UEA professor wins international environmental sciences prize for climate change research

The pioneering research of Prof Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA’s) School of Environmental Sciences, into the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans has won a prestigious international prize.

The Heineken Prizes for Arts and Sciences are the Netherlands’ most prestigious international science prizes and are awarded every two years to five researchers performing outstanding work in their fields.

Prof Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor of Climate Change Science at UEA, was awarded this year’s Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences for her interdisciplinary research on the interactions between climate change and the carbon cycle.

Prof Le Quéré has meticulously kept track of the role of the oceans in absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) by charting the processes involved.

Human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation now cause annual emissions of 43 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. About 30% of this is absorbed by trees and plants. The world’s oceans absorb about 25% because CO2 dissolves in water at the air-sea interface and is transported to the deep ocean by currents. The remaining 45% stays in the atmosphere and causes climate change.

Together with colleagues, Prof. Le Quéré has identified why the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere varies on different timescales. Some of the variations are caused, for example, by changes in marine productivity during ice ages and by changes in oceanic CO2 uptake from varying ocean currents.

Prof Le Quéré was the first to identify a possible weakening in CO2 uptake in the Antarctic Ocean associated with ozone depletion, and to quantify the impact of climate change and variability on global CO2 uptake in the oceans in recent decades.

Prof Le Quéré said: “I feel very honoured and humbled to have been awarded this prize, particularly at a time when there is so much vital and pioneering work being undertaken across the world in Environmental Sciences.

“Global environmental sustainability and climate stabilisation are necessary foundations for a peaceful and thriving humanity, and I feel privileged that I can play a role in accompanying these objectives with my work.

“Awards are not the reason why any researcher enters their field or spends the hours devoted to advance understanding, but it is nonetheless very gratifying to be recognised by your peers on something that you devote your time, energy and heart to.”

Prof Le Quéré directed the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research before she was appointed Royal Society Research Professor of Climate Change Science at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences in 2019.

She is also Chair of France’s High Council on Climate (‘Haut conseil pour le Climat’), an independent advisory body set up by President Macron to advise the French government on how to deal with climate change. She was nominated for the prize by her UEA colleague, Emeritus Professor Peter Liss.

Prof Liss said: “The award of the prestigious Heineken Prize to Prof Le Quéré is a fitting tribute to the excellence of her research in environmental sciences.

“She is a world leader in the study of how the oceans absorb carbon dioxide, in particular the role of micro-organisms in that uptake. In addition, she initiated the Global Carbon Budget, which each year publishes an analysis of the carbon dioxide emissions of countries around the world.”

Along with the award, Prof Le Quéré receives $200,000 (around £162,000) as part of the prize. She intends to use most of the price to advance her research in the field.

Prof Le Quéré will be sharing her expertise on carbon emissions and climate change when she delivers an online UEA London Lecture, for which tickets for members of the public are still available, on Thursday 11 June at 6.30pm.

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