Climate Change: With Great Promise Comes Great Challenge

That climate change is one of the most challenging problems facing society is now patently clear and undisputed. But to understand the EU’s strong commitment and leadership in this area, EURAXESS WORLDWIDE takes a closer look at the COP26 backstory (goals and outcomes), and what it means for research and the wider scientific landscape.

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) might be over, but the vital research needed to better understand and respond to climate imperatives continues with vigour at the EU level and worldwide.

A person holding a sign<p>Description automatically generated with medium confidence As anyone with access to the internet will know, the annual COP meeting of signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has recently ended in Glasgow, Scotland. COP26’s goal was to push forward progress on prior commitments as part of the Paris Agreement from December 2015.

Paris was hailed as ground-breaking by the UN because, for the first time, “a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects”. It set a clear and now famous target, to limit global warming to well below 2, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

A stark realist will point out that the planet is continuing to warm at an alarming rate, seemingly despite these targets and resulting efforts to stop pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Many countries and regions, such as the EU through its Green Deal ambitions and integrated climate policies and action, are going further and aiming for zero-emissions by 2050.

The Green Deal acknowledges that its 2050 “no net emissions” target needs to go hand in hand with actions to decouple economic growth from resource use (best captured by the notion of a circular economy which keeps resources in use, or a closed loop, for longer), and it is rooted in the idea that a green economy is one where “no person and no place is left behind”.

“The transition to a climate-neutral society is both an urgent challenge and an opportunity to build a better future for all,” notes the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, adding that “all parts of society and economic sectors will play a role – from the power sector to industry, mobility, buildings, agriculture and forestry.”

Here, the EU has led the way by establishing and investing in mission-based technological solutions aligned to industrial policy, finance, and long-term research goals. The current Horizon Europe framework funding programme has dedicated research lines for climate action which includes mitigation and adaptation measures, with the latter acknowledging that climate change is already happening.

Scientists confirm evidence of faster warming

Even casual observers of the weather and news events, from deepening droughts and raging bushfires in Australia to uncharted flood levels in Europe, can see something unprecedented is going on with the climate.

Indeed, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, confirms observed changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system.

“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion – such as continued sea level rise – are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years,” according to the UN’s panel of scientists in charge of charting global climate change.

Based on evidence of faster warming, the planet could cross the Paris threshold in just decades unless large-scale and immediate reductions in emissions can be achieved. The report shows that greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for around 1.1° Celsius of warming since 1850-1900: “Averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming,” the scientists predict.

Nobel-winning work

Modelling climate change and especially connecting it to natural disasters is notoriously complex work, but it is improving thanks to growing computing power, better data and associated statistical developments, such as stochastic equations (see Nature Reviews Physics) that can factor in chance events, but also smarter software and better-trained artificial intelligence to reach vast datasets (see ‘The story behind Europe’s AI ambitions’).

Climate modelers hail from different branches of the Earth and planetary sciences, with strengths in applied physics, mathematics, and computational science. According to National Geographic, they “combine physics and chemistry to create equations, feed them into supercomputers, and apply them to simulate the climate of Earth or other planets.”

For decades, climate scepticism has been fuelled by criticism that the modelling is based on “magical thinking’, but the science is too strong now for these arguments to stand up. The Nobel Committee for Physics would agree. In October, it acknowledged the contribution of pioneering climate modelers, Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselman, and theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi to the “scientific foundations [and] rigorous analysis of observations” informing robust climate and weather predictions.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, captures this evolution in a story debunking the arguments of climate-change deniers: “We understand the fundamentals about how the climate operates well enough to accurately reproduce the observed changes, based on solid, well-understood physical mechanisms like the increased greenhouse effect. That’s not about to get overturned by magical thinking.”

COP26 outcomes

The Paris Agreement carved out a path for concrete action to (re)shape policy and achieve transformation change. COP26 was all about delivering on these promises, according to a Commission statement, which outlined some outcomes of the conference where progress will be deterministic, whether investing in R&D for green tech or regulating the use of high-polluting and emission-generating industrial practices.

One concrete achievement to come out of COP26 was to agree on a ‘rulebook’ for meeting the Paris Agreement which fixes the transparency and reporting requirements for all parties to track progress against their emission-reduction targets. The rulebook includes articles on how international carbon markets should function, to support further global cooperation on emission reductions.

While science is critical to both understanding the climate problem and tackling it with green solutions, ultimately much of the progress anticipated by successive COPs comes back to one thing: climate finance. Here, leaders committed to help vulnerable countries, especially low-lying islands faced with rising seas, cope with current and impending climate changes.

There was agreement to double the collective share of so-called “adaptation finance” within the $100 billion annual target for 2021-2025, and to reach the $100 billion goal as soon as possible, according to the Commission. Parties also committed to a process for long-term climate finance beyond 2025.

Commenting on the outcome, the EU’s lead negotiator and Executive Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, said: “It is my firm belief that the text that has been agreed reflects a balance of the interests of all Parties, and allows us to act with the urgency that is essential for our survival.”

New and improved EU commitments

Among the EU commitments announced during COP26 were a €1 billion fund for the Global Forests Finance Pledge, a Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa, and a Global Methane Pledge. The latter is a joint EU-US initiative mobilising over 100 countries to cut their collective methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels.

Another initiative, the EU-Catalyst Partnership, was announced together with the European Investment Bank to boost cooperation in climate innovation and technologies. A Climate Adaptation Fund worth €100 million was also launched. One of the biggest pledges by COP26 donors on climate adaptation, the Fund comes on top of significant contributions already announced by Member States, and also confirms the EU’s supporting role to the informal Champions Group on Adaptation Finance.

In February 2021, the Commission adopted a foresighted EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change to prepare Member States and other regions for the “unavoidable impacts of climate change” and help them become climate-resilient by 2050. It charts a course to make adaptation efforts “smarter, swifter and more systemic in the years ahead, and also aims to significantly step up international action”. Research and further cooperation with international partners no doubt plays a driving role in achieving these objectives.

A climate of strong research

EU and international research has already significantly furthered our understanding of the causes of climate change. Today’s pressing challenge is to further explore and more accurately forecast the impacts of climate change and provide effective responses to it.

To limit warming to 1.5-2.0° Celsius, the world needs to “act now and use every tool and solution” at our disposal. Novel and strengthened research, leading to smart innovations and green solutions, plays a crucial role in our collective effort to tackle climate change. Here, the EU is committed being a leading force, according to the Commission’s RTD team.

They offer a summary of some current RTD-funded activities in climate science but also in more dedicated fields such as polar and ocean research, climate resilience and adaptation to climate change, and knowledge for climate neutrality. EU research also examines the nexus between climate change and natural disasters around the world, such as forest fires and extreme weather events, as well as nature-based solutions needed to tackle these challenges.

Awareness-raising and education on climate change both play an important role in preparedness and greater understanding of what lies ahead, as too research and actions to improve citizen engagement and behaviour change. The rationale here is that individual and collective choices – on everything from transport and travel modes to recycling and upcycling goods – matter in the climate change ‘big picture’.

  • On its climate-research webpage, the Commission also offers a handy list of networks and platforms, databases, project results, and job opportunities. These include the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI-Climate), which aligns national climate research programmes and funds new transnational activities, and the Climate-ADAPT platform for sharing data and information to improve decision-making on climate adaptation. It also profiles the EURAXESS network for mobile researchers in Europe and beyond.
  • Several fora are mentioned, such as the STI Forum on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, alongside a number of links to climate research projects, success stories, and opportunities for collaboration. Dedicated ‘results packs’, hosted on the EU’s CORDIS website, can also be found. They illustrate the depth and breadth of EU climate research projects and activities, from innovations in photovoltaics and renewable energy to new thinking on climate services and nature-based solutions for smart/green cities of the future.

Leading by example

The EU is acutely aware that it needs to lead by example on climate action. According to progress reports, it has already cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30% since 1990, while growing its economy by over 60%.

With the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, European Climate Law sets an intermediate target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions of at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. To deliver on these commitments, the Commission presented a package of proposals in July 2021 to make the EU’s climate, energy, land use, transport, research, and taxation policies all fit-for-purpose.

Research and innovation is, and will always be, a catalyst for impactful climate actions, from modelling and mitigating to monitoring and reporting on progress made between now and the mid-term target of 2030 and, ultimately, the 2050 zero-carbon end game.

EU climate action links

Horizon Europe’s Climate Adaptation Mission

Research and innovation driving the climate pact (factsheet)

Q&A on the EU at COP26

Acting together for the planet (factsheet)

European Commission COP26 webpage and side-events

Revising EU emissions trading system (EU-ETS)

Integrating land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) into emission-reduction efforts

National emissions (effort-sharing) targets for sectors outside the EU-ETS and LULUCF

Renewable energy, energy efficiency and Energy Union and climate action governance

Research funding opportunities