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| RESEARCH: Researchers feed ideas to EU for future Climate Change research priorities

The Earth is warming because of man-induced climate change (CC), but how – and how to react? Should the international community inject light-reflecting sulfur gas into the atmosphere to cool things down? Or commercially remove carbon dioxide from it? Is the ocean’s rising acidification undermining our food chain? What are the sociological implications for tomorrow’s sustainable cities? And how to better predict extreme CC-related hazards such as floods, drought or super-storms? These and many other research ideas were vigorously debated at the recent two-day International Symposium on Climate Change in Brussels.
Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences
Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences hosted the ECs’ International Symposium on Climate Change in Brussels
© Brooks Tigner
With the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7) set to start in 2007, one of its most critical research goals will be the investigation of climate change and how to mitigate and prepare for its effects. A rich diversity of ideas emerged during the 02-03 February event organised by the European Commission’s Research DG, which is now framing FP7’s climate change objectives. The event was dedicated to the memory of Anver Ghazi, head of Global Change Unit for 8 years, deceased in mid-2005.

“Public expectations [about what climate change means] are high and rightly so: answers are expected,” Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research, said in his opening remarks to the symposium, which brought together more than 200 European CC scientists at Belgium’s Royal Academy of Sciences.

Insisting that environmental policies must be built on sound scientific knowledge to minimise CC’s socio-economic impact, he said FP7 will address “major unanswered scientific questions and advance our understanding of the earth system’s functioning and changes.” This should include local, regional and global impacts of climate change, as well as optimum mitigation and adaptation strategies, he said.

Pierre Valette, Acting Director in charge of the environment research programme at Research DG, added that CC studies have driven many other research areas such as economic modelling since the early 1990s. “There’s been a revolution in this field. Cost-benefit analysis, emissions trading, the external costs of energy and transport: all these did not really exist 15 years ago and the EU has been largely responsible for the change,” he said.

Three themes; multiple perspectives

Researchers debating © Brooks Tigner
Researchers debate climate change ideas for next Framework Research Programme
© Brooks Tigner
Elisabeth Lipiatou, head of Environment and Climate System Unit at Research DG whose unit organised the symposium, reminded participants that the Commission seeks input “on the climate change and natural hazard research issues to be tackled first as we prepare FP7’s work programme. Above all, an integrated approach to these challenges is key.”

The event was split into three research-oriented work sessions and a final fourth one to summarise all the technical presentations and identify broad common themes for future support in FP7. Scientists across the entire spectrum of climate change research in Europe were present: from chemical atmospheric specialists to oceanographers and hydrologists to polar icecap and desertification experts. Palaeo-climate research also entered the picture, as seen during debate in Session I on climate change and observations.

Carbon pumps and computing power

“Reconstructions of past climates will not only help validate models used for predicting the 21st and 22nd centuries’ climate, but will also provide the best analogue and description of what might happen in the next future,” said André Berger of the Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics at Belgium’s UCL university. “Just because we may be entering another glacial period is not a reason to continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. But we need modelling and high-quality reconstructions of the past to determine the consequences.”

David Griggs, director of UK’s meteorological office, the Hadley Centre, said the complexity of CC models has increased greatly in the last 30 years but they must be improved to handle yet more resolution, complexity and uncertainty. “We need to incorporate atmospheric chemistry into them, as well as land surface and ocean carbon cycles,” he said. “But to do so we need a six-fold increase in today’s computing power.”

One way that predictive power could be used is to analyse Earth’s ‘switch elements’ such as the marine carbon pump off the coast of Peru, which draws carbon out of the water/atmosphere and into organic matter that settles into the deep sea.

“We need to find out how all these switch elements really behave. Global warming could cause a greening of the Sahara, but would this decrease the dust that blows across the Atlantic to fertilise the Amazon’s forests?” said John Schellnhuber, who works at the University of East Anglia and Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“Society has the choice between a low- and high-carbon future. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions does not have to be costly if you induce technological change through top-down measures: incentives. But if you leave that to market forces, change will come too late. We need to aggressively improve CC modelling to produce a cost-benefit approach as a guide to CC management and, just as important, to predict social adaptation to sustainability.”

Fellow session participant Pavel Kabat agreed. A professor at The Netherlands’ Wageningen University and Research Centre, Kabat said research that reinforces the hard economic impact of policy choice would be the most effective in combating climate change. Pointing to El Nino-induced flooding and droughts that cut a quarter of Kenya’s GDP in the late 1990s, he said “it is much easier to argue for investment in water management technology and projects when you show economists and policymakers this kind of data.”

He appealed for more EU-funded research similar to the Sixth Framework’s ENSEMBLES effort, a large Integrated Project for predicting climate change. Tying together 74 major research institutes and universities in Europe, the project’s 22.5-million euro budget includes an EU contribution of euro 15 million. “An ENSEMBLES approach to climate impact analysis and modelling of water resources would be very good. I would give the highest priority to this,” Kabat declared.

Full descriptions of ENSEMBLES and other climate change projects can be found in volume 1 of the new ‘Catalogue of FP6 Projects’ put together by the Environment and Climate System Unit of Research DG.

Sulfur ‘cannons’ for the sky

From left to right: E. Lipiatou (EC); G. Brasseur and H. Grassl (Max-Planck Inst.); S.A. Anagnostopoulos (Patras Univ.) summarise the symposium’s debates © Brooks Tigner
From left to right: E. Lipiatou (EC); G. Brasseur and H. Grassl (Max-Planck Inst.); S.A. Anagnostopoulos (Patras Univ.) summarise the symposium’s debates
© Brooks Tigner
Changes in atmospheric composition and ozone depletion led discussions during Session II, where the discussion of possible solutions to mitigate global warming included some spectacular ideas.

Paul Crutzen of the German Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and a 1995 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner speculated about the potential of sulfur ‘dust’ to reverse the effects of atmospheric warming. “I’m very intrigued with the idea of using sulphur gas,” he said, adding that only a small amount of the material would have to be injected into the stratosphere to create a small ‘volcanic eruption’ type cooling of the lower atmosphere.

But possible side-effects could be the ozone’s destruction and disruption of the stratosphere’s dynamics. Thus Crutzen called for a moratorium on the idea but with a proviso to unfreeze it if temperatures rise too quickly. “The situation should be reviewed every six years. That is my position,” he said.

Turning to marine carbon sinks, Christoph Heinze of the University of Bergen said research should focus on integrated land-ocean carbon budgets as a function of time, and whether genetics are changing with the ocean’s increasing acidification. “This has implications for the entire food chain,” he said, adding that other research objectives should include more sustained prediction systems “beyond classical operational oceanography” and a systematic data assimilation of the palaeo record.

“None of these things can be done in a single country: they must form a joint international and worldwide effort,” said Heinze. “It would be a good way to achieve European value-added.”

Landslides and magma

Many CC modelling and prediction techniques also apply to natural hazards, whose prevention, risk-management, mitigation and forecasting aspects were the focus of presentations during Session III.

Joachim Hill of Germany’s Trier University drew listeners’ attention to the fact that people are abandoning Europe’s so-called marginal areas. “Trees are reforesting the land and thus bio-fuel is building up,” he said. “This is negatively affecting bio-hydrological patterns. As a result, ground water tables are dropping fast, particularly in southern Europe, which will affect drought conditions.” Hill called for an inter-disciplinary approach to desertification research “which should carry strong socio-economic relevance and rely on space-borne systems as useful research tools.”

Other natural hazard experts argued for European centres of research excellence to carry to better predict landslides or movements or volcanic disruptions and their effects, for instance.

“We have not sufficiently mapped Europe for the risk of landslides and we are missing information about highly localised landslides and their effects,” said Claudio Margottini, who works at ENEA, Italy’s national agency for new technologies, energy and the environment. “There is no laboratory in Europe for large-scale analysis of soil samples and movements. Japan and the USA have them, but not us.”

Jean Virieux, a researcher with UNSA-CNRS at Sophia-Antipolis in southern France, expressed a similar need in the field of multi-hazard research involving volcanoes landslides and earthquake-generated tsunamis. “If you’re not recording small earthquakes, then you’re missing information needed to predict ground motion. Dense monitoring networks are needed, as well as a large-scale earthquake simulation and analysis centre with supercomputing capabilities.”

FP7: On the horizon

Given the enormous range and scale of the challenges raised by climate change – and the high quality of the two days’ presentations – the Commission faces a daunting task in the coming months to sort out the research priorities for FP7, as Lipiatou observed when winding up the symposium proceedings.

“I heard many key words today such as integrated approaches, the human dimension, global monitoring, sulphur and carbon cycles, the atmosphere’s chemical composition and impact of CC on water resources,” said Lipiatou. “I think we’ve had an excellent ‘tour d’horizon’ of the research challenges we face and the Commission looks forward to developing a common vision for the future in these domains.”


  • Contact for information about conference:
    Dr. Claus Bruening;
    Unit Environment and Climate System;
    Research DG;
  • For information about Catalogue of FP6 Projects:
    Nadine Nassen;;
    Tel: (32-2) 29 – 84625;
    Fax (32-2) 29 - 95755

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