AXIS Research Programme Coordinator Rolf von Kuhlmann explains why connecting scientific disciplines with society is crucial for climate change policy
With the European Green Deal, the European Commission has set an ambitious goal for climate action including making Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050 and devising a new strategy for adaptation to climate change. To make this even more challenging, it is embedded in the wider goal of achieving sustainability, as framed in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet, the most recent UNEP Adaptation Gap Report finds that neither current public nor private finance are presently sufficient to narrow the adaptation finance gap.
Undoubtedly, the European Green Deal will require profound structural changes in all areas of society. It will require significant investments as well as research and innovation in all sectors such as energy, transport and mobility, agricultural systems, and forestry. At the same time, these key sectors for climate mitigation are exposed to risks by climate change. Thus, cost-effective strategies are needed to strengthen climate-proofing, resilience building, prevention and preparedness, and to include climate change into risk management practices.
This is where climate impact research comes into the picture. Climate impact research is answering the “what if” questions related to future climate developments:
- What climate impacts are to be expected under given scenario assumptions for mitigation?
- And consequentially, what adaptation requirements result from specific pathways on regional, local and sectoral levels?
- How can adaptation and mitigation perspectives be combined into a robust and economically and socially balanced sustainability strategy?
New directions for climate change policy
The key message is that the world’s ambitious mitigation plans will be impacted by climate change: The increased demand for bio-energy crops in low-emission scenarios (needed to replace fossil-based feedstocks and energy) is threatened by droughts. Natural land sinks for carbon dioxide (in the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry sectors) are incorporated in the emissions accounting to off-set remaining emissions, but are affected by e.g., forest decline and land degradation due to climate change. These dynamics call for more integrated assessments of mitigation measures and climate impacts. To this end, also an improved understanding and consideration of interactions between several impacted sectors is required.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (AR5) did in fact point out some major research gaps regarding these interconnections: The majority of studies of climate impacts typically describe a single sector or a single region. The IPCC AR5 identified this as a major barrier in developing successful and cost-effective adaptation strategies. Among others the community-driven Inter-sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project (ISIMIP) has been established to address this research gap. The strong fragmentation of climate impact studies into single disciplines has also made impact research results less accessible for inclusion into integrated energy-economy models commonly used to derive future mitigation pathways. Furthermore, other aspects of sustainability such as biodiversity or equity have rarely been covered.
To address these gaps and generate holistic knowledge on climate impact research, eleven national funding organisations from the Joint Programming Initiative JPI Climate, co-funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, initiated the Research Programme AXIS: Assessment of Cross(X) – sectoral climate Impacts and pathways for Sustainable transformation. AXIS aims at promoting cross-boundary, cross-community research to improve the coherence, integration and robustness of climate impact research and connect it to sustainable development.
Several projects within the AXIS programme study interactions involving land-use as a key element that connects sectors: For instance, the project LAMACLIMA (see box with project links on the right) investigates the effects of three major types of land management options – re/afforestation, irrigation and wood harvest – and their interactions with the climate system on several sectors. Some projects include yet largely unexplored processes such as the role of climate and land use changes on pollinators and their impact on crop yields (à MAPPY). Pollinators – like bees – are not only affected by chemicals used in agricultural practices, but also by the reduction of their habitats. The magnitude of the effects still remains largely unknown.
Other projects address weak spots of large-scale economy-climate models. These so-called integrated assessment models are commonly used to explore pathways of society for the coming decades of transition. How can – aside from generally projected macroeconomic parameters – distributional effects of climate change be better accounted for in such models? What are the effects of a tropical cyclone or a European carbon price on poor and rich households? (à CHIPS)
The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development further contributes to this complexity: When devising mitigation pathways, the ability of these scenarios to make progress on several SDGs has rarely been studied. The project SHAPE aims to analyse how trade-offs between goals can be avoided and synergies be enhanced.
While individual research projects under the AXIS research programme will generate new insights into these complex interactions, a framework for routinely generating stakeholder-driven integrated pathways is still lacking. Close collaboration of researchers and stakeholders will be critical to determine whether the progress through AXIS and a condensation into truly integrated scenarios will be seen as academic exercises or whether they can generate traction in the real world. Certainly, the coming decade will be decisive for climate research to shape the implementation of the European Green Deal.
More information in Open Access Government edition 15 March, 2021