Climate Crisis – Views from the University of Helsinki

Climate Crisis – Views from the University of Helsinki

In the sumptuous and august surroundings of the Reform Club library, three speakers presented their perspectives on the climate crisis and some proposals for action.  Hosted by Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s Energy and Environment Analyst, the session was opened with an introduction from Tarja Halonen, ex-President of Finland.  She welcomed the opportunity to share the thinking of Finland’s leading climate change researchers, who she saw as embodying the best of Finnish culture – stubborn and creative, with a strong sense of solidarity.

The opening speaker was Markku Kulmala, leader of the University of Helsinki’s Division of Atmospheric Science.  He called for climate action to be grounded in solid data, and for the creation of a “global earth observatory”. In that way we can reduce the scientific uncertainties concerning global climate change, and analyse important feedback loops between CO2 and aerosol particles.  The carbon sink cycle binds in carbon through photosynthesis, creating more aerosol particles and a positive feedback loop that accelerates photosynthesis.

He was also concerned about the link with air pollution, especially in China, but in megacities generally.  More data was needed, and data mining techniques employed, to fully understand these processes, which centre more around particulates, NOx and ozone.

Roger questioned whether taking 20 years to gather more data was really appropriate at a time of crisis, and asked what Markku would do immediately, what he would prioritise spend on. Although he conceded there may be some quick wins, the Professor was adamant that better data was the key thing – if countries are to be rewarded for their climate sinks, then measurement is essential.  Members of the audience seemed generally to side with Roger on the need for action – perhaps not surprising as most of those attending would presumably already have been interested in averting climate disaster, otherwise they would not have been there. Discussion centred around technology and life-style solutions, with a concern about the limitations of carbon sinks.

The second speaker, Mari Pihlatie, looked to answer how agriculture could solve the climate crisis. Soils are losing carbon to the atmosphere, and becoming less productive as a consequence. Photosynthesis binds carbon into the soil, but the overall effect is more complex as the carbon feeds bacteria which emit more carbon.  She identified a number of  ways for agriculture to help:

      • Maximise soil cover to reduce carbon emissions
      • Crop diversity to provide continuous photosynthesis
      • Keep roots moist (to reduce carbon emissions by bacteria)
      • Integrate livestock with arable farming so that manure is part of the cycle.

Mari warned us that other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide were important too. Methane was emitted more from wet areas; N2O effects were 300 times that of CO2.

This all had implications for agricultural policy, where governments needed to get farmers to treat the soil well, with a long-term perspective, rather than relying on fertilisers.  It should be a Win-Win approach, reducing carbon emissions, but also making land more profitable for farming.

Questioned about “wilding” policies, Mari suggested that improving bio-diversity made agricultural systems more resilient, more resistant to new infections without the need for pesticides.  She also noted that there was a saturation point for carbon in soil, but at around 9% there was considerable scope for improvement as generally we were around 2% now.

Sasu Tarkoma, Head of Department of Computer Science, spoke about using 5G, the internet of things, and AI to address issues of air pollution in megacities. He described  a project – “Megasense” – that combined the readings of low-cost sensors carried by members of the public with more accurate fixed sensors.  With a relatively small number of volunteers, it was possible to produce quite accurate pollution maps of a city – Edinburgh and a number of other cities were also participating in the project.  The prototype sensor could track up to 10 different parameters.

Sasu speculated that widespread availability of such sensors could lead to increased citizen engagement and pressure for political change.  Greater awareness of the risks to one’s health not only allows people to modify their behaviour (taking less polluted routes to work, jogging at different times), but to produce hard evidence of the need for change.

This point was taken up in the discussion. Roger Harrabin gave an example of Camden, which had high levels of pollution despite low car ownership, probably due to through traffic – the rich imposing poor health on the poor.  Monitoring pollution around houses would have an impact on property prices.  Others suggested that the system, as being for the common good, should have personal benefits as well – personal health tracking, alarms at high pollution levels.

This discussion echoed the message from a SAMI Consulting horizon scanning project for the Dept for Transport, which identified wearables monitoring air pollution as a force that would increase calls for action. It seems that low-cost sensors are not far away now.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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