“Leading a sustainable life would make us happier”

Regarding the climate crisis, this researcher from the CSIC (Spain) points out: “We see the problem in the medium and long term, that is why we do not act as we have done with covid, but the effects can be much worse.”

Josep Peñuelas, ecologist and researcher at the CSIC.

A group of 57 scientists from around the world selected the 10 keys on climate science in 2020. Josep Peñuelas, an expert in the impacts of anthropogenic global changes on ecosystems and on human life itself, is the only Spaniard who participates in this writing.

The document picks up crucial issues, such as the water crisis that it will get worse and the mental health disorders which will increase. It also insists on the need for a new social contract and a green recovery, which the covid-19 and global warming have brought to light.

Peñuelas, who is director of the Global Ecology Unit of the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF), has published numerous studies warning of the present and future consequences of the climate crisis. His team currently has several lines of research open, ranging from the evolution of the microbiome of the world to remote sensing of the state of the planet via satellite.

You are part of the group of experts that has defined the ten key discoveries about the climate of 2020. What has been your role?

I was one of the scientists who participated around the world. We are concerned about what we see in our studies and we want the results to reach the public opinion. They have enormous implications for the welfare of humanity. The last thing we want is to bore society, but we cannot help but state over and over again that we are facing a serious problem for the health of the planet, especially for humans. In our case, we focus on the ability of the biosphere to buffer climate change.

Year after year we hear that we need to reach more ambitious goals to stop this climate crisis. Is it going that way?

This year in particular we should take advantage of the opportunity that the misfortune of the pandemic has offered us. We have seen how greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by an amount very similar to what we would need to reach what was agreed as an international community in the Paris Agreement. But what we fear is that it will not be used to achieve equity and sustainability in a world with less poverty, with more education. Unlimited growth cannot continue. I always say that you have to put a poster of the planet in the room to realize that resources are limited.

One of the ten keys of the report is about climate litigation. In France, for example, there has been a condemnation of the state for climate inaction. Why is this one of the ways that arises?

Social and legal activism is very good because it is another way of paddling to decarbonise this society, otherwise we are going to suffer. We are going to leave our children and grandchildren with serious problems. Even our own generation is affected, because this is going fast. Behind all these environmental problems are almost always poverty and lack of education, which should be fully addressed to solve the problems linked to the sustainability of the planet, such as greater equity.

Josep Peñuelas in his office.  / CREAFJosep Peñuelas in his office. / CREAF.

Equity that is not seen neither in the case of the climate crisis, nor in the distribution of vaccines in the pandemic. How should it be addressed?

To solve environmental problems, it is basic and it would be fair to distribute the wealth better. A lot of girls in the countries where we work stop going to school as soon as they turn 12 or 13. Behind the solutions to environmental problems there are, without a doubt, human issues to solve. We must completely change the paradigm on how sustainability is achieved. Not only with words, but also with deeds, because humans are just another animal and we look, above all, in the short term.

They also include another aspect that coincides with the pandemic: the impact on mental health. How can we face the climate crisis so that cities and natural environments cushion these effects?

The studies carried out on the benefits of people walking through the woods – which seem to have an exoteric component – ​​may be real. We observe that the volatile organic compounds emitted by trees and plants have molecular structures that can affect the nerve receptors of people.

We have evolved in this natural environment for hundreds of thousands of years, it is logical that it surely affects our psychological well-being. But, apart from this, which may be minor, what is convenient is to have a happier life, in simple and direct terms. If climate change or this pandemic act on mental health, leading a more sustainable life would make us happier. Live with less and with more quality.

How has covid-19 affected your studies?

We normally monitor the state of air pollution in different regions of the world. Now, thanks to great tools like the big data and the machine learning, we can inform the administrations and governments interested in the online evolution of the effects of confinement due to covid-19. We see the activity of the population and we know whether or not they follow the appropriate rules of confinement. With these techniques we foresee the future evolution of the pandemic in different regions of the world. We monitor the activity of the planet as if it were a patient.

During this pandemic, we have heard that the consequences of another global crisis, the climate crisis, should worry us as much or more than those of covid-19. Why?

As we see the consequences of our actions on Earth in the medium and long term, we do not act as we have done with covid, but the effects of climate change can be much worse. This crisis, unfortunate as it is, has been a controlled pandemic. We have continued to have food and water supplies. But imagine when we have problems related to this. The population should not be frightened at all, but it should be remembered that there is no passive actor on this planet.

What is in our hands?

Organisms, the biosphere, as soon as they are affected by global warming, react in a way that reverses and feeds back climate change itself. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in recent years has made plants grow much larger and thanks to this, more CO has been capturedtwo for the vegetation.

But the greening of the Earth is also reaching its limit, according to a study that you have led.

Once again, the biological aspect indicates that resources are limited. Plants are noticing it, humans too, but we don’t act accordingly. 50 or 60 years ago, when the increased greenhouse gas emissions started to become more evident, this increased the CO by a lottwo –which is the food of plants– and they began to grow more.

In addition, we abandoned certain territories, there were changes in land use, so that the planet has been turning green over the last few decades. Thanks to that we have had less COtwo in the atmosphere because they have acted as carbon sinks, but this has a limit.

What are the consequences?

This sink capacity of plants has slowed down and is getting smaller. To continue growing they need other elements that are limited, such as potassium. Also, many species are not adapted to changes in temperature.

To this we must add that in some regions of the world, climate change translates into periods of drought and aridity, which reduces the capacity of the vegetation in recent decades. One of the factors that was helping us to reduce warming, the vegetation, is beginning to be ‘exhausted’, to put it in an anthropogenic term.

What other projects do you have underway?

With other great tools, such as molecular ones, we study how the world’s microbiome evolves or how the intestinal microbiota of humans, pigs, cows or chickens is distributed, which are competing and banishing other microorganisms that were there before.

But we not only work with microorganisms, arthropods or plants, but also with humans, who are just another animal. We have seen how these major global environmental changes affect health, work and biodiversity. Our field of research is global ecology, the planet itself. We study the Earth and its vital phenomena.

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