Jim Skea is a renowned British academic who was recently elected to head up the UN’s climate change panel - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His appointment means that he is now in charge of the body tasked with reviewing scientific research from across the world to help guide global climate policy.
👉 So who is the man at the head of the UN’s climate expert panel, and what are his credentials?
Childhood and studies
Born in Dundee, Scotland, in September 1953, James "Jim" Ferguson Skea demonstrated an early passion for academics. He pursued Mathematical Physics at the renowned University of Edinburgh, and by 1975, he had secured a first-class honors BSc - the top accolade for that degree.
Not stopping there, Jim continued his educational journey at Clare College, Cambridge, where he delved into Energy Research and earned his Ph.D. by 1978.
The Cavendish Laboratory
After earning his Ph.D., Jim Skea set his sights on an academic trajectory. He was soon handpicked for a prestigious position as a research assistant at the Cavendish Laboratory. And this isn't just any laboratory; it's renowned globally as one of the most prestigious physics labs in the world.
The Cavendish Laboratory, otherwise known as the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics, was named after esteemed British chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish. It first opened back in 1874 as a laboratory for experimental physics.
Over the years the laboratory has made a significant impact in the fields of physics and biology. As many as 30 Cavendish researchers have won Nobel Prizes. The laboratory can also be credited with the discovery of the electron, neutron, and the structure of DNA. So it’s no small feat that Jim Skea was selected as a research assistant there.
Skea would hold this position between 1978 and 1981, after which he was accepted to the position of research associate in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University is a private research university founded in 1900 by Scotsman Andrew Carnegie. Although it is not an Ivy League school, it’s considered to be one of the ‘New Ivies’ - i.e. schools that are just as impressive as Ivy League schools in terms of their faculty and academics.
Jim Skea worked at Carnegie Mellon University from 1981 to 1983.
University of Sussex
After his time at Carnegie Mellon, Jim Skea took on a role as a Research Fellow within the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. He held this position until 1989 when he was promoted to Senior Research Fellow, followed by a promotion to Professorial Fellow in 1994.
Policy Studies Institute
Jim Skea left the world of academia In 1998 when he took on a role at the Policy Studies Institute, a British think tank.
The Policy Studies Institute (PSI) is a think tank and research institute. It is renowned for its prioritization of sustainable development and has a particular focus on the environment. Its research themes cover areas including energy and climate change, resource use and the circular economy, mobility and transport, and the role of businesses in delivering a sustainable future. Jim Skea would continue to work there until 2004.
Imperial College London
In 2009, after his stint at the Policy Studies Institute, Jim Skea returned to academia as Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy.
According to the Times Higher Education ranking of the top universities in the UK, Imperial College London comes in 3rd, just behind the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
Navigating through a journey that has spanned some of the globe's most eminent institutions, Jim Skea's academic and professional path showcases a distinct evolution. Beginning with a grounding in mathematics and physics at the University of Edinburgh, he transitioned to a broader perspective on policy at institutions like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Sussex.
His tenure at the Policy Studies Institute, with its emphasis on sustainable development and environmental focus, underscored his burgeoning passion for sustainability and climate change. As he moved to Imperial College London, Skea combined his foundational scientific knowledge with an intricate understanding of policy. This blend uniquely positions him with a depth of insight into the climate crisis that few can claim. He not only comprehends the scientific complexities of climate change but is also adept at identifying the policy shifts essential for a sustainable future. These credentials are why he was recently elected to the prestigious position of Chair of the IPCC.
Experience in climate change policy
Jim Skea's recent appointment as Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a fitting progression for someone with his credentials. His background in sustainability and policy gives him a deep understanding of the subject, making him an authority in the area. Moreover, he's no stranger to the intricacies of the IPCC.
In 2015, Jim ascended to the role of Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, focusing on climate change mitigation, a step up from his previous role as Vice-Chair.
His leadership within the IPCC is further highlighted by his co-direction of multiple significant reports. These include the Special Reports on ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’ in 2018, 'Climate Change and Land' in 2019, the ‘Report on the Mitigation of Climate Change in 2022', and the 2023 ‘Sixth Assessment Synthesis Report’.
But Jim Skea’s connection to the IPCC stems back even further he began to contribute to its work in the 1990s, not long after the IPCC was first created in 1988.
The Committee on Climate Change
In addition to his strong links with the IPCC, Jim Skea was also a founding member of the Committee on Climate Change in the UK (now called the Climate Change Committee). The CCC is an independent public body that was formed under the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008. Its role is to advise the UK Government on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The Committee advises the UK government on setting carbon budgets and also provides reports that track the UK’s progress towards its emission reduction targets. In fact, it was the CCC who recommended that the UK Government set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Other notable positions
In addition to these esteemed positions, Jim Skea was also a member of the Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance, Launch Director for the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, President of the Energy Institute, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also currently chair of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, which provides advice and support to the Scottish Government in the development and rollout of its net zero transition plan.
Other notable positions held by Jim Skea include that of the Research Council's UK Energy Strategy Fellow. The purpose of the program is to determine research, skills, and training needs across the energy landscape, and to establish the effectiveness of systems of energy innovation. Until 2012 Jim Skea was also Research Director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), where he led the Phase I Energy 2050 project.
There are other notable and impressive positions that are not mentioned here but suffice to say that Jim Skea is vastly experienced in areas surrounding climate change, sustainability, energy, and policy - so much so that he has even been awarded an OBE for service to sustainable transport and a CBE for services to sustainable energy.
💡OBE stands for Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, it is the second higher-ranking Order of the British Empire award. CBE stands for Commander of the Order of the British Empire and is the highest Order of the British Empire award. Other notable award winners include Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and JK Rowling.
Selection as IPCC Chair
On July 26, 2003, in Nairobi Kenya, at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme, Jim Skea was elected as the new Chair of the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change (IPCC).
Upon winning the necessary votes for the position, Jim Skea addressed fellow delegates, stating:
“Climate Change is an existential threat to our planet. My ambition is to lead an IPCC that is truly representative and inclusive, an IPCC looking to the future while exploiting the opportunities that we have in the present. An IPCC where everyone feels valued and heard.”
Jim Skea identified three priorities that he will focus on during his time as Chair. Namely:
Improving inclusivity and diversity
Shielding scientific integrity and policy relevance of IPCC assessment reports
Making effective use of the best available science on climate change
What does the position mean?
The position of Chair of the IPCC means that Jim Skea is head of the IPCC Bureau, a group elected to provide guidance to the IPCC Panel on scientific and technical aspects, alongside management and strategic issues. There are currently 34 members of the Bureau representing countries from across the world.
The Bureau and IPCC Chair will serve for the duration of the seventh assessment cycle.
👉 To find out more about the IPCC and the work that it does, why not check out our article.
What is the IPCC seventh assessment cycle?
The IPCC’s seventh assessment cycle commenced in July 2023 and will last for between five and seven years.
The IPCC has now completed six assessment cycles between 1990 and 2023. Under each assessment cycle a comprehensive assessment report is also delivered. These assessment reports include the latest climate science and advice.
To undertake an assessment report is no small task. Each report consists of four parts - a contribution from each of the three working groups and a synthesis report that integrates their contributions. There may also be a number of special reports on specific topics.
💡What’s important to note is that the IPCC doesn’t actually carry out its own research, instead it assesses existing scientific papers and studies to inform its report.
The assessment reports produced by the IPCC are viewed as a credible and trusted source of information on climate change and climate action. The intention is that these reports influence policy and push states to take climate action.
Key findings from previous assessment reports include:
Predictions on the pace of global warming - the First Assessment Report, 1990
The link between climate change and human activities - the Second Assessment Report, 1995
Temperature rises will continue if we don’t reduce emissions - the Third Assessment Report, 2001
Humans are unequivocally the primary cause of climate change - the Fourth Assessment Report, 2007
The warning that GHG emissions are higher than ever and that the impacts of climate change are accelerating - the Fifth Assessment Report, 2014
The world is reducing emissions too slowly, and impacts will be unavoidable. Adaptation and mitigation will be necessary - the Sixth Assessment Report, 2023
👉 To discover the main takeaways from the most recent Assessment Report, take a look at our article.
What can we expect from Jim Skea as the Chair of the IPCC?
With more than 40 years of experience in the field of sustainability and climate change, Jim Skea understands the climate crisis better than anyone. Which means that he also understands just how desperate the situation is. Just this year he warned that the time was “now or never” to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as per the Paris Agreement.
Yet despite the grave situation, Jim Skea brings with him a sense of positivity and hope - traits that are necessary for the role. He has stated that he’s optimistic for the future and believes that humans still have the power to alter the trajectory of global warming. But we must act now before it’s too late.
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