Markku Kanninen has been talking about climate change for a very long time. He has led research programs on the topic since 1990, he drafted the text on forests and climate change for the negotiators of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC in 1992, and he has been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) almost since its inception.
But these days, Kanninen is more optimistic than ever.
As one of the lead authors of the IPCC’s landmark 2018 report that demonstrated the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Kanninen says the international attention and impact the report garnered was “more than I hoped for.”
Why? “Well, I’ve been doing this climate change business for so long,” he explains. “Many of the things that were in this report, we were already reporting them 25 years ago, in the mid 1990s. But our societies were not ready for that kind of message.”
30 years ago, the Finnish government established a national research program on climate change and made Kanninen – who had just earned his doctorate in forest ecology – its head. “It was proactively trying to get a Finnish society prepared for the political process of signing the upcoming international convention on climate change and also getting our scientists and experts looking at the possible impacts and all the related issues,” he says. “It was very progressive at the time.” Through that post, he also got involved with the just-established IPCC and has been a member ever since.
In 1996 when the Finnish program came to a close, Kanninen got a job at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional university based in Costa Rica that works on agriculture, agroforestry and natural resources management issues. “That was the second time I established a climate change program,” says Kanninen – this time focusing on training and research in Central America.
Then, in 2003, Kanninen found work with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia, where he quickly set about establishing a climate change program for the Center.
From developing these programs several times, Kanninen learned how to bring people from different disciplines together and helping them understand one another. “The language and concepts in the social sciences and economics are so different from in the physics and atmospheric sciences,” he says.
Kanninen is now back home in Finland, directing the University of Helsinki’s Viikki Tropical Resources Institute (VITRI), and it’s from here that had a hand in the IPCC report.
“I think that delivering this message now had much more impact,” says Kanninen, “at least in terms of what I’ve seen here in my country. It was the number-one news item on TV the day it was launched. We just had a parliamentary election, and climate change was one of the main topics in the debate.”
He says Finland is now getting very serious about becoming carbon-neutral in the next 15 years, “and that gives a lot of hope.”
Kanninen is also inspired by the fact that many private companies are starting to connect the dots and push for stricter policies on climate change, “because it makes the future more predictable. The worst enemy for their businesses is uncertainty.” He also observes that many investors are seeing opportunities to invest in cleaner technologies and benefit from ‘green’ transitions.
However, Kanninen acknowledges that the issues facing countries aiming to slash carbon emissions in Northern Europe are very different from those facing countries like Indonesia. “So I’m not saying that I’m hopeful in the sense that we can find a quick solution for all of these things,” he says.
Does it frustrate him knowing what he has known for so long and seeing societies only now being spurred to take action? “Well, it’s true that we should have started to implement what we agreed in Kyoto 25 years ago,” Kanninen acknowledges. “Then we wouldn’t be where we are now – in dire straits, between a rock and a hard place, and with no options but a very rapid reduction of emissions.
“But these processes are very slow; I understand that now,” he says. “That’s why I am more hopeful now than I was at the time when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, because I see that things are finally moving in the right direction.”