Bioscience must treat climate change for the global emergency that it is

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown what biology can do in a crisis. Can we focus efforts and resources in the same way for climate change?

June 1st 2021

To date, 1,921 jurisdictions and local governments in 34 countries – covering 826 million citizens – have declared a climate emergency[1]. Civil disobedience movements, such as the School Strike for the Climate have raised public awareness of the scale of the problem and have moved the dial on action[2]. In a few short years, climate denial has become an irrelevance, with calls for urgent action on climate change becoming louder and clearer. Polls in the summer of 2019 reveal that 85% of Britons are now concerned about climate change[3].

So what can we as biologists do about it? Well, not everything! Climate change is complex, and it is not all about biology – we need to be part of multi-disciplinary teams to tackle the issue. We need atmospheric and ocean chemists and physicists to understand the processes of climate change, and we need engineers to design and build low carbon technologies that will help us to transition to a net zero economy and lifestyles. But – biology is really important for climate change, and we have a big role to play.

I work on how the land can be used to mitigate climate change. Soils and vegetation contain about three times more carbon than is in the atmosphere – so small changes in carbon pools on land and in the ocean can have a big effect on climate. If soil and vegetation carbon pools can be increased, the land can be used to lock carbon out of the atmosphere and help to tackle climate change right now. My work focuses on how we reduce greenhouse gas emissions using land management, and how we can maximise carbon storage – while also delivering to other aspects of sustainable development[4].

PeteSmithClimateChangeFireSmall evidence-based changes to vast carbon pools such as soil or woodland could help minimise the impact of emissions as society transitions to a low-carbon economy.  
But there are many other ways in which biology contributes to climate change. For example, we need to understand the impacts of climate change on plants and animals, how they might adapt, and how efforts to address climate change themselves may affect plants and animals[5]; efforts to breed plants that store more carbon in vegetation and soil are important and urgent[6], and new biomaterials and ways to create biomass have an important role too[7]. There are countless other examples.
Biologists are already making a huge contribution to understanding climate change, its impacts, how to adapt to it, and how we can tackle it. But we could we do more. The global COVID-19 pandemic has shown what biology can do in a crisis. If adequately resourced, and our effort focused, biology can help to solve existential threats that face us. When we start to treat the climate crisis as the emergency that it is – this is the decade that will determine whether we meet the targets we set ourselves under the Paris Agreement to prevent catastrophic warming[8] – we could mobilise our skills to tackle, with others, probably the most serious threat that humankind has ever faced.
To translate the signing of declarations into action, we must massively increase capacity in our discipline. This needs to happen very soon, and can only be done by a massive increase in investment. Some have suggested we need to mobilise the scale of programme that allowed us to move from biplanes to jet aircraft in the space of a few years during World War II. We need fundamental science and action at all steps in the science translation pipeline, from lab, to experiment, though demonstration, to full-scale implementation. All of this will cost money – but it is small beer compared to the cost of damage that will be caused by climate change if we don’t meet our targets[9].
There is also more we can do in our private lives. As citizens, biologists can lead by example – eat less meat and dairy, fly less, use active transport or public transport when you can, and when you need to replace a big ticket item, invest in low carbon technologies such as electric cars, heat pumps and solar panels. And just like so many scientists have taken to social media to explain the science of beating COVID-19, talk about climate change and how to reduce emissions to the people that you meet. Spreading the word is just as important as the actions you take yourself.

Professor Pete Smith FRSB is chair in plant & soil science at the University of Aberdeen

(2) Thackeray, S.J. et al. Civil disobedience movements such as School Strike for the Climate are raising public awareness of the climate change emergency. Global Change Biology 26, 1042–1044. doi: 10.1111/gcb.14978 ( 2020). 
(3) Ipsos Mori Polling on Climate Change, August 2019
(4) Smith, P., et al. Which practices co-deliver food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and combat land-degradation and desertification? Global Change Biology 26, 1532–1575 (2020). 
(5) Smith, P. et al. Impacts on terrestrial biodiversity of moving from a 2ᵒC to a 1.5ᵒC target. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A. 376, 20160456 (2018). 
(6) Kell, D.B. Breeding crop plants with deep roots: their role in sustainable carbon, nutrient and water sequestration. Annals of Botany 108, 407–418 (2018). 
(7) Jørgensen, S.V., Hauschild, M.Z. & Nielsen, P.H. The potential contribution to climate change mitigation from temporary carbon storage in biomaterials. Int J Life Cycle Assess 20, 451–462 (2015). 
(8) Rogelj, J., Huppmann, D., Krey, V. et al. A new scenario logic for the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal. Nature 573, 357–363 (2019). 
(9) The Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change (LSE, 2006).