In this interview we discuss climate science with Beatrice Ellerhoff. We got her take on the necessity of a sustainable lifestyle and the limited impact that quantum tech can have.

About Beatrice

Beatrice Ellerhoff is a PhD student in Physics at the Geo- and Environmental Research Center in Tübingen and a fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Her work focuses on characterizing and modeling climate variability across spatial and temporal scales. She is an active science communicator and has authored a book on quantum computing.

Follow her on Twitter, Google Scholar, or LinkedIn.

Some introductory questions

Fred from Alqor

Hallo Beatrice, we recently put together a series of tutorials on quantum hardware. For the moment, their usage for computing is still mostly limited to rather academic problems. However, this does not stop numerous people from raising very strong expectations of quantum technologies’ impact on climate change. This  motivated us to get your opinion as someone that has worked on climate science for a while now. So we are excited to have you around for this interview. To start out, could you please tell us a little bit about you?

Beatrice Ellerhoff

Hi Fred, thanks for having me and for initiating this discussion on a very exciting and topical subject. I graduated in physics from Heidelberg university three years ago. During my Master’s, I had the chance to work on quantum entanglement. While I really enjoyed that work, I saw links between the simulation of quantum systems and the simulation of climate. I was excited about applying some of my skills to the pressing problems of global warming. This enthusiasm certainly came from my enjoyment of outdoor sports. And the fact that a longer stay in Paraguay 10 years ago made me aware of the importance of standing up for climate justice. So, I jumped at the chance to pursue a PhD in climate dynamics. Three years later, I’m now nearing the completion of my doctorate at the Geo- and Environmental Research Center in Tübingen (Germany). In short, my work deals with temperature fluctuations, why they occur, how they change in time, and how they might affect us in the future. I still often think that the beauty of quantum mechanics is outstanding – as is that of planet Earth.


I would like to get back to your view with quantum at a later stage. But as a first step, I would like to know how you would summarize the situation on climate change generally. Could you also connect it to international agreements like the Paris agreement.

Beatrice Ellerhoff

Sure. Because of human impacts on the climate and the environment, we have reached a global warming of +1.2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels. This is already impacting human health, livelihoods, and food security. Extreme weather and climate events have changed significantly in frequency and magnitude. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on the work of thousands of scientists, concludes that the Paris Agreement target of +2 °C, preferably +1.5 °C, is still achievable. However, the window to act and secure human well-being is rapidly closing. In fact, it’s almost closed: One possible scenario to reach +1.5 °C requires greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 and be reduced by about 45 % in 2030. Every fraction of a degree counts to avoid irreversible, unprecedented changes in nature and resulting damages to societies.


Can you try explain us why 1.5 degree is such an important number? It is simply hard to understand why 1.5 degree is so drastically different from 2 degrees. We all experience substantially higher temperature variations on a daily basis. In Europe a lot of people started to wonder this summer why all these wildfires started to appear. Despite the fact that the temperature increased by only 1 degree on a global scale.

Beatrice Ellerhoff

The 1.5 °C target is essential because it limits losses and damages to people. In particular, it limits the risk of destroying natural systems in a way that is possibly irreversible with the time horizon of our societies. Keeping warming below 1.5 °C can secure the existence of small island states, which would otherwise disappear under the projected sea level rise. More than +1.5 °C warming means that millions more people are at risk of life-threatening heat. This is also because some areas, especially cities, are warming much faster than the global average. For example, European land surface temperatures have already risen by 2 °C. Similarly, the poles are seeing increased warming. Limiting warming to 1.5 °C reduces the risk of losing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The latter could lead to a gradual sea level rise that threatens major coastal cities. Reaching the 1.5 °C target would also save two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs. At +2 °C, nearly all of them would die off, eliminating a major source of food and income for many tropical countries. The corals and ice sheets are so-called climate tipping points, which, once damaged and lost, won’t recover quickly. Their loss leads to runaway effects that can accelerate warming and amplify its impacts. As for wildfires in Europe, it is the combination of dryness and heat that is simultaneously increasing in some areas, such as Eastern Germany. With less rainfall for years, forests and grassland dry out. Longer and hotter heat waves can cause fires more easily. As a consequence, combined heat and dryness is likely to expand fire-prone areas and seasons in Europe. The “little bit more” of warming in the global average can manifest itself more strongly and in multiple climatic changes at the local level.

On the possible support of technologies


This sounds a lot like a fever for the planet, which we should avoid. The great thing is that you cited some very specific objectives which we have to achieve. The most near-term target was that greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 and be reduced by approx. 45% in 2030. Do you know any estimates of how this is achievable with current technologies ?

Beatrice Ellerhoff

First, I should add that the described scenario includes a reduction to net zero emissions in 2050 and net negative emissions from there on. “Net negative” means that we take more CO2 out of the atmosphere than we emit. Regarding technologies, many options to switch to low- or zero-carbon alternatives exist, especially in the high-emitting energy and transport sectors. These options include improved energy efficiency, widespread electrification, renewables, and alternative fuels. While the transition to near-100% renewable energy is possible, most future projections include so-called “hard-to-abate” residual emissions. These residual emissions and the need for net negative emissions motivate the development of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. To my knowledge, most CDR strategies are still in an early research and development stage. None of them is ready for the large-scale, reliable and affordable deployment needed to support the +1.5 °C target. And we cannot expect them to be any kind of “silver bullet”. The attenuating effect of negative emissions is less efficient than the warming caused by positive ones. As a result, avoiding emissions is a lot more favorable tha­n postponing their abatement. ­This emphasizes the importance of immediate and deep emission cuts. 

Moreover, I am convinced that, in addition to a decarbonization of all sectors, a transition to a more sustainable society and economy is urgently needed. Even if we had already reached zero emissions, we would still be cutting down forests and polluting oceans. In other words, the planet would remain “sick” and human well-being at risk. Transitioning to a more social and ecological livelihood can contribute to achieving all sustainable development goals. This also promises a large potential for co-benefits, both for human well-being and the climate. My favorite example is the food system, responsible for one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Avoiding food waste and shifting to plant-based diets can prevent emissions, reduce the demand of energy and land use, improve food security and help people live healthier lives.


Listening to this, you expect that climate change requires deep change in our lifestyle on a fairly quick timescale. I think that that a substantial part of society would like to change their life as little a possible. How do you think that new technologies can support this transition in the context of climate change ?

You already talked about the ongoing development of new CDR strategies. I also read your recent blog post on AI and climate. There you seemed to imply a more limited potential. What would you see as key conditions for emerging technologies to have a substantial impact on our greenhouse gas emissions ? 

Beatrice Ellerhoff

I’m not an expert on economics, but simply thought: As long as wealth is coupled to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, countries won’t manage to maintain or increase wealth while protecting the climate. I can imagine that technologies which contribute to a sustainable, non-emissions-based economy could be helpful to the climate. One requirement would be that these technologies either prevent emissions elsewhere or contribute to active climate protection, for example, by enhancing the carbon uptake.


Thank you for this detailed introduction into the topic. This brings me now to one of my central questions. Do you see how quantum computing could fulfill any of those requirements ? Such connections are repeatedly made. The most publicized might be a blog post from McKinsey titled “Quantum computing might just save the planet”.

Beatrice Ellerhoff

I wish saving the planet would “only” require developing a quantum computer with unprecedented computing capacities. In my opinion, there are mainly two reasons why this wish is far from reality. First, the development of new technologies based on quantum computing will be too late for the 1.5 °C target. And second, there are mainly political, societal and economic reasons why current decarbonization efforts are not sufficient, even though useful technologies such as renewables are available. 

Regarding the first point, I can quite understand the fascination for quantum computing. Many experts agree that the simulation of complex chemical structures, strongly limited with today’s classical computing facilities, will be one of the earliest useful applications of future quantum computers. One of the main hopes rests on the development of more efficient catalysts and materials, for example for battery or solar cell production. This could in turn support the transition to renewable energy. The current research and development stage of quantum computing is exciting, but it is probably still years away from simulating large molecules. Even in case of sudden breakthroughs, a development phase would follow and finally the implementation of, for example, more efficient batteries and photovoltaic systems. I don’t see how this will lead to the large-scale effects required for the “planet-saving scenario” of 1.5 °C, i.e., 45 % emission cuts by 2030, which is only seven years from now.

Turning to the second point about the political, societal and economical frameworks: There is enough information about the urgency and magnitude of the global climate crisis, supporting the much-needed mitigation efforts. And there is enough information about possible solutions, including renewables and demand-changes. I am not convinced that improving technologies or inventing better technologies alone will lead to more climate protection. Already today, renewable energy has striking advantages over fossil fuels. But global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are still rising. Scaling up the available technologies is not appropriately addressed by politicians, society, and businesses. 

Nevertheless, there are numerous reasons to advance quantum computing research. Without Einstein’s seminal work on quantum mechanics, we might not even be using photovoltaics today. I also very much appreciate that many quantum computing groups seek to conduct research for the benefit of society. However, one should be cautious about placing hopes in quantum computing as a true “game changer” for the Paris Agreement. In the end, it could cause quite the opposite if the mitigation agenda is proceeded less rigorously because of these hopes. Research into novel technologies cannot be a substitute for rapid decarbonization, but should be accompanied by rapid emission cuts. 


Wow, thanks a lot for this clear answer. This leaves me personally only with one last question. How do you personally see the role of innovative technologies in a sustainable lifestyle ?

Beatrice Ellerhoff

Personally, I see sustainability at the core of our future economic activities and way of living.  Technological innovations will be part of this, as they have always been part of human history. 
Policy measures can play a role in promoting sustainable innovations. However, much remains to be done to assess the environmental and social impacts of existing and new technologies. In my opinion, achieving the sustainable development goals and the Paris target will not be possible without transitioning to more social and ecological livelihood. Of course, innovations,  such as circular economy, will help us consume things more sustainably and produce less waste. For me, a good life within the ecological limits of the Earth also includes the question of how we can consume less, and not just differently. Technologies can support a sustainable transition, but the will to change towards greater sustainability must ultimately come from the people, society, and politics.

Further reading

  • The international panel on climate change
  • The SDG goals of the UN
  • Carbonbrief – UK based website covering climate science, policy and energy policy
  • – a global initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning.
  • RESET makes solutions-driven, independent journalism, reporting on a sustainable digital future.
  • AI for Good is a year-round digital platform where AI innovators and problem owners learn, build and connect to identify practical AI solutions to advance the UN SDGs.

Additional sources

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