8 minutes

It’s a race against time, at two different speeds. The more developed countries alongside the rest of the world, namely, developing countries with an energy matrix that relies largely on fossil fuels. Developed countries are leading decarbonisation of the economy, while developing countries are still finding their pace. Because it is a global problem, it requires “one people” driven by a “spirit of protecting humanity as a whole”. This is, in Filipe Duarte Santos’ vision, the starting point for achieving the targets set in the Paris Agreement.

The Portuguese researcher and university professor was review editor of the most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Chair of the National Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Santos is also author of the book entitled Alterações Climáticas (Climate Change, 2021), published by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.

The book provides an overview of current scientific knowledge on climate change caused by human action and the responses and challenges we face – not least of which is rethinking our notion of what time is. In an interview with Feed Magazine, Filipe Duarte Santos spoke about what is slowing humanity down in the sprint to save the planet and what can still be done.



Europe is leading the charge in the decarbonisation of the world economy, but the warming problem is a global one. What countries are falling behind and why?

The world has essentially two speeds. There are the OECD countries, countries with advanced economies, namely, the European Union and other European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and other countries that have a higher per capita GDP than the rest of the world – and are more focused on the environment. Then there are all the other countries in the world, the ones that hope to achieve the same state of development as these OECD countries, as well as energyintensive economic development, as their energy is generated from fossil fuels.

Among these is the largest greenhouse gas emitting country, China. But I would venture to say that China will surprise the west because it has already begun its decarbonisation, which it takes very seriously. And then there are countries such as India, which have an even lower level of development. Both countries have a population of more than one billion people. China has 1.3 billion inhabitants and India has around 1.2 billion, but it is expected to overtake China as the most populated country in the coming years.

Do the most developed countries have a responsibility to help these nations, whose growth prospects still depend on fossil fuels?

We must work as one people, have a spirit of protecting humanity as a whole, and that is a new – and difficult – thing for humanity. For example, the political tension between the United States and China undermines progress towards global decarbonisation. We must therefore find a way to be more supportive of one another, to help developing countries that have every right to aspire to the same level of well-being and economic prosperity that we have.

Do you believe that Europe will be carbon neutral in 2050?

It has to be. For me, the central issue of climate change is related to our notion of time. We have trouble planning far ahead. A generation spans an average of about 30 years and that’s what counts, right? So, things that are going to happen in 50, 100 or 150 years’ time are difficult to fathom. The fact is is that our collective actions today will affect what will happen 50, 100 or 150 years from now. This means people have to drastically alter the way they view climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development.

Is it effective to invest in carbon capture and storage, like the UK is doing?

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, what we call “negative emissions”, is essential to comply with the Paris Agreement. We are already behind schedule and the way to make up for lost time involves not only reducing global emissions, but also lessening that increase by removing carbon dioxide from the air using chemicals. In this sector, the key issue is the price of carbon.

If the price per tonne of carbon is high, it can be an incentive to find new ways to use carbon dioxide and make it economically more attractive. This challenges our ingenuity. One of the things that can be done is to transform iron slag into cement. Another method is simply storing carbon underground, for example, in abandoned coal mines or in oil deposits, guaranteeing that it will not leak out into the atmosphere again.

In 2020, because of the pandemic, emissions fell 7% compared to 2019, but the pool is still filling up. Are there irreversible scenarios?

Let me give you an example: the ice sheets in the polar regions, the melting of which is causing a rise in average sea level. Take Greenland, which is particularly significant. It has an enormous ice sheet that, at its highest point, is almost three kilometres high. If all that ice melts, the world’s sea level will rise six metres. For Terreiro do Paço square (the main square in downtown Lisbon, located on the bank of the Tagus, 10 kilometres from its mouth, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean, Aveiro, Setúbal and Faro (three low-lying cities located along the Portuguese coast), this becomes problematic…

Of course, this will only happen centuries from now. If we fail to reach the targets set in the Paris Agreement, the ice melt in Greenland will be all but irreversible. We cannot hang a freezer over Greenland. That isn’t to say that there won’t be ice in Greenland again a million years from now, but over our time scale, what matters for us, a 6-metre rise in sea level would completely change coastal areas around the world.

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, what we call “negative emissions”, is essential to comply with the Paris Agreement.

What are the cascading effects of Arctic ice melt?

Wetlands are becoming semi-arid zones. Semi-arid zones are becoming arid zones, and some arid zones are becoming hyperarid zones, which are the deserts. Graphically speaking, it would be like a disease affecting certain regions of the world. The Mediterranean, the north-east of Brazil, most of the western United States and of Central America as well, southern Africa, parts of Australia and also parts of the Middle East. The water issue, I think, is one of the most complex issues, because it is intricately linked to the energy issue.

Yes, we can desalinate sea water and convert it into drinking water, but we need energy for that. But then there are also certain regions of the world where the temperature is already very high in the equatorial regions, making it very difficult for people to remain outdoors… working under 50ºC heat; we weren’t built for that.

In your newest book, you describe strategies for adapting to the effects we can no longer avoid. Can you share some of them with us?

One of the most important sectors is agriculture. Farmers need more information about when to sow seeds… and crops need to be adapted. After that, we can move on to another level, the genetic adaptation of species. Then comes water recycling. Some countries are already doing this and are further along than others. They have what is called precision farming. In other words, plants receive only the water they actually need. Water is a very important sector for forests and especially for forests in Mediterranean areas.

We have a lot of areas in the south of Portugal with the same rainfall as in Berlin, but rainfall in Berlin is spread evenly throughout the year. In Portugal, we have very little rainfall between May and September/October. The protection of coastal areas is a major problem. Coastal adaptation involves first building strong barriers or defences using concrete and stone. Then other ecosystem-based adaptations. Basically, we should follow nature’s example of protecting the coastal zone. Relocating people is also an option, but that’s a last resort.