While the ground is still covered with snow in March 2021 in Finland, a very worrying message was received from the other side of the world. The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii had measured CO2 levels in the atmosphere, exceeding 417 ppm and indicating a 50 percent increase compared to the levels of the pre-industrial time, writes Professor Petri Pihko.
Such high levels emerged now, despite the fact that the year 2020 will be recalled mainly as the year of coronavirus restrictions, with air traffic and many other things that were considered normal were almost completely paused.
Why did the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases still keep on growing persistently? Why does global warming just keep going on at the same time? Are we not doing enough, after all?
Well, in fact we are not. Our societies are still miserably dependent on carbon-based energy sources. The situation is even more worrying when we think also about the simultaneously advancing loss of biodiversity around us. Many actions under consideration to restrain the climate change might actually worsen the already crippled state of our biosphere.
What should we researchers do, then? First of all, we should acknowledge the facts: We are facing a very severe crisis. Our researcher colleagues abroad and here in Finland have done their job well and recognised the severity of danger. This message must be listened to and taken seriously.
Full-time professorships to support carbon recovery research and technology
Next, we should think how to go further. How can we help? Because the structures that are wasting resources and nature are very deeply and widely embedded in our society, also the remedies must be broad-based.
Technology may not be enough to save us, but we will not manage without it, either, recognizing the multigigaton size of the carbon challenge.
We need long-term research, i.e. actual full-time professorships for carbon recovery and utilisation, wise use of natural resources, and smarter, less wasteful production, for instance.
At the moment, our research institutes and universities are working on solutions, but mainly on their own, with funding based on short projects and programmes. However, the needs of the society still remain there after a project or programme ends, and we need to think of research in the longer term.
In addition, we need to examine more and more thoroughly what impacts our work may have. The Universities Act states that universities serve the nation and humankind. This notion is now more topical than ever. What could this mean?
In my own field, a breakthrough in research often means that we can show that a new idea is working at least in principle.
However, considering the current situation of the world, these proof-of-concepts are no longer sufficient nor timely to help humankind in this big crisis.
Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that that we do not direct our research merely to address the needs of our own researcher community; instead, we should also keep clear in mind the expectations and the hope that the society places on us.
Big crises call for extensive cooperation: joint projects and dialogue with society, industry and even with politicians. Participation in this dialogue must also be considered a merit within the university community in the future.
The author is a Professor of Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry, University of Jyväskylä. He specialises in synthetic organic chemistry: https://jyu.fi/pihko
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