Was 2021 the year we hit the wall on climate change?

05 / 01 / 22 - 11 minute read

Michael Sterner compares humanity’s experiment of pumping greenhouse gases into the sky with a runner racing head-first at a wall. Despite warning shouts from concerned onlookers, the runner powers ahead, gathering momentum – until the inevitable crash.

A few days before his talk at the PATRIZIA Hydrogen Day last June, the Arctic Circle recorded its hottest temperature ever (32°C, 100.4°F) and a rare tornado raced through the Czech Republic, destroying several villages. This was followed by a devasting flood that demolished towns in Germany and Belgium, killing 230 people. Meanwhile there was significant summer flooding in cities like New YorkDetroit, and Chicago and in California, the 2021 fire season was outpacing 2020, which was itself the worst season in its recorded history. July 2021 also earned the unenviable distinction as the world’s hottest month ever recorded.

Is this normal? Or are these tragedies consistent with decades of science on the impacts of human-induced climate change? PATRIA Real Insights called Sterner, Professor of Energy Storage at the Ostbayerische Technische Hochschule Regensburg (OTH Regensburg) and an expert in energy economics, storage and hydrogen, and asked that question. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Real Insights: Michael, to use your image, is 2021 the year the runner hits the wall?

I think within the next five years, we’ll hit the wall. And, of course, you can take care of the patient after a collision and treat the damage. But, with climate change, if you do not stop, you reach the point where the process becomes irreversible. Once we reach a certain degree of increase in temperature, critical tipping points kick in. For example, the permafrost of Siberia will melt and produce more methane. Then it's a self-accelerating process.

So, we are not at these tipping points yet? Global temperatures are already 1.2 degrees higher on average than a century ago.

We are not sure, if we have reached the tipping points. We are at 1.2 degrees and we see the first signs like the weaking of the Gulf Stream. We are quite sure it is at 2 degrees where the impacts will really be felt and be severe. We have a little time left to take actions that mean we can avoid the worst extremes.

Concerning your company, PATRIZIA, the brochure you have on the Etzel (cavern storage fields) talks about securing supplies of oil and gas in the caverns. Well, we don’t need any more security of oil and gas supplies. We need to change the infrastructure assets away from fossil fuels and replace them with renewables like green hydrogen. In the long term, if you stick to fossil assets, they will be worthless.

I have my fingers crossed that we receive the grant to test if the existing infrastructure can support hydrogen because it will sink the cost of switching enormously. However, my question is, why has it taken so long for hydrogen to being taken seriously as an energy source?

Because the fossil fuel industry led a massive effort to first deny and then tried to delay, they managed to frame it as ‘climate change,’ not as ‘climate risk,’ ‘climate emergency’ or ‘climate crisis.’ It is well documented how major oil companies spent a lot of money diminishing the work of scientists, in diluting conclusions and encouraging scepticism that CO2 was causing global warming. And they were successful even though the first scientists were stepping up at the end of the 1970s and saying the “greenhouse effect” is here. The impact of climate risk has been known for decades, so it is not that we didn’t know. We just denied knowing it.

Recently Angela Merkel, who is known as the ‘Climate Chancellor,’ gave a press conference where she admitted she had failed on climate policy. She already knew about the impact of climate change before she became Chancellor (in 2005) from her time as Environment Minister (1994-1998). But in her 16 years in power, she didn't prioritize this, and it is a failing, maybe her biggest. People tend, of course, to say Germany only produces 2% of global emissions, but we are 1% of the worldwide population, so we are contributing over proportionally to the problem. Historically, we are the nation with the fourth highest cumulated emissions. And if you look at our technology exports or the German Renewable Energy Act, which close to 70 countries have now copied, you can see that many of the things we do here impact globally.

It is getting worse

You worked at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and in your talk at the Hydrogen Day, you said climate risk models produced then now look very conservative. Can you explain?

I worked at the IPCC from 2010 to 2012, and the models were conservative, but you must see the context. The mainstream denied climate risk, so scientists leaned to the safe side where we could say with a very high probability of above 95% that this or that will happen. And many scientists didn’t want to be accused of exaggeration, so the results were very conservative. Then too, there are many unknowns in climate systems. And so, there was always the probability that the results would exceed predictions. Climate change modelling is one of the most complex you can do, the process is not linear, but the general models are not wrong. And it is frustrating to have been telling politicians and industries for decades that this will happen. We are now seeing the consequences in Siberia, in the fires in California and the floods in Germany.

As a casual observer, I feel it's getting worse, that the catastrophes are occurring more regularly and with greater extremes. Is that just my perception?

It's getting worse. We are all contributing to the problem, we are all responsible, we are all putting CO2 into the atmosphere and the longer we do this, the more likely it is that we will create hell on earth. Unless there is a fundamental shift – first in mind and consciousness and then in technology and action, we will render large areas of the planet uninhabitable, and there will be an immense loss of wealth. Look at the prices people pay for housing in Munich, Paris or London. Climate change could render them worthless. For myself, that is terrible news. I have a large mortgage, but by the time I have paid it off, I may not be able to resell our house as it could be in a zone that is too hot to live in, subject to flooding or hit by tornadoes regularly. People will want to move further north.

It's getting worse. We are all contributing to the problem, we are all responsible, we are all putting CO2 into the atmosphere.

Michael Sterner

Stories drive people

You seem to be saying shifting to Canada or Norway may be a smart move. But aren’t there problems with that as well? I read recently that the Gulf Stream is moving slower than it has in thousands of years and could collapse. In this scenario, western Europe could experience freezing winters?

Yes, that could be. As I said, the models have certainties and uncertainties. And it's hard to say which region will be hit worst. There are tendencies; the north will be safer. But as you know, Canada was always said to be one of the safest places in the world – it’s far north and there is ample water, but recently Lytton, a town in British Columbia, burnt down. You could have thought it was far enough north to escape the extremes of fire. But shortly before it burnt, Lytton made headlines for breaking Canada’s heat record (49.6°C,121.28°F). So, there is no escape. The fires, the hundreds of deaths in the heatwave in the United States and Canada, the destruction caused by the floods in Germany – the losses are piling up in both human and infrastructure terms and that will continue. Every tenth-degree increase in warming will amount to billions of euros in costs. The best thing would be to stop emitting CO2 right now, but the world is unprepared or unwilling for that leap of awareness and technological shift.

Do you think scientists have failed to convey the urgency behind climate change? Theirs is a fact-based approach but stories drive people.

It’s both. We are not fact-deciding beings. Most of the decisions we make are made from intuition. For example, we have all the facts that smoking causes lung cancer. These are printed on every cigarette packet, but it doesn’t stop people from smoking. The reason for such addictions lies deeper, in the subconscious. With climate change, it's similar. You can come with facts and try to convince people, but it's better to demystifying the driving force behind inaction – fear – and empower them to change the way they live, to invest their money in climate-friendly, sustainable resources and so on.


I am an optimist. I believe in humanity. I think we can do incredible things. Nature is softly pushing us towards change but year by year the push will be harder. The less we react to Mother Nature, the more it will force us

Michael Sterner

Remaining an optimist

Will the new carbon tax from the European Union have a significant influence internationally?

Of course, because so far, businesspeople and controllers didn't have this in their costs. If you have something in your budget for ESG, you can tinker around with one or two little projects for sustainability. But if the carbon cost suddenly appears in the books, then the accountants will calculate differently, and then the management board will act differently. CO2 prices will have a significant effect, including internationally. Internalising the external costs of climate change into the markets through instruments such as the carbon price is, in my opinion, the right way forward. However, the longer we wait and the slower we reduce emissions, the likelihood increases that we will need significantly more hard regulatory measures.

So, you remain optimistic that we can make the curve to get it right and to minimise the damage of climate risk.

I am an optimist. I believe in humanity. I think we can do incredible things. Nature is softly pushing us towards change but year by year the push will be harder. The less we react to Mother Nature, the more it will force us. So, it is better to act now. I would welcome it if companies withdrew money from fossil investments and moved into sustainable technology because it exists – it just needs the right investments. It is, after all, also in the interest of companies to sustain our planet. The economy is and remains a subsidiary of the environment.

Image credits: istock (Mark LowerNastco)