Science and industry can provide opportunities for our common future

By Mark Stafford SmithJuly 13th, 2015

Scientists met in Paris recently for the major scientific conference in the lead up to November's UN climate change negotiations. They believe limiting warming to 2˚C is economically feasible, and can be an important contributor to sustainable economic growth.
Satellite image showing cyclone and Queensland coast

Tropical cyclone Marcia off the Queensland coast. Image NASA.

The Our Common Future under Climate Change conference in Paris last week was the major scientific conference in the lead up to the climate change negotiations at COP21 (the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Paris in November this year.

Reports at the conference have shown that limiting warming to 2˚C is economically feasible, and can be an important contributor to sustainable economic growth.

CSIRO and other Australian research and innovation is contributing to the options in this solutions space, in small ways and large. For example, research presented by CSIRO’s Elvira Poloczanska and others at the conference explores how the world’s oceans are likely to change in the future.

Australia has the world’s third largest fishing zone, the $2 billion commercial fishing and aquaculture industry employs over 11,000 people, and our oceans contribute nearly $40 billion to the Australian economy each year. Science to inform decisions in this domain is vital, and information is already helping the fishing industry around Australia understand the changing locations of their intended catches as species like tuna rapidly track the effects of warming waters and changing currents.

A key challenge for the world is to deliver a rapid increase in energy efficiency. This can help businesses reduce their energy costs, and at the same time create new businesses in the delivery of biofuels and other renewables. Australia has an abundance of clean energy options from which to choose, and our future will undoubtedly involve a wider range of different energy sources, and research can advise decisions on the costs of benefits of different contributions to Australia’s future energy mix.

An array of mirrors in front of a tower

CSIRO’s solar research is at the forefront of carbon emission reduction technology. Image: CSIRO

Research is also assisting industry to reduce its lost income and repair costs from current and future climate risks. The floods in Queensland in 2011 not only cost the economy a great deal but also shut down the mining industry for an extended period. Short term forecasts can help businesses prepare for these events. Within the private sector, as in the case of the resources industry, a decision to shut down oil and gas operations is expensive and logistically complicated, but a decision not to do so can be fatal and perhaps even more expensive.

New research on medium term forecasts has the potential to provide much earlier warning of challenging periods. For example, over the past decade, through the Collaboration for Australian Weather and Climate Research, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO have developed a national capability weather prediction and climate simulation called ACCESS (the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator). In the last eight years, Australia’s forecasts of cyclone tracks have improved by around 25 per cent, with one-day forecasts now accurate to within about 90km. Advance warning of weather events are 25 to 30% more skilful than 5 years ago.

Such predictions for decision-making will become even more important with a changing climate. Climate projections of frequency, intensity, duration and trajectory of high impact extreme events, such as tropical cyclones, enable long-term planning and investment to manage future risks and ameliorate impacts. For example, investment in infrastructure requires planning far into the future so engineering design must incorporate climate change impacts resulting from sea level rise and increasing severity of storms.

Large meeting room with people in seats and one many shown on a laptop with headphones

Scientists from around the world came together in Paris for the Our Common Future Conference to discuss climate change solutions. Image: INRA/C. Maitre

These areas of innovation exemplify the major solutions-oriented theme of the conference statement. The conference statement, released on Friday, re-affirms the importance of human actions in driving global warming. It emphasises what it calls “the solutions space”, instead of piling on more problems.

The statement also suggests that there can be many co-benefits that improve human well-being today – protection from climate variability, reduced damages from pollution, a variety of immediate contributions to sustainable development, as well as many opportunities for business.

Countries and businesses throughout the world are acting on climate in many different ways. Some of these have the potential to undermine the Australian economy, while others provide new opportunities where Australian expertise has a great deal to offer. There are many ways in which research and industry must continue to interact to provide business opportunities in responding to our changing climate.

Dr Mark Stafford Smith is a member of the Scientific Organising Committee of the OCCFC, chair of the Science Committee of Future Earth, and a Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO.

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