CIAT’s Ngoni Chirinda has recently started work as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Sometimes jocular and philosophical, he discussed with us what it all means.
What exactly will you be working on?
I’ll be working on the 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
It’s a bit of a mouthful, but we’re focusing on refining emission factors — these are the values representing the quantity of a greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere as a result of a particular activity.
For example, for nitrogen in fertilizers, the current nitrous oxide emission factor is 1 percent. That means for every kilogram of nitrogen you apply to the soil, you’re going to lose 10 grams to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. And for animal waste deposited on grazed pastures, it’s 2 percent, which means that if over a particular period of time, the urine of a cow equates to 1,000 kg of nitrogen, 20 kg will be lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.
These emission factors were established over a decade ago. But a lot of new science has emerged since then. So the question is, are those factors still accurate? The jury is still out.
The IPCC Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories is a team of scientists aiming to build up the most accurate picture possible. We’re focusing on emissions from animal waste, fertilizer, and changes in land use from, say, forest to grasslands or cropping land, or vice versa.
Why is that important?
If you know the GHG emissions generated by different activities, then you can start exploring options and developing policies to incentivize actions to curb those emissions, and consequently slow climate change.
In terms of the bigger picture, by knowing how much they are emitting, countries can begin to take the best steps to meet their pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Under that agreement, they have committed to limit the increase in global average temperature to less that 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
How were you selected as an IPCC lead author?
The IPCC advertised for authors, and my boss, Lou [Verchot, head of the research program on Soils and Landscapes for Sustainability, and another IPCC lead author] recommended that I apply. I was of course interested! So, it was a competitive process.
What was your reaction when you found out you will be part of the task force?
I was very excited. Actually, when I got the email from IPCC confirming my appointment, I thought it was spam; I said, this is a joke, right? It’s like, when you’re young and you receive a love letter and you can’t quite believe it’s happening. It took a couple of hours to digest.
It really sank in in June, when I went to the first meeting of lead authors in Spain. That’s when I came face-to-face with the other lead authors, and we started talking about the task ahead.
And then I told myself, “Let me do all the meditation I can so that my brain is in the best shape to maximize learning.”
What are you doing now to fulfill your role?
Well, the first thing you have to do is read a lot of scientific papers to try to understand the issues on multiple levels. For me, it means reading a lot of research on GHGs from numerous sources. The idea is that all of us [lead authors] are doing the same: putting these studies and key results into spreadsheets, then redoing the analysis to see if we get to the same emission factor, or a new one.
I’m literally reading studies every day. In order to stay sane, I try to read at least two. But there are moments of magic: When I’m in the groove, I can read between five and 10 studies a day. Sometimes it’s a lot more.
Are you already seeing some changes to emission factors?
It is difficult to tell at this moment, but hopefully, in the fullness of time, it will become clearer.
What happens next?
More reading, more refining, and a couple of more meetings to finalize the report.