The future of climate change
26 August 2014
There are few scientists with a working life as varied as Professor Jason Lowe's. As Head of Knowledge Integration and Mitigation Advice and lead scientist for the AVOID programme at the Met Office, his roles are about both scientific research and communicating his findings and those of his colleagues in the clearest - and most impactful - way possible.
In recent months Jason's focus has been on trying to understand how new climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will have a practical impact on the choice of future global temperature limits and the emissions pathways to achieve them.
The IPCC's third working group report (WGIII), to which Jason was a contributing author, was released in April. It focused on trends and changes in manmade emissions in recent decades then looked at how future increases in warming might be avoided. It was a globally significant undertaking, drawing on the work of over 400 authors and almost 900 reviewers from around the world.
"The WGIII report outlines the future pathways of greenhouse emissions that will be needed to achieve a limit on future warming and the types of technologies that might be available to do it," says Jason.
Peak, then trough
A key conclusion from WGIII and the Met Office-led AVOID programme - that advises UK government on avoiding dangerous climate change - is that in order to have a reasonable chance of limiting climate change to levels that the world has deemed acceptable, greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak in the near future then decline year on year.
And the sooner the better - because, in Jason's words, peaking early is the route to "minimising the amount of future warming, of future climate change, and future impacts."
For Jason, building trust in projections of what the future may be like often involves looking backwards as well as looking forward. "Understanding whether there has been a change, whether that change is unusual, and whether there's a human fingerprint is really the underpinning of all climate change policy."
"When talking about the consequences of climate change, really we're talking about the future of society."
Informing decisions now that could impact the earth for many years to come would intimidate many - it's estimated that current decisions are affecting the global landscape as far away as the year 2100 or even beyond - but Jason has a different take.
"The contrast of the immediacy of policy decision-making - to the very long periods of time you have to live with the climate consequences of decisions is something I personally find fascinating."
Knowledge is king, communication is key
Knowledge of climate change is vital - but it's only part of the picture. To really make a difference, research needs to be communicated to the right people - in the right way and at the time it is needed. A large part of Jason's role as Head of the Met Office's Knowledge Integration team involves providing impartial advice to policy-makers in governments around the world.
"It's all about summarising, synthesising and translating the science coming out of the climate programme at the Hadley Centre for use in policy."
Many of the people he needs to communicate with don't come from a scientific background. And so Jason recognises the importance of conveying findings in meaningful ways. It's an aspect of his work that he finds particularly rewarding.
"Finding ways to communicate across disciplines so you can introduce people to new, and relevant pieces of science is often as exciting as performing the scientific research itself."
Taking out the CO2
Looking to the future, Jason believes the idea of enhanced carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, or negative emissions, is fast becoming a 'hot topic' in climate science. It's a mitigation approach that poses the possibility of 'sucking' carbon dioxide from the air artificially, for instance through the use of biofuels combined with carbon capture and storage technologies.
Working Group III put this concept on the international agenda, and Jason and colleagues are already exploring the theory through AVOID 2. The Met Office has been investigating how different levels of CO2 removal could impact on future climate change - and the implications for rates of reduction of global fossil fuel use. But this inevitably involves exploring the potential side effects of this route, such as the implications for food production. As Jason explains, "If you're using the land to grow biofuels, obviously you can't grow food on it as well."
As the international climate negotiations enter a critical phase and build towards a major conference in 2015 attended by leaders from across the globe, we are likely to hear much more of these issues, but the Met Office Hadley Centre will continue to provide clear information. As Jason puts it, "both my research and knowledge integration teams are focused on providing relevant and impartial scientific advice to help society plan for the future whichever emissions pathway we eventually choose to follow".
Avoiding dangerous climate change
- Established in 2009, the AVOID research programme is now in its second phase.
- It provides sound scientific advice to UK government analysts and policy-makers, informing climate change discussions and policy.
- AVOID 2 will run over two years in the lead up to international climate change negotiations - the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - in Paris 2015.
- AVOID 2 draws on results from the across the National Climate Capability, which is led by the Met Office Hadley Centre.
- Funded by UK Government, AVOID saw scientists at the Met Office Hadley Centre working alongside experts in three other leading climate organisations: the Walker Institute at the University of Reading, Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College and Tyndall Centre through the University of East Anglia. Many other national and international collaborators contributed to this vital work through the AVOID network.