster and shorter reports. Their work should also be regionally tailored and of greater use to governments of developing countries.

Regional focus

These reforms are exactly what Lee has in mind. In his application letter for the post that he has been awarded, Lee promised to facilitate the creation of regional centres of excellence for climate research, adaptation and greenhouse gas reduction.

His most important priority is the implementation of growth models that can both overcome poverty and preserve the Earth’s atmosphere. In the future, there should be a greater focus on regional needs.

>>Read: German Africa envoy: Scepticism remains over SDG implementation

A strong field of candidates

Swiss physicist Thomas Stocker worked on the first part of the fifth assessment report, yet was eliminated in the first round of voting. Nebojsa Nakicenovic, a Montenegrin physicist, has worked for many years in the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna and enjoyed the support of both the Montenegrin and Austrian governments, yet he too was unsuccessful.

American physicist Chris Field, who sought to make the IPCC completely apolitical, had as little success as Ogunlade Davidson, a Sierra Leonean who was only nominated days before the vote and who was not actually present at the meeting in Dubrovnik.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a Belgian physicist, had been the first to announce his candidacy; he was defeated by Hoesung Lee in the final run-off, by 78 votes to 56.

The Nobel Prize: a distant memory

The 69 year-old South Korean will need a lot of support and skill to guide the IPCC into a new era. It has been a dramatic fall from grace for his predecessor, Nobel Prize winner Rajendra Pachauri, who chaired the IPCC for 13 years.

He had previously led the The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, a post he held for 30 years. Pachauri is one of the most experienced and distinguished scientists that India has to offer. He has helped shape the climate change debate for well over a decade.

The peak of his career came in 2007, when he accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the IPCC. The IPCC had just submitted its fourth report and the theme of climate change, its consequences and the means by which it could be halted were top of the political agenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel used this significant tailwind during both Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and the G8.

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