How much carbon can the ocean hold?

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While politicians are presenting and negotiating their climate pledges at the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26), scientists of all stripes are also taking part in the crucial climate summit in Glasgow, UK. nature speaks to a number of them about how their research relates to climate change and what solutions they think the world needs.

Corinne Le Quéré is participating in COP26 as political advisor for Great Britain and France.Photo credit: Chris Radburn / Reuters

How much carbon can the ocean hold?

Corinne Le Quéré is a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, studying the carbon cycle and how the ocean reacts to global warming. She is a member of the Global Carbon Project, a consortium of scientists that tracks global carbon emissions and regularly publishes the Earth’s “budget”.

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

I work on the carbon cycle and track the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and where they get into the environment. Some of the emissions are absorbed by the ocean and the terrestrial biosphere, some remain in the atmosphere and cause climate change. My specific research is on the oceans carbon sink: how effectively it absorbs the carbon emitted by human activities, and how it changes over time and responds to a warming climate, including changes in ocean currents, ocean acidification, and changes in ecosystems . So the whole package.

Did your science lead you to COP26? How do you take part in the summit?

Yes, we will present the latest update of the global carbon budget at COP. I also work as a policy advisor to the UK and French governments and am part of a group called Friends of COP26 that liaises with the UK government and provides ad hoc advice.

Besides reducing CO2 emissions, what is the single biggest measure that we as a society can take to combat climate change?

I think we need to be broader in the way we actually address climate change. We are so focused on reducing emissions that we can lose sight of the effects of climate change and climate policies on people, and those effects are really, very important. And while we implement ambitious measures to combat climate change, there will be changes: new jobs will be created, but jobs will also be lost. How we protect and help the poorest will really matter.

Which event of the meeting has excited you most so far?

For me, it really was India’s declaration to set a net zero target for 2070. That is really extraordinary. India is a very poor developing country. If a country like India can rely heavily on renewable energies, it means that many other developing countries can do the same – with the right funding – and that a 1.5 ° C limit on climate change remains within reach.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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