UK nominates Professor Jim Skea for top climate science position


Professor Jim Skea from the Centre from Environmental Policy

Professor Jim Skea, Professor in Sustainable Energy at Imperial, has been elected as the next Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

* Update 26 July 2023: Professor Skea was elected as the next Chair *

Professor Jim Skea, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial, is one of four candidates nominated to be the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for its Seventh Assessment Cycle. 

The IPCC Chair is responsible for leading and coordinating the work of the IPCC, the UN scientific body that assesses climate change science, impacts, vulnerabilities and options for mitigation and adaptation.

With the Vice-Chairs and other Bureau members, the Chair's role is crucial in providing guidance, oversight and strategic direction to the organisation. Scheduled to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, the IPCC will convene to elect its new Bureau from 25 to 28 July.

There from the beginning

Professor Skea has almost thirty years of experience contributing to the IPCC. He has been involved in the IPCC’s work since 1994, during its Second Assessment Cycle when he was a coordinating lead author for a chapter on the impacts of climate change on energy, industry and transportation.

After taking on a smaller role in the Third Assessment Cycle, Professor Skea then returned to the IPCC to be the Vice Chair of Working Group III  for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, and was then elected to be the Co-Chair of Working Group III in the following sixth cycle.

A picture of Jim sitting in his office.
Professor Jim Skea is the Chair of Sustainable Energy at the Centre for Environmental Policy.

Professor Skea sat on the UK’s Committee on Climate Change for 11 years from the time it was founded in 2008, and played a critical role in setting its initial target to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent against 1990 levels by 2050.

He stepped down from the Committee in 2018 and has since chaired the Just Transition Commission in Scotland.

“I have absolutely always worked in research settings which were interdisciplinary, including linkages with social sciences and economics, as well as with the natural sciences,” Professor Skea said.

Having graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Mathematical Physics, Professor Jim Skea started his career researching energy-related issues at the University of Cambridge.

He became involved in climate research when he began analysing the impact of projected climate change on the UK’s energy sector in the early 90s. 

“The first time I heard about climate change in a serious way was about 1987, which was just before IPCC was created. The science was very clearly beginning to emerge but it wasn’t an absolute slam dunk,” he said, “Climate warming has been a dominant theme [in my research] since the late 1980s.”

Professor Skea became the Research Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, then hosted at Imperial College London, in 2004. He was then appointed as a Professor in Sustainable Energy at Imperial in 2009.

Diversity in the IPCC

This year, the UK Government is backing Professor Skea’s nomination for IPCC Chair. His candidacy centres around promoting regional and gender diversity in IPCC participation and activities, building interdisciplinary bridges across the IPCC and other international bodies, as well as ensuring that policy and decision-makers have access to the best available and most relevant science to make a real impact. 

“My central claim is about the practical side of the inclusivity, scientific integration and policy relevance. I know IPCC’s complicated decision-making processes well enough to be able to advance the agenda in each of these areas,” Professor Skea said.

Professor Skea has pushed programmes to increase author diversity in the past. One initiative he pushed in Working Group III in the Sixth Assessment Cycle, with support from the UK Government, was an open competition for young developing-country scientists to act as chapter scientists for the individual chapters within its report.

The competition helped these early-career researchers to inject themselves into international networks, building capacity for leadership in future IPCC cycles.

However, Professor Skea said there is more work to be done in creating networks and groups for younger scientists within the IPCC that allow them to mutually support each other and their work.

Special Report
The IPCC produced a Special Report on 1.5°C. Imperial College London hosted the European Launch of the report in 2018. Professor Jim Skea discussed the report at the launch, and is seated second from the left on this panel.

Inclusivity for gender is a particularly challenging but pressing issue to solve, Professor Skea said. “If we just look at the nominations for the IPCC Bureau, we appear to have hit a glass ceiling at about 30 per cent female nominations. And it's true with authors as well, we get 30 per cent nominations of female authors,” he said. 

Since it is countries that make nominations, Professor Skea emphasised the need to work with countries to persuade them to put forward more balanced slates of nominations.

Maximising policy impact at a critical time

Professor Skea has experience in feeding scientific insights into policy processes, both nationally and internationally, as a founding member of the UK Climate Change Committee, Chair of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, and as an international expert providing technical input to UN climate negotiations.

“When we were producing the Summary for Policymakers for Working Group III, we were constantly telling the authors to try to say things that are useful to policymakers on a Monday morning, and give less prominence to abstract concepts,” Professor Skea said. 

"We were constantly telling the authors to try to say things that are useful to policymakers on a Monday morning..." Professor Jim Skea Centre for Environmental Policy

There is a push to have shorter summaries, but this is difficult, he said, “because the shorter you make things, the more meaning you pack into every phrase and sentence”. Having more loaded statements may make it harder for the IPCC to reach consensus at the approval stage of each report.

The publication of reports also struggles to be timely. A big question that has emerged during his campaign is what outputs IPCC can deliver by 2028, the year of the second global stocktake under the Paris Agreement. 

“I think the chances of producing the full Working Group reports by then are gone because of delays in the Sixth Assessment Cycle,” he said, but he hopes for alternatives such as Special Reports, such as those produced in the last cycle, or Technical Reports.

The IPCC produced Special Reports on global warming of 1.5°C, land use as well as oceans and the cryosphere during its Sixth Cycle. 

However, he pointed out that it took four years after it was approved for the Special Report on 1.5°C warming to be published in printed form and translated into official UN languages.

Professor Skea has co-chaired a group that developed procedures that would allow the IPCC to publish printed and translated versions more quickly.

As part of addressing these challenges, Professor Skea said that it is important to link the IPCC with other international bodies, such as the UNFCCC, to ensure timely delivery of importance scientific information.

His plans, if elected, also include engaging with decision-makers at regional, national, and sub-national levels through bespoke outreach, including regionally focused seminars and webinars.

Lessons learnt and the future of the IPCC

Working Group III’s Sixth Cycle Assessment Report was the first to devote an entire chapter to human behaviour and consumption.

Professor Skea said that many of the levers for change are already available but the scope and ambition of them need to be increased. These could include, alongside carbon pricing, regulations and command-and-control policies, as well as softer nudge policies that influence personal consumption behaviour 

Carbon capture and storage is a research area at Imperial. This photo shows limestone derived sorbents for CO2 capture in the Imperial Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage (IC4S) lab.

Another key takeaway from his group’s report is the issue of carbon removal. Professor Skea said: “You can’t get to net zero without taking some carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere because there are going to be some unavoidable emissions."

“In the past there has been some denial about CO2 removal and a belief that you could get to net zero with renewables and efficiency alone, you can’t," he said.

The Sixth Cycle Assessment Report paves the way for future reviews of CO2 removal methods, including natural removals as well as engineered solutions.

"One of the things that we were very keen to emphasise is that human beings have agency over their own future..." Professor Jim Skea Centre for Environmental Policy

Speaking to country representatives, Professor Skea also said that attribution of weather and climate events is a key concern, especially amongst small island developing states. “I think assessing the science relevant for losses and damages will be a big issue for IPCC to address,” he said.

Despite future challenges, Professor Skea calls himself “genetically optimistic”: “I think there’s a risk of the IPCC spreading a message of despair and gloom…."

"One of the things that we were very keen to emphasise is that human beings have agency over their own future: there are things that can be done on both the adaptation side and the mitigation side in light of the big challenges," he said.

IPCC Bureau elections will take place between 25 and 28 July. To discuss the scientific and governance challenges that the IPCC will have to tackle in the next Assessment Cycle, Professor Skea sat down with Ms Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment:

Professor Jim Skea sits down with the Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute, Ms Alyssa Gilbert, to discuss the future of climate governance and science.


Jacklin Kwan

Jacklin Kwan
Faculty of Natural Sciences


Government-and-policy, Global-challenges-Natural-world, Environment, Climate-change
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