Placed in a large-scale perspective, recent progress in health and well-being has been nothing short of astounding. However, in light of modern research, health is being viewed not just through the
Energy, climate, environment, sustainable development
The momentous challenges generated by rapid climate change are currently making us question the fundamentals of our collective organisations and ways of life. The urgency to transition away from fossil fuels combines with issues of fairness and social justice as we need to deal with the increasing scarcity and eventual exhaustion of resources, sovereignty issues, and various forms of pollution which expand the environmental impact beyond just global warming. While scientists have documented the ongoing environmental transformation for more than five decades, social awareness of their gravity has only begun to catch up recently which has led to collective tensions. Consequently, addressing these multifaceted challenges necessitates a collaborative approach that draws insights from all sciences, from experimental to social & political sciences. This integration and collaboration is crucial in harnessing the potential of our enhanced abilities in for instance data, producing synthetic materials and understanding social dynamics.
Université Paris-Saclay holds a prime position to contribute significantly to this massive, existential challenge that currently engrossed global efforts:
- The various scientific communities relevant to tackle these challenges benefit from a long-term experience of scientific collaboration both in research (with the example of the Strategic Research Initiative SpaceObs launched in 2017) and in education (with the example of the STEPE Master’s programme (Sciences de la Terre et des Planètes, Environnement - Earth & Planetary Sciences, Environment), created in 2013, to offer students comprehensive training covering all aspects of Environment Sciences, and the sciences of planets and the earth system.
- Natural science labs in the domain benefits from a complete chain of methodological competencies, going from experimental settings to spatial observations and field work to process modelling.
- Université Paris-Saclay is lucky to host several internationally-recognised laboratories in the domain and is one of the pillars of the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace, a key international hub for climate sciences.
- Université Paris-Saclay is intricately woven into major national, European, and international networks, catering to data gathering, data sharing, and earth and space observation (for instance: observation networks NDACC, SIRTA, RENOIR, or research infrastructures ACTRIS, ICOS, CLIMERI, PARADISE, REGEF).
- Lastly, a distinguishing feature of Université Paris-Saclay is its implication in assessing the scientific knowledge underlying social debates at the highest level, as exemplified through the active and long-standing involvement of its scientists in the IPCC and the IPBES.
ACTIVE FOCUS AREAS RELATED TO THIS CHALLENGE AT UNIVERSITÉ PARIS-SACLAY
Enhancing the sustainability of socio-political systems. Université Paris-Saclay is host to many teams in the fields of economics, management, law, political science and social sciences who are directly contributing to tackling the various dimensions of this challenge. Axes of research and training include notably ways to enhance the sustainability and resilience of socio-political systems, starting at the individual scale and going up to the level of organisations. A common thread being pursued by Université Paris-Saclay’s social scientists is that of the mutation and evolution of socio-political systems so that they can evolve towards more sustainable equilibrium. Approaching such questions requires the combined insight from organisational sciences as well as public policy design, implementation and evaluation.
Specific areas of applications of these reflections include, for example, the collective management of landscape and agricultural / food value chains, in order to foster ecosystems preservation and diversity. The lens of political science is of course particularly relevant, as we need to develop new approaches for environmental evaluation, foster collective management practices and care for environmental commons. Another key area of application is that of political and management strategies to tackle the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon capture to mitigate climate change, and to facilitate transitions in the energy mix.
An asset brought by the work done by Université Paris-Saclay’s team in this respect is the emphasis placed on the geographical and territorial dimension of environmental issues and on the transition of socio-ecological systems. Legal expertise on topics related to the environment (sustainable development, biodiversity, climate change, energy transition, etc.), terrestrial or extra-atmospheric space, as well as natural common goods (air, water, protected environmental zones, vegetal and mineral resources, etc.) is also being developed. Finally, as these issues profoundly affect the social contract and the political equity in sharing the burden of the transformations, topics such as intra-generational and inter-generational justice and fairness are being explored, with the aim to understand how to properly deal with the global changes induced by the environmental and ecological transition.
Understanding the fundamental dynamics behind climate change. A necessary condition to face the current energy, climatic, environmental and ecological challenges is to advance our understanding of their complex and intertwined mechanisms. At Université Paris-Saclay, scientific teams are developing new methods, experimental approaches and simulations to measure and study greenhouse gas emissions, aerosols emissions and their precursors, to track the evolution of the composition of the atmosphere, of reactive species, and of the water cycle. Paleoclimatologists are providing a long-term perspective to decipher the dynamics of the climatic system and forecast its evolution, thus shedding light on past, present and future climates. Another key area of research deals with the study of continental and marine hydrosystems to characterise biogeochemical cycles at different scales (from local to global). Similarly, other projects aim to research the composition of soils and subsoils to understand the potential for exploitation while also considering how to mitigate the adverse consequences of using natural resources.
Improving climatic forecasts and better understanding the impact of climate and environmental change demands data at the right spatial and temporal scale, in order to understand the underlying dynamics and provide actors with relevant information. An open scientific path for improvement and exploration lies with the documentation of human activities and territories evolution at a very small scale, both spatially (a city, a catchment area, a definite agricultural area, a forest massif, etc.) and temporally (very short time-spans to refine weather forecasting, notably for extreme events, and 20-30 years spans for climate projections). We also need to better understand the interplay between the various scales, and focus on the modelling of the major transitory periods of the past (e.g. deglaciation period) to disentangle natural from anthropic influences and grasp better feedback loops in geoclimatic evolutions.
Deciphering the interactions between human activities and the environment. Our teams are also involved in providing more accurate descriptions of the interactions between all aspects of human activities (ecological, physical, biological, chemical and economic) and the environment. A focus point deals with the interactions between the biosphere, the atmosphere and the climate, in particular through agrosystems. This implies evaluating economic factors and the impact of human activities, mobilising a wide range of disciplines: environment sciences, soil sciences, biology, ecology, agronomy, ecotoxicology, physics of the atmosphere, (bio)climatology, economics, sociology, political science.
Designing sustainable, efficient, low-carbon-footprint energy systems. Université Paris-Saclay can rely on consolidated expertise investigating the potential of (nano) materials and systems for the development of technologies adapted to the sustainable production, storage, distribution and use of energy. Energy production, storage and distribution are indeed major levers for the ecological transition, which requires taking into account the specific constraints of each sector in terms of security, reliability, dispatch, etc.
Université Paris-Saclay’s teams are strongly involved in the development of new technologies to produce a low-carbon-footprint energy, notably through the characterisation and synthesis of nanomaterials, in link with photonics and electrochemistry, or through the development of materials and reactors adapted to produce green hydrogen. Indeed, the efficiency of such new techniques strongly depends on our capacity to develop new materials (and notably new catalytic materials) and new processes, to support the design of effective batteries, fuel cells, (photo)catalytic systems, (photo)electrochemical systems, which need to make limited use of critical resources and should be easily coupled to distribution networks. Université Paris-Saclay also boasts very strong expertise in the field of electrical engineering, which is of particular relevance to accelerate the energy transition and the development of innovative and sustainable energy production, smart grids, as well as storage and distribution systems. Activities span a continuum from the synthesis and characterisation of materials to the design and the development of new efficient systems, trying to find the right compromises between contradictory demands: improving the reliability of energy, miniaturising energy production systems, transitioning towards more sustainable and more ecological energy, etc.
Balancing needs for resources and environment preservation. The exploration and exploitation of biodiversity is a key domain of interest to develop new molecules with relevant economic, pharmaceutical and biotechnological properties in a context of scarce natural resources. The exploration of biomass and its residue is opening a promising path to offer renewable carbonate raw materials, as alternatives to petro-sourced chemistry for the production of molecules of high industrial interest. At the interface of biology, chemistry, engineering and industrial applications, the development of catalytic sciences is paving a promising path to valorise waste and develop an eco-responsable circular economy. Université Paris-Saclay’s teams bring to this effort in-depth expertise and a capacity to design active systems in organocatalysis, metallic and organometallic catalysis, electro-, photoredox- and biocatalysis. Other major environmental questions being tackled by our teams revolve around the assimilation of azote and phosphorus by plants, as well as the detection, degradation, valorisation and treatment of pollutants and industrial byproducts.
Developing advanced data analysis methods and instrumentation to support investigation. The understanding of terrestrial and planetary climatic evolution is critically dependent on the production of complex, massive and heterogeneous data. This challenge is therefore heavily dependent on the recent evolution in data production, analysis, management and the interaction with mathematics and computer science is essential. The scientific issues are also pushing the boundaries of our data visualisation methods, and creating new bridges between the physical modelling in earth and environmental sciences, and recent Artificial Intelligence approaches. The need for more accurate, fine-grained and timely data is also creating a need for better instrumentation and data sensors, where Université Paris-Saclay can bring top-level experience in the development of active and passive instruments for atmospheric monitoring, geophysical soil analysis, or isotopic material dating.
UNIVERSITÉ PARIS-SACLAY’S RESEARCHERS LEADING THE WORKING GROUP I OF THE IPCC
After Valérie Masson-Delmotte in 2015, Robert Vautard has been designated Chair of the Working Group I of the IPCC, devoted to the physical science basis of climate change.
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