December 23, 2022
Open and publicly accessible climate data are needed to guide economic and political choices
The voice of Carlo Buontempo, interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective
Interview with Carlo Buontempo, Director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service.
Q: Can you introduce yourself? Who are you, what do you do and what was your academic background?
A: My name is Carlo Buontempo, I am the director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, I work for an organisation called ECMWF, which is the European Centre for Medium Term Weather Forecasting. I am a physicist by training, I did my degree and doctorate in Italy and then I went abroad, first to Canada and the UK, now to Germany.
Q: Can you tell us exactly what you do and why is this work so important?
A: The Copernicus programme is the European Union's Earth observation programme. A large part of our work focuses on designing and launching satellites, the other part on retrieving and analysing data, including data on the oceans, air quality, land surface and climate change. What we do is organise the data and make them usable. For example, we collect data on what the climate was like in the past. This allows us to make time series, to understand how a particular area has cooled, warmed or dried up anywhere on the planet. In addition to this we make seasonal forecasts, i.e. what will happen six months from now and climate projections, i.e. what will happen between now and the end of the century. In general, we are talking about a huge amount of data that is managed thanks to an infrastructure that we have developed. If it were music in Mp3 format, we would be talking about an amount of music that has been going on continuously since homo sapiens existed. The real added value of this work is to make the data usable and accessible in a free way, open to anyone.
Q: Why is it important to make climate data open and accessible?
A: While it is true that we can discuss any topic and have our own ideas, data is data. We cannot argue about data. Making them open and accessible means that they are open and accessible to everyone. If someone says, 'the temperature in Italy has not risen in the last fifty years', that is in stark contrast to the information we have, which anyone can see. Twenty years ago, the discussion on climate was almost academic whereas today this is no longer the case. Moreover, there is an ever-increasing need for data to guide political, economic choices. The financial world, like agriculture, energy or insurance, is very interested in climate data because they see the need to minimise the costs induced by extreme events and in other cases they see opportunities.
Q: Could climate data, therefore, also help in making policy choices?
A: Our main users are public administrations, starting with European ones, but also national states, both governments and local administrations. In many fields, this information is used for legislation or regulations. We know that the climate is changing and that this has consequences for many of our daily and productive activities. A sensible thing would be to base our legislation and actions on the evidence that already exists. The challenge is no longer to access data because some of it is available, now the challenge is to become more capable in drawing information from this data. And this means, for example, wondering where to buy a house or whether to continue working in a certain area agriculturally. I am thinking, for example, of wine, olives or fruit trees. There are a number of important choices to be made for which climate information is very relevant and many entrepreneurs or parts of society are already aware of this and act directly on climate information to make economic and business choices.
Q: But is there still time to make choices?
A: Every day that passes, every year that passes, it becomes more complicated. It is never too late to change of course, but we have to act fast to reduce CO2 emissions that are not being reduced at the moment. I think there is room for political action, but the more days go by, the more drastic the actions to be taken will become. If we had started 20 years ago, we would be in a better situation today. Making radical changes is not easy: for example, generating energy, distributing it, and making it cleanly requires huge actions.
Q: After this summer's drought, what is the water forecast?
A: The rainfall and snowfall of these weeks are compensating for the dry summer throughout Central and Western Europe. It was the hottest summer ever, preceded by another hottest summer ever. Water resources in Italy have been reduced to an all-time low after a spring with little rain. We cannot predict what will happen in the spring, we can define it probabilistically. What we can do is link what we are saying with the climate trend and the effect is very clear. We know that the glacier has lost thirty metres in thickness in the last fifty years, we know that the areas with permanent snow have shrunk, we know that temperatures have risen and Europe, as a whole, is the region where the landmass has increased the most. The trend is quite clear.
Q: And does this trend also concern extreme weather events?
A: While it is true that there is a trend of aridity in the Mediterranean, the trend on the increase of extreme precipitation over the basin is not clear. You have to look at it case by case and analyse it. For some phenomena there are clear data on the increase in both the average intensity and frequency of extreme events, but only some of these trends are directly related to climate change. In general, however, when the temperature of the atmosphere increases, its capacity to hold water in vapour form also increases and this inevitably has a major impact on the hydrological cycle and its extremes.
Q: Next steps for Copernicus and the climate change service?
A: First of all, it must be said that the programme we do is in collaboration with universities, research centres and other bodies. They are the frontline actors in the implementation of the programme. One of the interesting and innovative aspects we are working on is the attribution of climate change. After the last Cop27 and the loss and damage decision, the idea is to establish whether a certain type of extreme event was caused by climate change. We would like to start with heat waves and put the technology in place to establish whether and to what extent that heat wave is related to climate change. The other innovative aspect of the air quality monitoring service we are working with is carbon emission. CO2 is easily observable, but the technology we are developing would allow us to determine what specific greenhouse gas emissions are. At the moment, Italy or other countries report net emissions, e.g. traffic, cars, industry, but there is no objective way to compare what Italy, Hungary or China says. The idea of this service, which should become operational in 2026, is to have an international, objective and government-independent method.