Organisation - December 15, 2011

‘I am concerned but not pessimistic'

The man with a hundred million. That is how big the budget was for the recently completed Dutch national research programme called Climate changes Spatial Planning, which Pavel Kabat led for six years, as science director. No immediate follow-up is planned. Climate research itself is the victim of a new climate. Kabat looks back - and ahead.

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The term climate-proof.' Even seasoned interviewer Frenk van der Linden was momentarily taken aback at this response by Kabat at the final conference of Climate changes Spatial Planning, held at the Wagon House at Amersfoort Central Station. A single word, was that really the main achievement to come out of 100 million euro's worth of climate research? Kabat admitted that he was being a little provocative. But he insists that the answer does get to the heart of the success of Climate changes Spatial Planning. Kabat: ‘The concept of climate proofing means you can tackle climate as an opportunity. Climate-proof makes sense to employers, policymakers and PhD researchers. So this terminology was crucial.'
But surely Climate changes Spatial Planning achieved more than that?
‘Before Climate changes Spatial Planning, climate policy focused exclusively on mitigation, which meant limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The Netherlands was very good at that. We were convinced that we could solve the climate problem that way. But even if by some miracle you could agree tomorrow to stabilize emissions, global warming will still continue for hundreds of years. That is because of the inertia in the earth's system. So along with mitigation, you also need adaptation. Adaptation to climate change was something completely new. Before that time, climate change was a threat, a danger. That it is now an opportunity as well, that you can arm yourself against climate change through adaptation, and that you can even end up benefitting from it economically: all this was a major paradigm shift. ‘Climate changes Spatial Planning' has made clear to society how you can do that. That was the programme's biggest contribution. And it went incredibly quickly. It is unique, how fast the scientific concept of adaptation has been turned into a widely supported policy, plans for investment and even laws.'

And what has been gained in scientific terms?
‘As an example, we developed an aeroplane with which we can measure emissions - almost online - of the three greenhouse gases methane, laughing gas and carbon dioxide. And we can identify where the gases are coming from. That is important, because emissions mean money. This is an example of technological innovation that is unique. Another innovation is the ‘made to measure' climate scenarios. We invested a lot in a dialogue between the users of scenarios, municipal councils, water boards and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). There was also a great leap forward in making economic valuations of climate change issues. By this I mean cost-benefit analyses. Until recently the CBS worked with a fixed discount rate of 4 percent. That meant that everything you build up and develop becomes worthless pretty quickly. But with this kind of method you will never get economically viable investments in climate adaptation, because you make these for 40, 50 or 60 years. We negotiated hard with the CBS to get a flexible discount rate. That is crucial, and it happened.'
Climate changes Spatial Planning is finished now. Knowledge for Climate, the other big climate programme runs until 2014. How climate-proof is climate science itself?
‘I am not pessimistic, but I am concerned about its future. The scrapping of FES funding, which keeps the innovation and knowledge machinery oiled, was a very bad decision. I am also worried about the top sector policy. As a model I support it wholeheartedly. But it is almost impossible to imagine that it will succeed, given the inertia in the Dutch institutional landscape. None of the three parties, the government, the public sector and the private sector, will be the first to put money on the table. Those top sectors are going to keep themselves going as a talking shop. And we are losing momentum, dammit! Hardly anything is being done with our results. There is absolutely no clarity about how this line of thought and capital will be integrated into the top sectors.'

Do you lose sleep about this?
‘I did a bit over the situation last year. There is no prospect of a direct follow-up, in spite of our having done everything in our power. And something that certainly keeps me awake at night is the lack of processing capacity in the ministries. The Hague has a tendency to start up research the results of which no one there wants to see. Whereas the whole idea is that you do use results and innovations. Politicians are good at dreaming up new priorities, but do not look enough at what has been achieved. That makes me think, ‘Heck, we get money but why don't they monitor us, and why do I have to tell them how they can valorise those results? That's their job, isn't it? Those are frustrating moments.'
What would have to happen to put climate back on the map?
‘Climategate had a very negative effect on public opinion and the political landscape. Along with all the economic problems, that does not make it easy at the moment. But most climate science just carries on as usual. The number of papers is not going down. People are working hard on IPCC 5. Science has not yet suffered any great damage. Not yet. I have seen the first draft of 2020, a European document which outlines the 8th Framework programme. One quarter of the 80 billion that will be invested is linked to climate science. That gives hope. It's not bad.'
But the Dutch person on the street couldn't care less. They are not bothered about the climate problem.
‘Well, I am not as pessimistic as that. But perhaps we should look for a different way of communicating with each other. During the closing conference of ‘Climate changes Spatial Planning', I was on the jury of the secondary school competition. There was a girl there who said, ‘We understand everything you are saying, but we also see that it is not a burning issue for people. We think the problem lies with communication. Our idea is to build a house in a park in Nijmegen with water-saving toilets and things like that, so that people can experience sustainability.' And she is absolutely right. At this stage, it is no longer just a matter of improving climate models. I fully endorse the view that we must take a new approach to communication. Make people the owners of the problem, that's it really. I am very positive about that.'

Climate changes Spatial Planning was a large national research programme costing 100 million euros: 40 million from the state and 60 million from private parties. More than 300 researchers from various universities and institutions were involved. The programme produced 75 PhDs, 25 of them in Wageningen. Scientists wrote more than 800 articles in peer-reviewed journals. The programme led to more than 80 public-private collaborations. Some of the programme's success stories are told in a Dutch book on climate-proof spatial planning: Praktijkboek voor klimaatbestendig inrichten. For more (in Dutch) on the book, background and results, see www.ruimtevoorklimaat.nl

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