Climate change and biodiversity

Human activities are changing the climate. Science can help us understand what we are doing to habitats and the climate, but also find solutions.

The big questions around climate change and biodiversity

Human activity is changing the climate of our planet and destroying its biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. Over the past two centuries, greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities have altered the composition of the atmosphere. This in turn is causing more heat to be retained and driving up global temperatures.

Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather and rising sea levels, harming our ability to grow food and making it harder for biodiversity to thrive; potentially impoverishing our planet in ways that will hamper the benefits we can derive from it.

Our species has reached a crossroads. We must use the knowledge we gain about our planet and its climate to find solutions that will help decarbonise economies and change the way we use the land. The health of our planet, and so also our own survival, depends upon it. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from a wide range of human activities are causing our planet to warm. Energy production, agriculture, industry, transport and buildings all release carbon dioxide or other gases that can trap heat, such as methane. 

The scientific consensus agrees that our planet is already committed to a rise in global temperatures over the coming century but it may also be possible to limit how much that is. The Paris Agreement saw countries agree to work towards a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, but currently, even 2 degrees is more likely to be exceeded.

This will require ways to decarbonise our economies and way of life. At the same time, we will need to adapt to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events like flooding, drought and heatwaves. 

Science is vital in helping us understand these impacts and in developing the solutions we need to reach a global goal of net zero by 2050. The Royal Society is committed to promoting the use of science to inform policy decisions and vital discussions on how best to tackle climate change.

The natural world provides us with food, water, shelter, medicine and many of the basic ingredients we need for our modern lives. To ensure they remain healthy and vibrant, ecosystems - no matter where they are - require a diverse range of life within them. This biodiversity plays a role in regulating important natural systems including the exchange of nutrients, the water cycle, and the climate.

Over-exploitation of the natural world and widespread landscape change, as natural habitats are cleared to make way for agriculture and urban development, are eroding biodiversity. Alongside this, the climate change caused by human activities is driving further biodiversity loss.

Innovations such as precision agriculture, genetically modified crops and indoor farming can help us to grow food more efficiently and lessen our impact on the natural world. Science can also help to shape how we build our cities and infrastructure. It can inform our use of the oceans and help us change how we produce energy. Reframing the way we see the natural world, including by placing a financial value on nature, might also help to halt the loss of more biodiversity, while also allowing us to take advantage of the many nature-based solutions to the problems we face. 

The Royal Society has produced a range of resources that set out the scientific evidence for the importance of biodiversity and the ways it can be preserved. 

Landscapes are under growing pressure to produce the resources we need to feed, house and power our population. Meanwhile they need to provide a suitable home for biodiversity, help us tackle climate change and improve resilience against problems such as flooding.

In the UK, ongoing changes to agricultural and environmental policy present an opportunity to combine increased productivity with sound stewardship of the land. Science and innovation can inform decisions that improve the natural capital of the country rather than diminish it. It can help us to increase food production while also protecting biodiversity, offering insights into crucial issues such as the health of our soils and the impact of microplastics on the environment. 

The Royal Society’s Multifunctional Landscapes report offers recommendations on how we might make better use of our land to meet the country’s many needs in a way that is sustainable and kinder to nature.

Our ocean is one of the least explored and understood regions of our planet. Yet, it plays a huge role in the Earth’s biosphere. The ocean influences the weather and the climate, generates most of the oxygen we breathe  and produces huge amounts of food. It is also vital for the transport of goods around the world, providing the foundation for global trade. 

Having the technology to explore, understand and study the ocean is hugely important. Sensor laden buoys, advanced sonar and remotely operated vehicles are offering opportunities to understand the ocean in ways that have never been possible before. 

The ocean is also a potential source of enormous amounts of future resources. The vast biological riches of the ocean offer opportunities for the discovery of new drugs or household products. Genetic surveys of the ocean could help identify those with the most potential. The seafloor is also known to hold deposits of metal-rich minerals that could potentially be exploited, but mining faces significant technical challenges and the risk of significant environmental impacts. As the technology needed to exploit these deep-sea minerals develops, there is potential to find ways of minimising the environmental impacts at the same time.

The Royal Society’sOcean Science Policy Programme aims to facilitate the transfer of knowledge between academia, policymakers and industry to help ensure our ocean can remain healthy and used sustainably. 

Moving from powering our societies with fossil fuels to clean sustainable energy is fundamental to tackling climate change. However, enabling a transition to energy sources which can provide an affordable, clean and reliable supply of power is not straightforward. There are a range of significant challenges to overcome, different technological pathways and opportunities to pursue, trade-offs to navigate, and novel research to underpin innovative low carbon solutions.

The Royal Society is exploring which scientific solutions and energy technologies can support the energy transition. Across a range of topics, from large-scale energy storage, to carbon capture and storage and net zero aviation fuels, the Royal Society has investigated how transformational science and technology can lead the way towards a net zero future.

Explore the low carbon energy programme.

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