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COP21 daily report: While the politicians negotiate, the science does not stop

Cabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost will be attending COP21 in Paris as part of the Bristol city-wide team, including the Mayor of Bristol, representatives from Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. He and other Cabot Institute members will be writing blogs during COP21, reflecting on what is happening in Paris, especially in the Paris and Bristol co-hosted Cities and Regions Pavilion, and also on the conclusion to Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital.  Follow #UoBGreen and #COP21 for live updates from the University of Bristol.  All blogs in the series are linked to at the bottom of this blog.
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I am on the train from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington and then on to Paris. It seems appropriate leaving from a station that was built by Brunel, a symbol of the industrial revolution but also innovation. Tomorrow, I will be joining George Ferguson, Stephen Hilton of Bristol City Council, Amy Robinson of Low Carbon Southwest and others at the Sustainable Innovation Forum. I appreciate that addressing climate change means changing some aspects of how we live, but it also requires some fundamentally new technology; I am excited to see where the cutting edge thinking is.  Meanwhile, over a relatively calm weekend, the draft accord has been made public – there have been some significant advances but also a ways to go.  Negotiations will be continuing in earnest!  More on all of that tomorrow (I hope – it will be a long day).  

Today, however, my attention is elsewhere as our postgrads, research fellows and academic staff make their final preparations for the Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).  The science goes on – as it must and will, regardless of the Paris negotiations. We still know far too little about the complexity of this magnificent planet, how to best live on it sustainably, and the imminent and the longer-term impacts of climate and wider environmental change.  
In my own research group (the OGU), my colleagues will be talking about increases in extreme rainfall during a past global warming event that is potentially analogous to the warming of today (see Matthew Carmichael's research); the latest reconstructions of how carbon dioxide concentrations have changed over the past 3 million years (see Marcus Badger's research); and the long-term controls on the hydrological cycle of the Mediterranean region (see Jan Peter Mayser's research). All of them are collaborating with climate modellers in BRIDGE. Others in BRIDGE will be discussing how to improve the next generation of Earth System models, how to forecast land use impacts on the atmosphere, and examining the biological consequences of past ocean acidification events.  Anita Ganesan and Matt Rigby are both presenting talks on methane cycling and monitoring – a reminder that CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas and that cars and cities are not the only cause of global warming.  Our glaciologists are exploring the future of the ice sheets and glaciers. Our civil engineers and geographers are presenting the latest research on all aspects of the hydrological cycle: improved models of catchments; better flood and drought forecasting; and better understanding how land use change has affected the chemistry of our rivers.  

Through all of this, there is a persistent and recurring theme of constraining uncertainty as well as understanding uncertainty in the context of decision-making. Scientists, industry and leaders must develop better tools for navigating environmental uncertainty, a focus of the Cabot Institute in 2015 and for which the need has been aptly demonstrated by Storm Desmond’s impact on Cumbria.
It is a remarkable variety of research – and that is just a sample from the University of Bristol.  
I’m never apologetic about promoting Bristol achievements and activity – it is what I know best, it is world-leading and it is my job!  Here, however, singling out these Bristol-centric contributions makes a stronger point; the above are just a few examples of the research conducted in just one institution.  Some 20,000 scientists will attend AGU!  There is profound and diverse effort devoted to understanding our planet and improving how we live upon it.

A fantastic example of some research being led by our colleagues will be on display in London on Monday as part of a Royal Society Discussion Meeting on the Biological and Climatic Impacts of Ocean Trace Element Chemistry. The event is co-convened by our Oxford friend, colleague and frequent collaborator, Gideon Henderson. Chatting to Gideon a few days ago, he emphasised the importance of the ocean in regulating our climate: ‘The oceans consume 27% of the carbon we emit, after all, and the ocean biosphere naturally consumes 11 Gtonnes of C per year.’ This is a huge issue. Currently, the ocean buffers the atmosphere against human action – but it is unclear how long this will continue.  Moreover, the ocean does so at a cost:

  • As the ocean absorbs energy, it warms. 
  • As the ocean absorbs this carbon, its pH declines. 
  • As marine phytoplankton assimilate this carbon and sink, they change the chemical state of the ocean, from top to bottom, creating oxygen dead zones and transforming the redox state of trace but biologically vital elements.   

This research is an important reminder that the issues associated with rising greenhouse gas concentrations encompass more than just the weather – greenhouse gases are changing the chemistry, physics and biology of our planet, with unclear consequences.  Their full synergistic effects, through these complex biogeochemical systems, remain difficult to anticipate. Their consequences difficult to predict. 

And so, as the negotiations continue, we continue our research.  On the oceans and the tropical rain forests; the deserts of the Sahara and the Arctic; the peatlands and permafrost; the soils and the bedrock beneath; the atmosphere and the cryosphere.  On the plants, animals and microorganisms that coexist with and co-regulate these ecosystems.  And of course, the people dependent on them.
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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.  For more information about the University of Bristol at COP21, please visit bristol.ac.uk/green-capital
Prof Rich Pancost

This blog is part of a COP21 daily report series. View other blogs in the series below:

Monday 30 November: COP21 daily report


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