Meet the IPCC: Interview with Youba Sokona, Vice-Chair of the IPCC

Youba Sokona has over 35 years of experience addressing energy, environment and sustainable development issues in Africa. He is currently Special Advisor on Sustainable Development at the South Centre, an Intergovernmental Organization of Developing Countries intended to meet the need for analysis of development problems and experience. Until May 2012, he was Coordinator of the African Climate Policy Centre at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He was the Executive Secretary of the Sahara and Sahel Observatory (OSS) in Tunis, Tunisia from 2004 to 2010. He has been involved with the IPCC since 1990, first serving as a Lead Author, then as Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III for the Fifth Assessment Report. He was elected Vice-Chair of the IPCC in October 2015.

What is your research focus and how does that feed into your work at the IPCC?

My research vision focuses on energy and development issues in Africa. Access to modern energy services is the fundamental prerequisite for development. Africa has urgent needs to address “modern energy access” through a rapid and wide scale expansion of both electricity generation capacity – on-grid and off-grid – and the supply of other forms of energy.

However, jumpstarting and operationalizing a meaningful energy transition that addresses the development needs of African countries while responding to the challenge of climate change is a major challenge. Many Developing Countries are struggling to address a wide range of pressing needs such as nutrition, food, water, education, health, and reducing poverty. They are trying to tackle these issues while adequately combating climate change with limited capacity, resources, and finance.

The challenge is especially daunting for rural areas in Africa given the isolated nature of rural settlements. This requires serious assessments of technology needs, innovations in finance and institutional development, and the design of appropriate policy instruments.

Making development more sustainable requires relying on sustainable energy systems. One issue that features increasingly in this objective is the need to grow in a carbon-constrained world. In this context, a number of African countries have shown ambition and creativity over the past few years in the way they intend to meet this objective.

Pursuing a low carbon development strategy is therefore central to development plans, and this will continue to be the case in the future.

What do you think is the greatest challenge in meeting the long-term aim of the Paris Agreement?

Meeting the long-term aim of the Paris Agreement requires deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions without further delay. This, as already documented in previous IPCC assessment reports, will entail challenging technological, economic, institutional, cooperation, and behavior change. The longer we wait to take action, the greater the challenge will be, and the more it could risk compromising prospects for adaptation.

Achieving this requires a concerted, worldwide and ambitious set of actions, as well as a high degree of coherence among the fragmented policy areas, instruments, and tools within which different countries operate.

Workers in Yunnan Province, China.

It also implies finding solutions to address the aim of the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the national priorities of individual countries. Indeed, climate policies can be more effective when consistently embedded within broader strategies designed to make national and regional development paths more sustainable.

Ensuring that we meet nations’ short-term needs at national, regional and local levels, as well as the long-term aim of the Paris Agreement, is highly complex but absolutely necessary.

Dr Sokona talks about themes of sustainable development and equity in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (April 2014).

The IPCC is working on a Special Report on climate change and land. How are climate change and land linked, and why is it important to look at these relations?

Land represents both an important source of greenhouse gas emissions and a great potential carbon sink.

Climate change and land degradation are closely intertwined, as intensive land use increases greenhouse gas emissions and loss of soil and vegetation reduces carbon sequestration. Managing land and land use sustainably provides multiple benefits not just for tackling climate change, but also for nutrition, food and energy security, livelihoods and poverty reduction.

In previous IPCC reports, land-related issues were assessed independently within the individual contexts of each working group. This Special Report will provide a comprehensive and integrated assessment going beyond the specific boundaries of individual Working Groups and disciplines.

What is your favorite thing about being part of the IPCC, and what is most challenging?

Immersing yourself in a multicultural and multidisciplinary scientific environment for the 6 to 7 years of an IPCC cycle is an exceptional and invaluable experience, and something that cannot be taught by any university. But it also requires a huge time commitment, which can make it challenging to secure a fully participatory process. For many developing country authors, time is a critical issue.

Youba Sokona and Working Group I Vice-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte chair a session at the First Lead Author Meeting of the Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

How can the IPCC increase the policy relevance of its reports?

The IPCC should significantly increase and widen the review of the draft report by policymakers. It must also work to improve the readability of its report.

What would you tell researchers who are thinking of getting involved in the IPCC?

To be ready for intense workload and not be intimidated by some colleagues.

What is your favourite hobby?

My favorite hobby is a “Sahel Tea Ceremony” with friends listening to James Brown’ “it’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”.

 

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