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SPEECH/06/56












Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Science and Research




Opening remarks at International Symposium on Climate Change






















Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences
Brussels, 2 February 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to open this Symposium on climate change.

The timing for this Symposium is excellent: awareness of our changing climate is probably the highest it has ever been; the United Nations Conference in Montreal was concluded successfully two months ago. Equally, we are negotiating the 7th Research Framework Programme with Parliament and Member States. Climate change is at the centre of these discussions. Everybody can observe changes in temperature and ice-cover; we are seeing more frequent natural disasters, causing ever greater human, physical and economic damage of natural hazards. Discussions have also started on Post-Kyoto measures and associated costs and benefits.

I am also pleased to be here, because this Symposium is dedicated to the memory of a highly respected colleague, Mr Anver Ghazi. I appreciate how much people like me owe to people like him and his team. Without their expertise and commitment, my work today would simply be impossible! Mr Ghazi was engaged in a prominent position in the European Commission. The fact that we have a strong European Research Community on Climate Change Research and Natural hazards is very much thanks to his 8 years of commitment and enthusiasm. We owe him a very special "thank you".

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Let me now enter into the questions and public concerns about climate change. There is no doubt that human-induced climate change is a reality, and that society is facing enormous challenges. But are we prepared for these challenges? What do we know about the future impacts on atmospheric composition, on land ecosystems, on ocean life, on water resources? What are the implications for society?

Latest figures show that the year 2005 was the warmest on record; and there also seems to be increased frequency of extreme events in Europe and elsewhere.

The public is alarmed and requesting answers: is there a link between a record hurricane season last year and climate change? What are the causes of the severe flooding in Central and Southern Europe these past few years and which have caused so much displacement and economic loss? How can we prevent and mitigate these disasters and what is the link with climate change?

In the year 2003 Europe underwent a heat wave never experienced before and which caused thousands of casualties. Was this just a single incident or was it a sign of what the average European summer will be? Even if we only look from an economic point of view, which we should not, recent research suggests that a temperature increase of 3°C might cause a decline in global income. But the same research studies suggest that at lower costs we can avoid dangerous climate change.

The question is then: what steps do we need to take? How can we take responsible decisions and assess the consequences of climate change? Research will play a crucial role in addressing these questions. Public expectations are high and rightly so; answers are expected.

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The global dimension of climate change and natural hazards has initiated a number of international research efforts and collaborations, in which Europe has played and continues to play a key role.

The international dimension and collaboration in climate research in the 6th Research Framework programme is certainly one of the highlights. Just to give you a few examples: a European research consortium including African partners studies the change and impact of the West African monsoon on global climate as well as the social and economic impacts on this region; an international consortium with strong European contribution observes the shrinking Artic Ocean sea-ice cover in order to understand past climate and forecast changes; tropical experiments over Australia are carried out to increase our understanding of the changes in the atmospheric composition. These are just examples but they show that European research is present and has established an excellent reputation.

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Let me now briefly comment on the close relationship between environmental research and policies including the environment. I believe that environmental policies need to be built on sound scientific knowledge. Indeed it should be noted that policy actions such as the Montreal and the Kyoto Protocols arose from the work of scientists.

We see with great satisfaction that the Montreal Protocol (a ban on ozone depleting substances) is functioning. The atmospheric load of chlorine components should further decrease in coming years. We can therefore expect that the ozone hole will slowly recover within the coming decades, although climate change may delay the recovery process.

The Kyoto Protocol is based on the scientific consensus that there is a balance of evidence for human-induced climate change. This has been formulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations Environmental Programme as an independent body for scientific advice. I know that many of you here today have contributed to its work.

However we all know that the Kyoto Protocol is only a first step to stabilising our climate, and greater efforts are necessary to achieve the ambitious goals. I will even go one step further - climate change is unavoidable. Society needs to be prepared for the coming changes in order to minimise their socio-economic impact.

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This leads me now to the 7th Research Framework Programme, where we have taken the necessary steps to include climate change research to make Europe fit for the expected challenges. I can assure you that we will further promote scientific excellence and cooperation in these fields at European and international levels.

The programme will address major unanswered scientific questions and advance our understanding of the earth system functioning and changes. It will tackle the problems which are most important for society such as the future climate change impacts from local to global scale and determine optimum mitigation and adaptation strategies. Certainly, the commitments on research and systematic observation as formulated in the Treaties and international initiatives like the Group on Earth Observations are taken seriously by the European Commission.

This is one of the many reasons why earth observations will continue to be an integral part of the FP7 allowing early detection of changes and the development of response options. The combined use of observation and models should help us to detect thresholds and eventually points of no return, which our society should know about.

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I would not like to end this speech without thanking the representatives of the Royal Academy of Science and Art for their noble support making these nice facilities available. The ambience of this magnificent place establishes the frame for the event.

But I would also like to thank you [the participants] for your personal support to the European research and the European Commission in the different panels and advisory groups. It is indeed my hope and wish that the successful work you have done so far will continue and that Europe will keep its leading position in Climate Change research. It is something we can be truly proud of.

I wish you a successful Symposium!


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