From our Institute-wide Grand Challenge call, we identified six broad themes of climate research challenges: adaptation and resilience, carbon removal, climate policy, climate science, human impacts, and reducing emissions. These themes are not independent, and many of the letters of interest proposed tackling more than one research category. The breadth of these themes highlights the need for Climate Grand Challenge efforts from all disciplines.
Adaptation and Resilience
Research on how to adapt and lessen the negative impacts of climate change includes efforts to develop more resilient housing stock, electric power systems, transportation, agriculture, and other infrastructure. Other research focuses on more effective early warning systems and emergency planning measures. The development of scientific models with sufficient spatial and temporal resolution for reliable, quantitative predictions of future climate risks at local scale is an important objective. Countering the human health impacts of climate change and environmental degradation will also be essential.
Achieving and sustaining net-zero emissions will almost certainly require cost-effective negative emissions technologies for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, as well as cost-effective CO2 capture technologies at power plants and industrial facilities, both constituting carbon removal. Advanced methods for long-term sequestration of CO2 are also under development, drawing on research on geological, biological, chemical, and oceanic processes as well as coastal ecosystems providing ‘sinks’ for atmospheric carbon.
Public sector leaders need climate policy innovations that can accelerate the development, demonstration, and introduction of promising new technologies for climate change mitigation. New policies that can overcome behavioral, economic, social, and political barriers to the adoption of these technologies are also important, as are those that help communities to adapt to the climate changes that will occur. Policy approaches that benefit low-income and other marginalized communities are essential. Evidence-based research on the effectiveness of alternative policy approaches for achieving these goals, as well as for rapid scaling of technological innovations, can leverage the results of investing in these innovations and may also help to guide the direction of future innovations.
Climate science research focuses on strategically important scientific problems whose solution will enable advances in the measurement, modelling, and forecasting of climate risks and will thereby enhance our ability to weigh these risks against the costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation. These scientific advances are being facilitated by the development of novel, low-cost sensor devices and platforms for observing the atmosphere, oceans, glaciers, and ecological systems, and by applying recent advances in computation and data science to the data acquired from these new observational platforms.
Whereas the wealthiest societies have emitted the most greenhouse gas emissions per capita, the poorest societies are often at greatest risk from rising sea levels, increasingly powerful storms, wildfires, disease vectors, and disruptions to water and food supplies. Applying ecological, engineering, and urban resilience principles to social and community systems may also lead to procedural and distributive inequities. Research on human impacts focuses on measuring the distributional effects of climate-related phenomena and of the transition to low-carbon, more resilient communities, and is also focused on more inclusive and equitable strategies for climate action.
Much of the global economy is still heavily dependent on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Research on reducing emissions is focused on decarbonizing the global energy infrastructure, including tough-to-decarbonize sectors such as long-distance transportation, chemical refining, textile manufacturing, and cement and fertilizer production. Renewable fuels and advanced fission technologies will also feature in future low-carbon energy supply systems. Re-using construction materials and the circular economy are other key areas of research.