A 360-degree view of CO2
As pioneers of global climate change research, we have had a significant impact on international strategies to tackle it, including the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015. Put simply, our research has shaped the world’s response to climate change.
Environmental science researchers at UEA have played a prominent role in establishing carbon budgets. Their work tracking and increasing knowledge on the trends in global emissions and sinks of carbon is crucial for maintaining an accurate understanding of the evolution of the world’s climate, determining meaningful targets for reductions in carbon emissions, and providing early warning of weakening in the efficiency of carbon sinks.
UEA researchers have led high profile studies showing the sensitivity of the ocean carbon sink to climate and demonstrated that it is possible to accurately observe the carbon flux in an ocean basin using instrumented commercial vessels.
Our researchers have also advanced our understanding of how marine ecosystems contribute to the carbon cycle and they are pursuing the science of emissions verification using atmospheric trace gas measurements, testing a new technique that shows that oxygen measurements in the atmosphere can be used to attribute how much of the atmospheric CO2 concentration is from anthropogenic emissions and how much is due to natural processes.
The Global Carbon Budget
The Global Carbon Project is an international programme established in 2001. It aims to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle and inform climate policy. It draws heavily on UEA's ocean carbon cycle research and gives up-to-date insights into the underlying drivers of global CO2 emissions and climate change.
In 2004, UEA’s Prof Corinne Le Quéré, instigated the release of annual carbon budgets within the Global Carbon Project. The first Global Carbon Budget, published in 2006, identified that global carbon emissions were increasing beyond expectations. By 2014, the growth in emissions slowed to 1%, before rising again in 2017 and 2018.
During the lockdowns of 2020, worldwide emissions fell by 5.4%, but they have since rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels.
Our Global Carbon Budget research is highly cited by influential opinion sources, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (The IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.)
Our role in the Paris Agreement
Most countries have committed to pursue efforts to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, and to achieve a balance between emissions and sinks of greenhouse gases as part of the landmark intergovernmental Paris Agreement on climate change. (Read how UEA helped set pre-industrial levels.) Our research contributed to enshrining these objectives into the Paris Agreement and, crucially, demonstrating that they are indeed achievable.
Our work also led to a wider understanding of the importance of balancing the emissions and sinks of greenhouse gases following the presentation of the Global Carbon Budget results by Prof Le Quéré at the June 2015 Structured Expert Dialogue of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN body tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change. The meeting’s report would act as the basis of the scientific text of the Paris Agreement and the global carbon budget is also extensively cited in the IPCC 5th Assessment report and in the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) Emissions Gap Reports of 2013 and 2014, all of which were core to the scientific basis of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Our work has led to a wider understanding of the importance of balancing the emissions and sinks of greenhouse gases"
Our researchers have also provided evidence and expert advice on how to translate these objectives into national net-zero targets in the UK and France, while supporting similar initiatives in the EU and further afield.
The UK Net-Zero target for year 2050 was passed into law in 2019, adopting the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) whose report includes multiple contributions from UEA authors and was informed by an advisory group which included contributions from Dr Nem Vaughan and Prof Charlie Wilson. UEA researchers have also provided multiple briefings to policymakers and, in 2018, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy received our advice how to respond to the Paris Agreement, culminating in a training day for 75 senior civil servants and political advisors.
Prof Le Quéré, who serves on the CCC, has also influenced net-zero targets across the channel. The French target for 2050 was strengthened in November 2019 in response to a report led by Prof Le Quéré, who was nominated the first Chair of the new French Haut Conseil pour le Climat (HCC), an independent advisory body inspired by the UK’s CCC. She presented the recommendations of the first HCC report in July 2019, and the French government have taken a number of actions in response, including the inclusion in law of a future target for international transport and consumption emissions and a recommendation to frame the economic stimulus response of the Government within the limits of the climate. This has later resulted in €30billion of green investment.
Prof Charlie Wilson’s work has had far reaching impacts. His work was instrumental in establishing an inter-governmental clean energy innovation initiative launched alongside the Paris Agreement, as well as the Exponential Carbon Roadmap, an initiative of the global science network Future Earth. He authored the '1.5°C Compatible Pathfinder Framework’ published by Mission Innovation, advised the Mission Innovation secretariat on strategy, and co-authored the ‘Meeting the 1.5 Climate Ambition’ report that set out measures for halving emissions every decade to 2050.
UEA researchers have been highly influential and played an important role in ensuring the world understands the challenge of climate change and is equipped with the knowledge of how to tackle it. They’ve taken part in extensive public engagement, which is, in part, demonstrated through the use of data, figures and commentaries by others.
This includes influential leaders and top UN bodies use of the Global Carbon Budget as a reference on the state of carbon emissions; former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, now UN envoy for climate change action, in his report concluding that climate change risks are “far-reaching in breadth and magnitude”; popular author Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, a New York Times bestseller, which heavily cites the Global Carbon Budget and broader research by the UEA-led Tyndall Centre; the UN Secretary General who talked about the global carbon project results in his opening presentation at COP22 in Bonn, 2017; and former UNFCCC Chief Christiana Figueres who set out a six-point plan for turning the tide on climate change using global carbon project data and invited Prof Le Quéré to co-author a Nature Commentary in 2018.
Furthermore, the Global Carbon Budget repeatedly achieves worldwide coverage in the media, reaching more than 2 billion people each year (equivalent to an advertising spend of $25million). The use of the Global Carbon Atlas, set up by a team including Prof Le Quéré is growing, with peak use correlated to events related to climate change.
Policies have been successful to varying degrees in deploying low-carbon technologies, such as solar, wind and electric vehicles. But these often add to existing demand for energy rather than displacing technologies that emit CO2, particularly in countries where energy demand is growing. We need broader policies that are targeted at phasing out the use of fossil fuels.” - Prof Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Professor at UEA's School of Environmental Sciences
The COVID-19 analysis of CO2 emissions of Prof Le Quéré also achieved unprecedented media coverage, was in the top 1% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric and ranked in 12th position of the Altmetric top 100 research papers that most captured the public imagination.
This provided mass exposure to its conclusion that economic stimulus post-COVID will influence the course of CO2 emissions in the long term.
Read on: Prof Le Quéré, ClimateUEA
Related content / sources
A timeline of UEA’s climate research, ClimateUEA
One UEA PhD student’s journey to deep within the Arctic circle
Is it an emergency - Why Haven't We Solved It Yet? podcast with Prof Corinne Le Quéré