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The latest virtual ‘Policy Lates’ event held by the RSB explored the vital role of the biosciences in mitigating the effects of global warming.

With the UN Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26) due to take place in a year’s time, over 100 participants joined an online event to hear a panel of experts representing land, sea and policy discuss how biology can contribute to tackling the current state of emergency.  

Introducing the speakers, deputy director of the Science Museum Dr Julia Knights FRSB reminded participants of the deep transformative action required. Even if all countries in the Paris Agreement from 2015 fulfil their pledges, the world will still be on track for a dangerous 3°C of warming by 2050, she said.

Climate crisis speakers NEW

The event's speakers, from left to right: Dr Julia Knights FRSB, Professor Pete Smith FRSB, Dr Carol Turley OBE and Nigel Topping


Professor Pete Smith FRSB, Professor of Soils & Global Change at the University of Aberdeen, outlined the huge impact nature-based climate solutions could have on removing and locking away carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These include measures like reforestation, wetland and peatland restoration, conservation agriculture and better fire management. In order to keep warming to 1.5°C by 2050, some land-use targets will be extremely challenging, such as the adoption of a plant-based diet by 50% of the global population over the next 30 years.

“The good news is that many of these land-based solutions deliver a range of co-benefits and contribute to the delivery of sustainable development goals,” he said.

Dr Carol Turley OBE, a senior scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, described how the world’s oceans had been “taking the heat” of climate change over the last few decades, absorbing 27% of the CO2 emitted since the pre-industrial era and 93% of the extra heat energy.

She warned that even if warming is limited to 2°C, this increase will have a harmful effect on many marine ecosystems and their ability to act as enormous carbon stores.

But the oceans offer the possibility of energy production and carbon sequestration on a vast scale, she said, including offshore wind, artificial reefs, connected macro-algal sediment systems, seaweed farming and carbon storage below the seabed.

With the UK government planning to quadruple offshore wind power by 2030, Turley said each new windfarm could be used like an experimental plot to compare different habitat creation and sequestration techniques below the waves. 

Nigel Topping, the UK’s High Level Climate Action Champion, explained how the forthcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow next year will work, and the five main strands of work being explored by the UK as hosts: phasing out the combustion engine; the transition to green energies, nature-based solutions, economic resilience and removing deforestation from supply chains.

He said in just the past few months, the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 had become the ‘new North Star’ of climate talks, with China and other large Asian countries committing to this or similar goals; a more climate-friendly incoming administration in the US; and with initiatives like the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign gathering momentum from businesses, cities and investors.

Following their talks, the speakers took questions on a range of topics including climate equity and justice, trade-offs and environmental tariffs, biofuels and mineral weathering, and the next UN Biodiversity Conference, due to be hosted in China in 2021 after being postponed this year.

The event concluded with speakers giving their view on the most important way biologists or biology could contribute to the climate change issue.

The speakers agreed that the world needs biology and biologists as much as ever, and the systems thinking involved in much of the biosciences is very important in developing climate solutions.

However, those working in the biosciences need to create and engage with multidisciplinary teams, including professions such as economists, in order for their work to have the most beneficial long-term impact for our environment and society.

This year our Policy Lates series is supported by the Biochemical Society, British Pharmacological Society, Society for Applied Microbiology, Society for Experimental Biology, and The Physiological Society.

Videos from from this event are available to watch online, and the RSB’s previous Policy Lates events on Healthy Ageing, Discovery Research and Antimicrobial Resistance are available on the RSB’s YouTube channel.