ETIAtalks Season Review: Climate Change – The Greatest Challenge of our Time

by Maria Wirth

Climate change is life or death. It is the new global battlefield. It is being presented as if it is the problem of the developed world. But it’s the developed world that has precipitated global warming.”

                 – Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate)

The 2015/2016 season of ETIAtalks addressed the “hot” topic of climate change, the greatest challenge of our time, according to 2013 IPCC co-chair Thomas Stocker. For the third year in a row, students of the Environmental Technology and International Affairs (ETIA) programme, offered in cooperation with the Diplomatic Academy and TU Wien, organized expert panel discussions intended to bridge the gap between science, economics and policy.

The 2 °C Climate Goal: A Useful Political Tool?

The year’s first event picked up with a discussion of the 2 °C climate goal, below which the international community is aiming to keep the average global increase in temperature above pre-industrial levels. Since the 1970s, this point-of-no-return between acceptable global warming and environmental disaster has gained momentum in both the scientific and political sphere.

Just a few days prior to the Paris Climate Conference (COP21), more than 120 guests gathered at the Diplomatic Academy (DA) to discuss the potential success or failure of international climate action. Former Director of the IPCC Secretariat, Renate Christ, praised the French organization of preparatory negotiations far in advance of COP21 itself and predicted far greater success than previously.

Climate activist and spokesperson for GLOBAL 2000, Johannes Wahlmüller, however, addressed the minimal involvement of civil society due to extremely high security measures. Helga Kromp-Kolb, Head of the Center for Global Change and Sustainability at the BOKU Institute of Meteorology, expressed uncertainty regarding whether or not global warming could be stabilized at any level at all. “2 degrees is a political compromise,” she stated. For any progress to be achieved, “we need to change the way we think,” argued Stephen Sicars, Director of UNIDO’s Environmental Branch.

Flipping the Switch towards Green Energy: How to Turn on the Global Renewable Energy Engine

In March, the second event addressed the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The energy sector accounts for two thirds of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and must be at the center of any reduction scheme. “Sustainability for All” spokesperson, Monika Froehler, explained that an estimated USD 50 billion must be invested every year in order to achieve double the renewable capacity by 2030. This sum may seem astronomical, but as panelists pointed out, a divestment from “dirty energy” would cover it by far. Currently, fossil fuel subsidies amount to USD 500 billion globally.

Electric Cars and Urban Planning: On the Way to Climate Friendly Mobility

Finally, the third panel targeted technological advances in tackling climate change, as well as environmentally friendly methods of urban planning. The transport sector is responsible for 25% of GHG emissions in the European Union, surpassed only by the energy sector. One path to decarbonize transportation is via electric vehicles and a clean energy portfolio to supply charging stations. But, according to Catherine Girard, a senior manager for Environmental Strategy at Renault, policymakers have to improve their cooperation to build the necessary charging infrastructure in order to motivate people to buy electric cars.

On the other hand, traffic policy coordinator Ulla Rasmussen argued that the Western world must rethink its urban way of living as e-cars may improve air quality but will not solve all problems. This call was supported by architect and urban planner David Calas, who revealed that more than 80% of public space in cities is taken up by cars, only 5% of which are driving. Several panelists touched on autonomous driving as a potential middle ground between e-cars and public transportation in urban areas.

Again, real change can only take place if the world fundamentally rethinks its habits. Beyond international institutions working to combat climate change, everyone must get involved when it comes to protecting the only habitable planet in our solar system.


ETIAtalks is an initiative of the students of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the Vienna University of Technology. It is a triannual panel series that provides a platform for discussion and learning. ETIAtalks aims to serve as a forum in which to explore and discuss issues of current relevance to the fields of energy and the environment, as well as related technologies. Special attention is therefore paid to their intricate relation to politics, law, economics and international affairs.

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