Balancing the carbon budget – how local scientists are tackling the climate emergency
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Headquartered at UEA, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is doing vital work on one of the most pressing issues of our time. Charles Bliss spoke to executive director Asher Minns about how scientific study conducted at Norwich Research Park is helping the world to understand global warming and how we might adapt to extreme weathers and ensure a sustainable future.
“There is too much carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere and not enough coming back into the planet,” explains Asher Minns, executive director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
“Human-made global warming is what happens when the carbon budget is out of balance. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat from the sun and does not escape into space, which increases temperature and changes the climate.”
Working with UEA professor Corinne Le Quéré and international colleagues, the Tyndall Centre publishes the carbon budget annually for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), indicating how the world performed in terms of reducing global carbon dioxide emissions year on year. The research entails an astonishing amount of data accumulation and analysis, assessing the amount of energy and carbon dioxide consumed by every country on the planet.
There will be a discernible reduction in emissions this year due to Covid-19 and lockdowns across the world, as emissions are inextricably linked to economic activity and gross domestic product (GDP). The bad news is that this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the scale of the problem – the consequences of which are already apparent.
“We are seeing the changes in our own lifetimes,” says Asher. “In the UK there are warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers, but with more torrential downpours, storms and flooding.” Last year was one of the warmest years since the mid 19th century, with the UK breaking four temperature records including hottest summer day and warmest winter day.
Global warming is also in evidence locally on the Norfolk Broads, where coastal erosion is worsened by a rise in sea level and overtopping. “As sea levels get higher and there are more storms, we see higher tides and seawater further into the Broads, which affects its biodiversity as freshwater fish are killed off,” says Asher. “Ultimately, the unique Broads ecosystems will change further.”
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Another consequence of global warming felt locally concerns crop production. Changes in soil, seasons and storms affect wheat yields, sugar beet and other crops important to East Anglia. Elsewhere we are seeing heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods, melting arctic ice sheets and coral bleaching – balancing the carbon budget has therefore never been more critical.
The carbon budget, along with other research happening at the Tyndall Centre, UEA and Norwich Research Park, helps to focus the minds of policy makers to identify methods for reimagining, restructuring and retrofitting society to ensure that we can encourage economies without pumping out harmful greenhouse gases.
In light of the UN Paris Agreement of 2015, the Tyndall Centre revised its four research themes: building resilience to extreme weather events, alleviating poverty through climate actions, accelerating social transitions through behaviour change, and reaching zero emissions.
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“We are not that well adapted to current weathers, even in the UK,” warns Asher. “So, extreme weather events pose extraordinary challenges, more so in other parts of the world.”
Building resilience to climate change is about adaptation – preparing for the shocks that are coming and determining how to futureproof infrastructure and governance, by developing better engineering for systems so they can cope or working with vulnerable communities.
“Research helps us to understand and prepare for extreme weather events,” says Asher. “For example, we have a forest fire season now, which is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of the communities being affected. We think about places impacted by wildfires and how they can be better managed – whether that’s in the Peak District, California, Australia or Indonesia. If that is difficult to do somewhere as rich as California, then it is going to be even harder in poorer places with worse infrastructure.”
A new UK project to help build resilience involves looking at next-generation adaptation and climate risk assessment. Launched in May and led by UEA professor Robert Nicholls, OpenCLIM uses computer programming to create mathematical simulations that help us understand how to respond to climate change, including case studies focusing on the Norfolk Broads and the Clyde catchment around Glasgow.
Another key research theme considers what actions will be necessary to overcome the deepening issue of poverty catalysed by the breakdown of climate systems.
“Poor countries, such as those in Africa, want to develop and enhance their economic performance and infrastructure,” explains Asher. “Colleagues are working closely with communities to explore how to do that without burning fossil fuels, so that you can have economic growth but in a much greener way. Emissions are less important to many poor places – the priority is adapting livelihoods to climate change.
“These are the most vulnerable places in the world where people and governments have less money. Their ability to cope with extreme weather when already at risk to current climate changes is far reduced compared to much of the global north that can make choices about investment.”
Accelerating social transitions means researching what encourages behaviour changes and what does not: “We are trying to determine what the barriers are to low-carbon behaviours, with innovative research in psychology and social sciences around climate, energy and the environment.”
One recent example concerns Climate Assembly UK, a representative citizens’ assembly that met over the course of months to determine what the public thinks and feels about climate change. It published its findings on September 10, including recommendations on behaviour changes such as eating less meat and phasing out SUVs.
Finally, researchers are exploring methods to accelerate towards a zero-carbon society. In 2015, the UN Paris Agreement set its objective of keeping global warming below 2°C while pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C by the end of the century. This will require an international, national and local effort, which is why research is being done to explore fossil fuel free transport at a regional level.
“In 2019, most local authorities in the UK declared climate emergencies and agreed to align their targets with the Paris Agreement,” says Asher. “Tyndall Centre at Manchester University produced the pathways for every UK local authority in terms of where they are now with emissions and where they need to get to in 2050. It requires a 13pc reduction in carbon dioxide every year, which is massive change not just in terms of energy type and usage, but a change in attitudes. “In order to achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement, we must achieve net zero. This not only means zero carbon emissions going into the atmosphere, but society must also suck it out.”
Geoengineering and carbon capture technology that extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it is this kind of blue-sky thinking that is necessary for dramatic change – another example of how the minds at Norwich Research Park are striving to change lives for the better in the UK and worldwide.
The Tyndall Centre is about to launch a free Apple and Android app called EarthSystemData which will allow anyone anywhere in the world to explore and compare global visualisations of what the latest international climate data means for their home city. For more information, visit www.tyndall.ac.uk