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COP26: Spotlight on Climate Science & Decisionmaking

An overview of ICTP's climate research

Image credit: COP26 UK
Image credit: COP26 UK

02/11/2021 - Trieste

The crucial climate conference COP26 started this week, gathering more than 190 world leaders and tens of thousands of negotiators, representatives, and citizens to discuss the issue of climate change. Organised by the UN, the conference, now in its 26th edition, began 31 October and will continue until 12 November in Glasgow, United Kingdom. With the safety and stability of the biosphere on the line, stopping carbon dioxide emissions and getting to net zero will be the focus of discussions.

Climate science has been building a picture of a rapidly changing climate forced by the burning of fossil fuels, and was recognised this year by the Physics Nobel Prize. Half of this year’s Prize was awarded to two climatologists, Syukoro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann. Their work was fundamental for modelling the dynamics of climate change, making the Nobel Committee's choice more topical and meaningful than ever. The scientific community and the assembled scientific evidence recognises climate change as real and that the time available to mitigate its consequences is running out.

ICTP's climate scientists have long been involved in the work of understanding the Earth's climate and how it is changing. Their work has fed into the reports compiled by the International Panel on Climate Change, the UN organisation tasked with assessing the science of climate change. The conclusions of the reports are fundamentally important for the negotiators and decision makers at the COP conferences. At an earlier climate meeting, the COP21 event held in 2015 in Paris, some 196 countries agreed to limit the average rise in global temperature below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures. “Beyond this threshold there could be no way back for some of the changes that could be irreversible,” explains Erika Coppola, climate scientist at ICTP’s Earth System Physics (ESP) section. Coppola was among the authors of the first installment of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that was published last August.

Coppola’s words underscore the seriousness of the situation humanity now faces: in order to stay within the limit outlined during the Paris conference: “we need to act fast and reach net zero emission within 2050,” she explains.

ICTP’s ESP section has long been involved in expanding what we know about climate science. Here, we highlight several of the recent climate research projects by ICTP scientists:

ICTP Diploma Programme alumnus Mostafa Hamouda, class of 2017,  recently published a paper in the distinguished journal Nature Climate Change. The focus of his research was to investigate the correlation between two atmospheric patterns, consisting in air pressure fluctuations, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation. These are responsible for regulating the amount of snow and cold coming into Europe and North America, as well as many other climatic events. Nowadays these two phenomena are extremely correlated, but the paper's results show how this key planetary connection breaks down as the planet warms. “It's a great way to point out that with climate change, not only the averages of the patterns we know change, but also the patterns,” explains Mostafa.

The consequences of global warming are not only a worry for the future, but also the present. Consquences are already happening, and impacting the well-being of residents of the most affected regions, among them West Africa. “West Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its high dependency on climate-related activities in most of its socio-economic sectors and its low adaptive capacity,” says Olivia Vashti Ayim, a Ghanaian alumna of the ICTP Diploma Programme who is at the start of her career. “The agriculture, fishing, transportation, and health sectors are all being highly affected by climate change,” she explains. One of the reasons she wants to be a climate scientist is because she saw firsthand the effects of this dramatic phenomenon. Her Diploma thesis was on “finding an efficient way to predict the beginnings of the monsoon season in West Africa.” With the help of ICTP, Olivia is now building a brilliant career in her field.

From West Africa to the Alps: the glaciers of the famous mountain range are not immune to global warming. This is the topic of a paper co-authored by Filippo Giorgi, ICTP climatologist and head of the ESP section, published in the highly influential journal Climate Dynamics. “The results of this study indicate the inevitable destiny of Alpine glaciers to disappear, for all the various scenarios of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere examined, even for the most optimistic ones,” says Giorgi. These vast expanses of ice represent an extremely important resource for European populations, as Giorgi underlines: “The disappearance of the glaciers would have enormous impacts on Alpine ecosystems and a massive drop in availability of water resources for human activities, especially in summer.” He warns: “This should therefore represent a great wake-up call for Europe in general and Italy in particular.” When asked what could be done, Giorgi replies: “The only effective way to contain this phenomenon is to contribute to the drop of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, in order to stabilize temperatures below the threshold established in the 2015 Paris Agreement.”


Pollutant emissions are not only responsible for accelerating global warming, but they also represent a serious threat to our health, a threat that has been heightened during the pandemic. Results from a paper co-authored by Andrea Pozzer, a former ICTP ESP scientist, show how a consistent percentage of COVID-19 deaths worldwide can be attributed to air pollution. The paper’s findings, published in October 2020 in the journal Cardiovascular Research, do not demonstrate that a direct cause-effect relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths exists, but confirm an indirect effect: “Our estimates show the importance of pollution on fatal health outcomes of the virus infection, i.e. by aggravating co-morbidities [other health conditions],” explains Pozzer. While diverse factors affect the actual mortalities, “we can clearly distinguish the contribution of air pollution to COVID-19 mortality,” the authors state. The paper concludes with a warning for decision makers: “The COVID-19 pandemic ends with the vaccination of the population or with herd immunity through extensive infection. However, there are no vaccines against poor air quality and climate change.”

The effort against climate change cannot proceed without global sustainable economic development, access to education, without work towards reaching peace, gender equality and fairer distribution of resources worldwide. In order to reach this state of global wellness, the United Nations have drawn up 17 sustainable development goals to reach by 2030, called the 2030 Agenda. ICTP, as a UN-sponsored institute, is doing its share to meet all 17 of these goals.

ICTP’s research fits into the larger picture of a global endeavor by the scientific community to propose sustainable methods for mitigating the climate crisis. Many other researchers, policy makers, politicians, and activists have also been contributing to the body of knowledge about the climate crisis and the necessary moves for adaptation. Nature has assembled a selection of papers focussing on solutions to challenges in climate mitigation, adaptation and financing. Countries at COP26 cannot and should not ignore these and other crucial contributions as they take the needed radical action.