Climate science: what’s the next big thing?

High above the Earth close to the Arctic.

On 22 April, over 170 nations signed the global climate agreement drawn up in Paris in December. As we reach a turning point in global action on climate, Grantham Institute Head of Policy and Translation Alyssa Gilbert discusses the next big questions for climate research.

The climate change deal forged in Paris was a triumph of science, as well as politics. But the agreement was just the first step of a long journey towards cutting emissions and adapting to our future under climate change. What does implementing the Paris agreement require from scientists now?

To answer this question, a range of researchers and stakeholders from the AVOID 2 project gathered together last month.  AVOID 2 is an extensive research programme that has informed the UK government and policymakers worldwide about feasible and , climate change impacts, emissions pathways and the potential of certain technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Together with policy makers, research councils, industry, NGOs, AVOID 2 scientists considered what new research was required as a result of the Paris agreement.

Do we really need more climate science?

The first question is whether any more science is needed at all. It is clear that what the world needs now is action. Much of the work putting the Paris agreement into practice will fall on the shoulders of governments within countries and a wide range of policy-makers, businesses and citizens around the globe. For the most part, implementing the agreement will require sound policies, efficient and effective action and the deployment of a range of existing technologies and practices.

But this emphasis on action does not let researchers off the hook. A good solid base of evidence is vital as governments set policies into motion.  And, although today we understand our climate much better than we did decades ago, there is still plenty of work left.

New frontiers

What research priorities would best support the delivery of the climate agenda set in Paris? Here are the top three items on stakeholders’ wish-lists:

1.Improving the detail of our knowledge of climate change risks

Some poorer countries and those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change will continue to struggle to adapt to our changing climate more than others. Whilst a bigger picture is already emerging, further research is needed to predict climate impacts more accurately, and at a local level, to help policymakers plan appropriately. It is also important for scientists to look at experiences of using risk-based approaches to make climate adaptation decisions. This information can help policymakers put more comprehensive risk-assessment and adaptation strategies into place in these vulnerable countries.

2. Helping low carbon technologies to take hold

Slashing emissions requires us to roll out of a range of technologies, from renewable energy to carbon capture and storage (CCS), on a large scale – and quickly. To do so, more needs to be understood about the policies, infrastructure development and finance that can give these technologies a foothold. Approaching this challenge country-by-country is vitally important as different cultural, political and geographical contexts will require different technologies. Careful thought and new policy paradigms will be required to rapidly roll-out new mitigation technologies whilst meeting the needs of industrialising nations, or those of the least developed countries.

As underscored by the UK’s commitment to Mission Innovation and the high profile Breakthrough Energy Coalition, there is a continuing role for research into new ways to slash greenhouse gas emissions through new technology and process innovation in the energy sector and beyond. Negative-emissions technologies and techniques in land-use management are part of this technology research agenda, too.

3. Understanding behaviour change

Technology alone is no silver bullet; many of the solutions to climate change, both on the adaptation and mitigation front, will rely on us all changing our behaviour. Social attitudes, psychology and communication have a significant effect on peoples’ actions around climate change and more research in this area is fundamental. There is much to be learned from other communities – notably health – where researchers have been considering similar issues for some time.

 

There is no doubt that politicians through to individual citizens need to be empowered to deliver the Paris agreement and tackle this grandest of challenges. Researchers must continue to play their part in building the solid evidence-base that underpins and validates their efforts.

 

View the AVOID 2 executive summary

Find out more about the AVOID 2 programme

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