Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)


  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence into the Committee's enquiry into scientific advice on climate change.

  2.  NERC is the UK's leading organisation for basic, strategic and applied research and training across the spectrum of the environmental sciences. NERC's purpose is to support high quality scientific research, survey, monitoring and postgraduate training with the objective of enhancing knowledge, understanding and prediction of the environment and its resources. NERC achieves this through its support of scientists at universities and through its own Centres and Surveys: the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC—a joint venture with the University of Southampton).

  3.  NERC considers knowledge transfer, including provision of advice based on its scientific research, to be a key element of delivering its mission. Provision of scientific advice is governed by guidelines drawn up by the government's Chief Scientific Adviser. NERC is contributing to a current DTI consultation exercise with a view to updating these guidelines.

  4.  Our evidence, which includes comments from NERC's Centres, Surveys and University units, is structured around four main headings in order to cover the questions posed by the Committee.

Research and other activities funded by NERC in relation to climate change

  5.  In setting NERC's Science Budget allocation for the current planning period (1999-02), the government gave NERC three priorities one of which is "to develop a climate research agenda, including joint work with EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council)".

  6.  In December 1998 NERC set up a small ad hoc group chaired by Professor Brian Hoskins FRS (Reading University) to examine the coherence of NERC's climate change research portfolio, particularly with regard to future UK climate change research needs and in the context of research supported by other Research Councils. The group concluded that: NERC had a coherent suite of climate change programmes (examples summarised at Annex 1); linkages with EPSRC would need to be formed in the area of marine renewable energy, possibly through the Climate Change Centre (see paragraph 7); and there was more research required in land-vegetation-atmospheric modelling. The group endorsed the links with Government Departments and the links between NERC's modelling of the climate system and the work of the Hadley Centre.

  7.  NERC, together with EPSRC and ESRC is establishing a new interdisciplinary Climate Change Centre. Up to £10 million will be available over five years for the Centre to conduct innovative research, integrated across environmental, technological, and socio-economic disciplines. Collaboration with other groups in the UK and abroad will be important. Through integrated research, the Centre aims to help society find sustainable solutions to the problems posed by climate change. Solutions will involve mitigating against climate change, as well as adapting to its inevitable impacts. The Centre will be required to utilise and create effective mechanisms for turning relevant research results into scientific advice to government and business. The DTI has pledged a further £70K per annum to support the centre's business liaison activities.

Assessments of the validity or otherwise of climate models

  8.  A senior SOC scientist has been advising climate modellers from the USA, UK, Germany and elsewhere on the ocean model requirement for good reliable climate predictions, including the need for higher resolution models to avoid over emphasis of the chances of catastrophic climate change around the North Atlantic.

  9.  NERC is funding a new thematic programme PRESCIENT (Palaeoclimate Research and Earth System Modelling for Enhanced Climatic and Environmental Prediction). The programme will provide high quality, high resolution palaeoenvironmental data to enable rigorous testing of the capabilities and reliability of General Circulation Models (GCMs). A specific focus will be on increasing the sophistication and versatility of the Hadley Centre's Earth System model. This will improve our ability to disentangle natural and anthropogenic climate change and allow greater confidence in the detection and attribution of human-induced climate change through a better understanding of natural climate variability.

Investigation into the possible alternative explanations for apparent trends in climate change other than increasing concentrations of CO2

  10.  In 1995 the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded, "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate". However at the present time we cannot be sure of the extent of this influence. Not enough is known about positive and negative feedback to model climate change as a function of atmospheric change. Therefore current natural changes cannot be fully separated from anthropogenic change.

  11.  Science may still not have identified all the potential contributors to global climate change. Recent research at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory has shown how measures of geomagnetic activity can be used as a monitor of changes in solar irradiance. Using records from a UK magnetic observatory extending over 130 years UK researchers have found that increases in solar output over that time could be sufficient to account for at least some of the observed rise in global temperature over the last 30 years.

  12.  NERC is in discussion with the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) concerning a possible joint research programme to investigate solar variability and its role in climate change.

  13.  To understand the possible significance of alternative explanations, more attention should be given to the modelling and prediction of climate changes that occurred naturally either side of the last ice age. Historical data can be an invaluable resource. TIGGER (Geological Aspects of Terrestrial Initiative in Global Environmental Research) a NERC programme which has now finished, considered a series of proxy data for the past climate change. This provided valuable insights into our knowledge of climatic and ecological change over the past millennia. Similar insights are possible through RGGE (Rapid Global Geological Events) and the now closed NEAPACC (North East Atlantic Palaeoceanography and Climate Change) NERC thematic programmes. The geological record could be used to a greater extent in the calibration of climate change models.

  14.  The global carbon budget remains one of the major uncertainties in the earth system. As part of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) CCMS have been carrying out research for the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) into sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. The project includes experiments designed to increase ocean carbon sequestration by the addition of iron to the system.

  15.  Methane and methane hydrates could also play an important role in the future. The Ocean Drilling Programme (ODP), an international research effort aimed at scientific investigations beneath the seabed, has discovered that there are huge masses of methane producing bacteria living within the sediments beneath the Earth's ocean basins. The methane, generated by these bacteria can escape by percolating through the seabed, into the oceans and then into the atmosphere. It could be a significant component of the greenhouse gas equation.

  16.  The rate of escape of this gas is moderated by the extent of the methane hydrate cap, within the deep continental margin sediments. Methane hydrate is a compound of methane and water that forms an ice-like substance under conditions of high pressure and low temperature. More methane could exist as methane hydrate than all the known reserves of natural gas, worldwide. This makes methane hydrate a vast potential source of energy, but also a huge natural driving force in global climate variability. Under the relatively stable conditions the temperature of the deep ocean keeps the methane hydrate cap relatively stable. However any warming could destabilise the hydrate cap and release huge pulses of methane into the atmosphere. Further research is needed to determine the global extent of methane generating bacteria, methane hydrates and the temperature variability of deep oceanic bottom waters, along continental margins.

Scientific advice on climate change based on NERC research and uptake by Government

  17.  In 1997 Sir Robert May FRS, the Chief Scientific Adviser published a note on his own personal view on climate change. He also made the following comments about climate change research in the UK "Ultimately the problem of climate change demands international co-operation and co-ordination. The quality of the UK's contribution to research on climate change is strong and out of all proportion to our relative size. We should aim to maintain this strength, so as to have international policy underpinned by fundamental understanding, to maintain our position of international and scientific leadership in this area, and to help persuade the world's sceptics that climate change is a real and serious problem". These comments emphasise the importance of the research that is carried by NERC and other bodies in the UK.

  18.  NERC research underpins scientific advice to government through a variety of direct and indirect routes, with key examples given in the following paragraphs. Concordats between NERC and key government departments and agencies (including DETR, MAFF and Environment Agency) provide formal communication channels to help ensure that NERC gets its message across effectively. NERC science has been used in other ways including:

    —  NERC contributed to the ACBE study Climate Change: A Strategic Issue for Business published in March 1998.

    —  NERC has made many and various inputs to the three assessments of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), both through staff as scientific experts and through its programmes, for example the International Permanent Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) recorded and held by CCMS.

    —  NERC collaborates with the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research for access to General Circulation Models (GCMs). Only through GCMs can process studies and case studies be used to benefit the understanding of the entire Earth System. Government, through DETR, benefits directly from this research.

    —  DETR has commissioned a report, involving the participation of NERC scientists, to study the risk of a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the consequences for the future of sea level.

    —  A briefing note was produced by NERC during the run up to the 1997 Kyoto Conference (copy attached). This took the approach of outlining the scientific certainties and uncertainties of the facts and consequences of climate change.

    —  A senior scientist at SOC has been an advisor for about 10 years, to a World Meteorological Organisation committee on the science of climate change prediction.

    —  Scientists from CEH have provided, under contract to DETR, independent estimates of the UK emissions of nitrous oxide and methane.

    —  Antarctic observations carried out over a 38 year period have revealed a systematic contraction of the neutral (unionised) atmosphere. This change is consistent with cooling induced by greenhouse gas concentrations and provides further evidence for the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

  19.  In general, Government departments are in a better position to comment on the value of advice based on NERC research and the extent of its uptake in the development of policy. However, NERC can point to a number of specific areas where the government has clearly acted on scientific advice resulting from NEC climate change programmes:

    —  Data extending over a 30 year period collected by BAS established the existence of ozone loss in the springtime Antarctic stratosphere. The time series now extends to 45 years, and the last 15 years have seen a further halving of ozone concentrations and the stratospheric cooling now extending into the summer. There is no doubt that the discovery of the ozone hole by BAS scientists spurred international action to eliminate CFCs.

    —  DETR has a contract with CEH to provide annual estimates of the UK inventory of carbon sources and sinks involving plants and soil. The methods and results form part of the UK report submitted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and are used by DETR in discussions within the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice.

    —  Under contract, CEH provides DETR with assessments of the impacts on global ecosystems of future climates predicted by the Hadley Centre.

    —  The first set of Indicators of Climate Change in the UK that provided evidence that change is occurring were defined by a team from CEH, under contract to DETR. The report and the website were launched by the Minister for the Environment in 1999.

    —  Work by CCMS for MAFF has been used as a basis to plan coastal defence measures.

February 2000

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