Climate change takes centre stage at Cambridge Science Festival

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From deadly heatwaves, global mega-fires and devastating floods to melting ice sheets and ecosystems under threat of extinction. This is what we are faced with. 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 9 – 22 March. Bookings open on Monday 10th February and all events are free.

Events kick off on 9th March with 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. Overwhelmingly, scientists are of the opinion that this is largely because of gases released into the atmosphere by human activities. How can we be 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 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees. 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. During the discussion Climate change and biodiversity: time for action (12 March), 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 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,” she said. 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 Brazilian Amazonia and Indonesia’s peat swamp forests. Dr Rachel Carmenta, Department of Geography, discusses 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 also plans to reference fires raging in other regions of the world (eg Australia, Alaska, California).

“What is distinguishing about the tropical contexts is that these regions are not fire adapted,” Dr Carmenta said. “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.

“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?

“Almost 90% of our worldwide energy needs are currently satisfied by fossil fuels,” Professor Hochgreb said. “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.

Other related events include:

  • Plants inspiring technological innovation (9 March – ongoing). This new trail around the Botanic Garden showcases plants that have already solved many of the problems that we are currently facing.
  • Alvearium: there is no plan bee (9 – 20 March, weekday only). An interactive art installation exploring the Climate Bee-Mergency challenges participants to investigate the effects a possible extinction of honeybees could have on pioneering medical research.
  • Walking on thin ice (10 – 22 March). A co-curated exhibition about climate change based on the vision of 12 teenagers selected from around the UK to work directly with polar researchers. The Polar Museum team discuss the exhibition during an event on 13th March.  
  • An introduction into tree-ring research (9 – 11 March). The Department of Geography explains how tree rings are used to investigate past climate and environmental variability several centuries-to-millennia ago.
  • Beyond 2020: what next for global biodiversity? (11 March). Conservationists from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative reflect on the achievements following the 2011 Aichi Biodiversity Targets as they reach the end of their implementation period in 2020.
  • Civil engineering in a changing world (11 March). From safe water supplies and flood defences to driverless cars and the A14 improvements, Nick Baveystock, Director General of the Institution of Civil Engineers, looks at global infrastructure and the challenges of planning for the impact of increasing populations, climate change and technology.
  • Nuclear energy: visions of the past, present and future (14 March). Nuclear energy researchers discuss the looming climate crisis and whether nuclear energy could now provide a clean, sustainable and reliable energy source. 
  • Plastic planet (14 March). Dr Claire Barlow, Department of Engineering, looks at the environmental consequences of plastics for packaging and examines the alternatives.
  • 2050: a new world (15 March). How will we adapt to climate change? What would you be willing to change for a sustainable, resilient life? Own your vision of the future with this board game and explore how your choices impact society in 2050.
  • The climate change emergency (15 March). If we continue to emit greenhouse gases as today, we will alter our world unimaginably. Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero, explains the science of climate change and discusses what we need to do to avert disaster.
  • Meet your friendly neighbourhood climate scientists (17 March). Local climate and polar science experts at the British Antarctic Survey discuss climate science and plans for the new RRS Sir David Attenborough, one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world.
  • Art and science for a future planet (18 March). Dr Joanna Page, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics, presents innovative multimedia art projects that draw on new scientific research to help us imagine more sustainable relationships between humans, technology and the environment.
  • Changing climate: lessons from the history of the climate sciences (18 March). Dr Richard Staley, History and Philosophy of Science, investigates the complex relations between making and knowing climates. He focuses on changing perspectives on climatic eras to explore the tensions scientists experience when attempting to achieve political and economic change for the sake of the future.
  • Mathematics: a tool kit to tackle climate change (22 March). Climate scientist, mathematician, co-author of the Ladybird book Climate Change and Director of Cambridge Zero, Dr Emily Shuckburgh talks about her research on modelling the localised effects of climate change including floods, droughts and extreme weather.

Download the full programme here>>>

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This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, Illumina, TTP Group, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Epigenetix, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent. 

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