Climate change is one of the most critical crises facing humanity today. Climate disruption is already having diverse and wide-ranging impacts on Ireland's environment, society, economic and natural resources. It is changing where people, plants and animals can safely live, and the recent media and policy focus on climate emergency and action is to be welcomed.
But how can we understand climate change? How can we capture data that will help us predict how our atmosphere and planet will change in the near future? How can we plan for those changes, and alter our policies and behaviours around the energy we use and the actions we take?
This is where research comes in. Science and technology can help meet climate change challenges through innovation, and by creating products, processes and services that aim to reduce the severe impacts of man-made activities on natural ecosystems and quality of life. Research in this area mainly serves to better understand the impact of climate change and to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Around Ireland, SFI-funded researchers are analysing climate - its inputs, its changes and its effects - and exploring ways to tackle climate change and plan for more sustainable futures.
Ireland’s position offers a unique opportunity to monitor air quality and atmospheric changes at the boundary of Europe and the North Atlantic. Ireland is also a relatively small country, and so can be a useful testbed for evaluating how effective new approaches and technologies are to address climate change. With this unique geography, industry base and research ecosystem, Ireland is exceptionally positioned to play a strong role in addressing the global challenges of climate change.
SFI funds a number of research projects that are focused on driving discovery and technological innovation that will enable society to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This research is carried out by large-scale, world-leading SFI Research Centres, and by individual researchers leading smaller teams.
From monitoring the impact of climate change on coasts, oceans and pollinators, to carbon capture and reuse, to reducing methane emissions in grazing dairy cows, SFI funds research that aims to better understand the changes that are happening to our world and climate.
A number of SFI Research Centres are particularly aligned to climate action, namedly MaREI, SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and the Marine, BEACON Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre and iCRAG SFI Research Centre for Applied Geosciences . Climate research in MaREI includes exploring how the atmosphere is changing and how climate change impacts marine systems. Some researchers in MaREI work to find ways to reduce energy usage, while others investigate climate dialogue with local communities. In BEACON research focuses on Ireland's bioeconomy, reducing emissions and increasing our sustainability. iCRAG climate research includes exploring Irelands natural resources, such as groundwater, how climate change might impact this and ocean activity.
Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir
With signs of climate change intensifying, the race is on to better understand the underlying processes and how Ireland can more effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plan for change and empower people to take action.
“Climate change is happening, the science is very clear on that,” says Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir, Director of MaREI, SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and the Marine. “At a fundamental level, we are exploring the science of how the atmosphere is changing - mostly at our NUI Galway facility at Mace Head - and we are also researching how we in Ireland can take action to tackle climate change and its impact.”
Much of MaREI’s research is undertaken in collaboration with industry, Government departments and agencies and civic society, in order to translate scientific findings into action on the ground. Some of the research looks at the impact of climate change on coastal regions that are prone to flooding, and it has already led to greater preparedness in Cork.
“Our work on coastal and marine systems led by researchers in University College Cork has influenced the national guidelines for climate adaptation and it has helped to develop guidelines at the local level in Cork too,” says Professor Ó Gallachóir. “By doing the research on sea-level and the potential for flooding, we can help ensure local authorities are appropriately trained and informed to minimise the impact of floods.”
Ireland has much work to do in order to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets, and researchers at MaREI are finding ways to reduce energy usage overall and energy derived from fossil fuels in particular. Strategies include working with the pharmaceutical companies in Cork harbour on smarter and more efficient use of energy to run their operations, and incorporating wind turbines into their energy supplies. MaREI is also assisting Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon future, including increased wind energy and biogas, at a national level too. MaREI researchers are engaging with offshore wind energy companies, with ESB and with Gas Networks Ireland to inform and underpin their strategies for providing Ireland with sources of energy that reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
“We explore many future scenarios with our modelling research, to understand what we need to do in order to move closer to our national green energy targets,” says Professor Ó Gallachóir. “That work feeds into policy around climate mitigation and energy security, to ensure the lights stay on and also to safeguard vulnerable people who might otherwise be excluded from the transition to renewable energy.”
Ultimately, the research needs to mean something to the citizens of Ireland, who can participate individually and in communities in actions to address climate change, he adds: “We research climate dialogue, how to have informed and responsive conversations and events in communities around climate change and collectively developing more sustainable solutions.” One such community group is in Dingle, Co. Kerry, where MaREI researchers are engaging with citizens to find out about barriers and perceptions relating to climate action, and working on those challenges together. “We have a number of different types of researchers working with the people of Dingle, including scientists, engineers and social scientists,” says Professor Ó Gallachóir. “Because a complex issue like the future of climate and energy needs that broad understanding of the problems and how we as people can collectively address them, through what we do and through system change.”
Prof Kevin O’Connor
Many of the things we rely on every day – including food, building materials, fuels and medicines – are based on or drawn from nature. Since the industrial revolution, though, we have come to rely heavily on one natural resource in particular: fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and gas. This reliance has become too heavy for our climate and environment to bear.
That’s why the BEACON Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre is researching ways to move away from fossils and towards other, more sustainable forms of biomass - not only for fuel but also for materials to manufacture products and chemicals. In so doing, the research aims to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and find more climate-friendly ways to use natural resources.
“The bioeconomy takes natural resources and uses them to add value in some way,” explains Professor Kevin O’Connor, the Director of BEACON and a professor at the School or Biomolecular and Biomedical Science at University College Dublin. “That added value could be in creating greater biodiversity, or increasing pollination for food, or it could be the synthesis of new and safer chemicals and materials or to generate clean energy for our use in the production of these products.”
At BEACON, the research focuses on sustainable ways to derive value from natural sources. That includes harnessing chemicals or microbes to take up carbon dioxide, and so prevent the greenhouse gas from going into the atmosphere, and examining the big pictures of agricultural and industrial processes to ensure they are reducing emissions wherever possible.
“In practice, that might mean that an industrial plant uses biofuels to generate energy, and then captures the carbon dioxide that is emitted and uses it in their industrial processes,” explains Professor O’Connor. “Or it might be about managing soil health in a more climate-friendly way, one that does not use certain fertilisers that lead to the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide being emitted.”
Part of the BEACON approach is to put the new technologies and approaches to the test, and collaborating with a pilot sites currently being developed at Lisheen in Co. Tipperary. “We are collaborating with the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation who are developing the site so that we can generate the data for companies to see how these approaches work,” explains Professor O’Connor.
More widely, BEACON wants to grow societal awareness of the bioeconomy, and the Centre’s education and public engagement programme has recently seen its researchers at events such as UCD’s Festival and the National Ploughing Championships, spreading the word about the benefits of the bioeconomy.
“Nature has so much to offer,” says Professor O’Connor. “We want to ensure that we can combine new technologies and traditional approaches to go back to the future and get the most out of nature in a sustainable way.”
Prof Murray Hitzman
Climate change is changing planet Earth. That’s why it’s important to understand how the planet works, its current state of health and how to protect it into the future, and iCRAG SFI Research Centre for Applied Geosciences is on the case.
Since it was founded four years ago, the Centre’s research has been gravitating towards climate change, one of the biggest challenges for humanity today, explains Professor Murray Hitzman, iCRAG’s Director and CEO. “With an increasing focus placed on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the Irish Government's Climate Action Plan setting out ambitious targets for the country, iCRAG is playing a leading role in efforts to tackle climate breakdown and enhance sustainable development,” he says. “The world changes pretty fast, and climate change will now be the main focus of the next phase of the iCRAG. Ireland’s location and size makes it an ideal place to examine aspects of climate change and what is happening to the planet, and our research is about exploring, understanding and monitoring that.”
One of the fundamental aims of iCRAG’s research is to explore Ireland’s natural resources of minerals – metals and other materials in the ground – and groundwater. “We are trying to understand the mineral deposits in Ireland and how they can be extracted and used sustainably and ethically, including exploring waste from mining and industry for recoverable minerals that could be valuable for further use,” explains Professor Hitzman. To successfully decarbonise, we will need a host of new energy technologies, and the minerals we are helping the private sector explore for minerals include lithium in Ireland and cobalt in different parts of the world, both of which are critical for electric vehicles and for other decarbonising technologies.”
Groundwater is another resource beneath our feet in Ireland, and one that many people in rural Ireland depend on for drinking water - but it can be surprisingly tricky to understand. “We are using our expertise at iCRAG to examine groundwater, and particularly how as rainfall patterns change this can affect water availability and flooding,” says Professor Hitzman. “We want to help Ireland plan and build infrastructure smartly, to offset future problems.”
iCRAG researchers are looking at larger bodies of water too – the oceans off Ireland’s coasts. They are are using equipment to measure wave heights and storm activity, to capture the sounds of the ocean and monitor how cold-water corals are changing over time. The sea-bed is a particular for the research – not only to find out how its contours affect sounds and life in the ocean, but also to see how it can best support structures such as wind turbines, explains Professor Hitzman: “We need to ensure wind-farms are built in the right place offshore, where they will have secure and safe foundations.”
Going further beneath the sea-floor, iCRAG is helping in the search for natural gas off Ireland’s shores, and even exploring how depleted gas sites could act as a store for carbon. “The Climate Advisory Council of Ireland points out that natural gas has been identified internationally as an important transition fuel as the global energy system switches from carbon intensive fossil fuels to low-carbon and renewable systems,” says Professor Hitzman. “In our research, we see natural gas as a two-for-one. It can reduce carbon emissions in the short term, if we use it as a fuel instead of coal and peat, and we need that over the coming decades until battery technology improves. Then when the natural gas is depleted, the empty fields could be used to store carbon dioxide to keep it out of the atmosphere, or to store hydrogen, another source of fuel.”
The fundamental research to understand such approaches is key, but so too is engaging with the public. That is why iCRAG builds engagement and evaluation into several of its projects, including one that looks at whether adding volcanic ash to agricultural soil could keep more carbon in the ground rather than adding it to the atmosphere. School-children in Ireland will soon have the opportunity to add materials to soil in experiments and look at how that affects it over time.
“We need people to change their behaviours in order to tackle climate change, and being engaged with the science is one way to help people get on board,” says Dr Fergus McAuliffe, iCRAG’s Education, Public Engagement and Communications Manager. “Society needs to buy into the technologies and approaches that come out of the research, so we need to communicate as we go, and bring people with us.”
Components of the research carried out at other SFI Research Centres are also relevant to climate action and energy efficiencies. Those centres include VistaMilk SFI Research Centre, APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, AMBER SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research, SSPC SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals and Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics.
How does SFI research engage people for climate action? SFI funded research engages industry, policy makers, local authorities, the public, and other stakeholders, making evidence and information available and accessible, and ensuring that research translates into action.
Science Week 2019 will focus on climate action, seeking to help people understand climate change, how science and technology can help us create a positive climate future, and the impact we as individuals can have on climate change. While one person may feel unable to make a difference on their own, a collective effort to offset our carbon emissions will have a positive impact.