We are being faced with deadly heatwaves, global mega-fires and devastating floods, melting ice sheets and ecosystems under threat of extinction.
What do we need to do? What could happen if we don’t act now? How long do we have to act?
Cambridge Science Festival examines the science and suggests actions and solutions, from growing food underground and new forms of energy provision to fit-for-purpose policies and government interventions. The Festival runs from Monday, 9 March 2020 through to Sunday, 22 March 2020. Bookings open on Monday, 10 February 2020 and all events are free.
Events kick off with a focus on climate change: what it means and what we can do about it.
The world is warming at a rate faster than has been observed in the past. Scientists have confirmed climate change is being driven by gases released into the atmosphere by human activities, including burning fossil fuels. So why are we sure that this is the case? Does it matter? What can we say about the future?
Professor Emerita Joanna Haigh, Imperial College London, looks at the scientific evidence for climate change and discusses how increasing concentrations of ‘greenhouse gases’ (GHGs) impacts on temperature, sea level and weather patterns.
She also considers what needs to be done to reduce GHG emissions for the world to avoid dangerous levels of warming, and where we are heading following the UN climate change agreements.
Professor Haigh said: “At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris, countries unanimously agreed to keep the global temperature rise this century below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.”
Haigh continued: “To achieve that, scientific studies have shown the need for urgent and concerted effort across all sectors of the economy.
“This places demands on electricity generation, heating of buildings, transport, industrial processes, agriculture and business and will only be achieved if governments not only design policy but also provide support for its effective implementation.
“Individuals can contribute in several ways including saving energy, less flying, eating less meat and, importantly, both lobbying political representatives and spreading the word more widely. On a positive note, there are many additional benefits from acting on climate change including better air quality, improved health and lower energy bills.”
Climate change and biodiversity are closely interwoven, and we have seen in recent months a dramatic increase in awareness and activism on both.
The event ‘Climate change and biodiversity: time for action’ will take place on Thursday, 12 March 2020. Speakers include Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees; environmental campaigner, Baroness Bryony Worthington; director of Cambridge Zero, Dr Emily Shuckburgh; and Professor Emeritus of Economics, Sir Partha Dasgupta,
The discussion will consider the urgency of our predicament and explore options for action. The event is Chaired by science writer and editor Oliver Morton.
Lord Rees believes the UK should take a lead on developing the scientific and technological advances required to provide carbon-free energy for 9 billion people – and enough food – without unduly despoiling the natural world.
Dr Shuckburgh states that responding to the climate and environment emergency on the scale and at the speed required is a gigantic challenge: “But it is also incredibly exciting. Today, we are at a defining moment for all of humanity.”
Baroness Worthington argues that there is a pressing need for commercial users of land (farming, commodity production, etc) to contribute to restoring biodiversity and making land a net positive sink of carbon.
Professor Sir Dasgupta added: “Global climate change and biodiversity loss influence each other; the influence is not unidirectional. Just ask what the climatic implications of the loss of major biomes (eg the Amazon rainforest) are likely to be.
“One might ask what would happen to life on Earth as we know it if life in the oceans was extinguished. The impacts go way, way beyond climate change.”
Oliver Morton said: “From corals and rain forests to tundra and deserts, climate change matters to all the natural world and its inhabitants - climate policy needs to take this into account both because of the intrinsic value of the natural world in all its glory and because humans depend on various relationships with the natural world in order to flourish.
“It can also benefit from understanding the ways in which preserving biodiversity can help limit climate change, for instance by storing up carbon. But this brings forth a dilemma.
“Climate action has two established modes: mitigation – eliminating fossil-fuel emissions wherever possible, and adaptation – re-arranging human infrastructure and livelihoods in such a way that the harm caused by climate change is reduced.
“Mitigation would seem to benefit the natural world as much as the human one. But as an approach to conserving nature adaptation is oddly problematic.
“To what extent is it right to interfere with nature for its own benefit – for example, to move species out of areas where they are unlikely to survive and into areas where they are not indigenous? If biodiversity is conserved by forcing it to adapt, does that not make the world decidedly more artificial? Do we have to kill the concept of the natural in order to save nature?”
Climate change is also partly responsible for the 2019 mega-fires that raged across the Brazilian Amazon and Indonesia’s peat swamp forests.
Dr Rachel Carmenta, Department of Geography, will discuss the extent of the fires, distinguishes between types of fires, assesses their drivers and impacts and considers the measures needed to mitigate future events during Smoke in the lungs of the earth (12 March). Dr Carmenta will also reference fires raging in other regions of the world (eg Australia, Alaska, California).
Dr Carmenta said: “What is distinguishing about the tropical contexts is that these regions are not fire adapted. These are moist, humid rainforests, which over ecological time have not experienced frequent fires and so the species have no resilience or adaptations to manage fire.
“Today, these lush green forests are drying and burning. The impacts are unprecedented. Due to climate change, forest degradation and fragmentation, forests are becoming more fire prone.
“This ecological reality coupled with more ignition sources as frontier regions are opened by a variety of groups, many of which also use fire, means that tropical wildfires are now a global challenge.”
Dr Carmenta continued: “Rather than a 'single nefarious fire', there are in fact multiple types of fire in these landscapes and that is important because measures need to be targeted to the specific fire types – eg pasture fires, deforestation fires, traditional agricultural fires.
“These types of fires all involve different groups with different sets of motivations and different sets of capacities to respond to fire management policies. As such, there is a need for policy to avoid one-size-fits-all approaches.”
Our daily activities are turning Earth into a too cosy place too fast. Two events investigate the future of our energy supply.
In 'The future of energy in a climate changing world' (14 March), Professor Simone Hochgreb, Department of Engineering asks: What are the realistic pathways for saving ourselves from collapse? How much change and investment will that take?
Professor Hochgreb said: “Almost 90 percent of our worldwide energy needs are currently satisfied by fossil fuels. Over the years, more and more fossil fuels have been mined to feed the existing infrastructure, at ever lower costs.
“Fossil fuels have so far fed humanity’s undeniably amazing development over the past century. Yet we are turning the CO2 sequestered by microorganisms into fuel over millions of years back into CO2 in a mere century or so.
“The consequences of the very fast release are now clearly felt by the planet and biosphere in the form of climate change and ocean acidification.
“How did we get here, and why is it so hard to wean ourselves of fossil fuels? Many experts have now seriously engaged with that question, and there are clearly realistic technical and financial pathways for creating plausible renewable/nuclear/electric in the next 50+ years, with long-term storage provided via hydrogen, ammonia or yet to be imagined means.
“The harder problem is to crack how to create a social tipping point, where CO2 emissions become legitimately taxable ‘sins’, and a source of revenue for non-emitting ‘virtues’.”
Halide perovskites, another example of future energy, are generating enormous excitement as next-generation solar cells and lighting technologies that can be produced at extremely low cost on flexible spools.
In ‘The future of perovskites for solar power and lighting’ (19 March), Dr Sam Stranks, Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, discusses their future as a groundbreaking technology and the challenges to get there.
He talks about some of the recent breakthroughs and how we might realistically see the first products by the end of 2020.
Dr Stranks said: “New, lightweight, flexible high-power perovskite solar panels will enable cheaper installation, better building integration, wider use such as for charging electric vehicles while driving and new communication models including high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, and huge potential for making an impact on the developing world especially remote communities.
“These materials seem to be very different than our usual semiconductors, and they are in many ways making us rewrite the textbook. For example, they exhibit a very remarkable tolerance to defects in the materials – tiny nano-scale blemishes that would otherwise render most solar technologies useless.
“This is a big reason for the excitement behind these materials – not just as future technologies, but they are also providing fascinating scientific insights, and a blueprint for other similarly ‘defect-tolerant’ materials.”
Food also comes under scrutiny in terms of tackling these global challenges.
In ‘Growing underground’ (12 March), Dr Ruchi Choudhary, Department of Engineering, presents data from the world’s first underground farm in World War II air-raid shelters in London and highlights the challenges and opportunities of growing food in abandoned city spaces.
In ‘Once upon a food system’ (10 March), Global Food Security’s Maia Elliott and bestselling author and BBC presenter Dr Adam Rutherford present a unique scientific storytelling event, where five scientists are challenged not only to inform food system change, but to inspire it.
Also, in ‘Our sustainable food journey’ (9 March), Nick White, University Catering Service, Emma Garnett, Department of Zoology, and Amy Munro-Faure, Environment and Energy Section, discuss how a Sustainable Food Policy at the University of Cambridge has dramatically reduced food-related carbon emissions.
This article is based on a press release from Cambridge Science Festival. Bookings open on Monday 10 February and all events are free.
Image: Cambridge Science Festival