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Living with Climate Change: Northwestern’s Eric Masanet on the Creation of an IPCC Assessment Report

Julianne Beck | July 31, 2019
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There is so much we can do when it comes to climate change. When faced with limited resources ranging from time to finances, where should we focus our energies? The answers continue to evolve along with the issues. Fortunately, members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guide our efforts by developing assessment reports.

Together with experts from around the world, Eric Masanet, associate professor of mechanical engineering, chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University, is hard at work on the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which is set for release in 2021. Masanet is serving as a lead author on a chapter for AR6 Working Group III, titled Demand, Services, and Social Aspects of Mitigation. After participating in the first lead author meeting held in Edinburgh, Scotland this past spring, he talks with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) about his experiences and expectations.

ISEN: What is the IPCC, and how did you become involved?

Masanet: The IPCC is an intergovernmental organization whose mission is to provide objective assessments of the science related to climate change, the risks to human and natural systems that could be posed by climate change, and options for what we can do about it. It's part of the UN framework, falling under the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme.  Most of the work done by the IPCC is actually done by scientists around the world on a voluntary basis. My first exposure to the IPCC came years ago when I was a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, through colleagues who were engaged in AR4.  I have since served as an expert reviewer for AR5, was a contributing author to the IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy, and now I'm a lead author for AR6.

ISEN: What is the focus of your chapter?

Masanet: The chapter I'm involved in is focused on a paradigm shift in the way we think about providing for human needs. We're assessing the literature on ways of providing services with much lower energy demand, materials demand, and CO2 emissions. Our chapter will also be somewhat of a scene setter that supports the messages coming from chapters on transport, industry, cities, and buildings, all related to meeting human needs through better provision of services. It's increasingly becoming clear that we're not going to reach net-zero CO2 emissions [by eliminating carbon emissions or otherwise balancing the amount released with the amount removed] based on technology alone, and that we have to think of other ways of ensuring well-being and providing the energy services that we need to prosper. 

ISEN: What took place at your first meeting in Scotland?

Masanet: The goal was to start working on the chapter content and strategy and to get to know the other chapter authors. It was great, because there were people from all over the world. From the US there are about 20 of us contributing to the AR6 WGIII report, as part of a group of more than 200 scientists from around the world.We spent a lot of time in our own chapter teams brainstorming ideas and creating action items. Our job is to assess the global literature in our topical area, which includes thousands of papers. So there's a lot of reading, a lot of synthesizing, and a lot of discussion about how to extract the key messages from this vast body of literature so that we're providing insights that are at the cutting edge. My chapter team also spent time with the authors of other chapters to learn what they saw as key low-carbon service provision options in their respective topical areas.

ISEN: How does your expertise contribute to this effort?

Masanet: I have focused on modeling energy demand for my entire career. My research aims to understand how we can drastically improve the energy efficiency and reduce the emissions of energy-consuming products as well as the manufacturing processes that produce them. Most of my past work has focused on building models that can provide rigorous guidance on how energy and technology policies should be improved, or how the adoption of new technologies can contribute to a cleaner future. For AR6, I'm focusing mostly on quantitative evidence in the literature on the emissions benefits of service-oriented solutions. It fits within my expertise area, but we also have social scientists in the chapter who will examine and discuss the role of behavioral, political, and institutional change. It's way broader than just a technology analysis.

ISEN: What does the production process look like in terms of the big picture?

Masanet: The writing and production process takes over two years, with several rounds of review and revisions along the way. The next lead author meeting will be held in India in October. The goal of that meeting will be to discuss our internal zero order draft, review feedback, and begin writing the next chapter version, which is known as the first order draft. The first order draft will undergo a rigorous external review by global experts. A third lead author meeting will then be held, followed by the second order draft, which will undergo another round of expert review.  Finally comes the fourth lead author meeting and then the release of the final WGIII report in early 2021. Being a lead author is quite a responsibility because the assessment reports help set the tone for discussing climate mitigation over the next seven years until the next assessment report comes out.

ISEN: Who can access or benefit from the assessment reports or other communications summarizing the reports?

Masanet: The IPCC has a highly-visible platform for communicating results and making recommendations that can actually make a difference. A lot of effort is put into making the key messages accessible to a broad audience. The primary audience is policy-makers, for whom a special “summary for policymakers” is also written. Another key audience is the research community. Many chapters will identify knowledge gaps that need to be addressed for making better decisions, which can be the target of future research. Typically there is also wide media coverage, which enables the public to latch onto some key messages as well. The IPCC represents one of the broadest and most impactful collaboration vehicles for mitigation researchers like me.  So I feel honored to use my research skills to produce knowledge that can make a real difference.

ISEN: In general terms, what can we do about climate change?

Masanet: The two things that humanity can do in the face of climate change are mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is to try to avoid further emissions through strategies such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, electrification, and carbon capture. Increasingly it's looking like we'll also have to take the adaptation approach, which means building more resilient cities and adapting to unavoidable consequences of climate change that may already be locked in.