Article 22.3.2024

Working towards clean air and a safe climate – flagship initiative for the atmosphere and climate combines air quality and climate research in a unique way

Climate change and air quality interact in many different ways. The flagship project for the atmosphere and climate addresses and solves related challenges in a collaborative manner. High-quality science leads to economic and social impact.
Picture: astudio/Shutterstock

The Atmosphere and Climate Competence Center (ACCC) is a research flagship funded by the Research Council of Finland. It aims to increase understanding of climate change and the deterioration of air quality. 

The flagship is led by the University of Helsinki, and the other partner organisations are the Finnish Meteorological Institute, University of Eastern Finland and Tampere University. The activities are centred around top-notch research and its subsequent impact on the economy and society. 

“The flagship’s goal is to go beyond pure science and unlock its full potential. This means that the outcomes of science are made available for use by companies, communities and decision-makers,” summarises Academy Professor Ari Laaksonen, who serves as a deputy head of the flagship and leads the project at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. 

Climate and air quality are interlinked 

The flagship participants have extensive expertise in both climate and air quality research, and the flagship project combines these research areas in a unique manner. Researchers are exploring, for example, the effects of climate change on air quality, and how the measures taken to improve air quality affect the climate. 

Poor air quality and climate change caused by human activities are global challenges. Through its research, the ACCC supports the objectives of Finland, the European Union and the wider international community, as well as companies and other different actors, to combat both climate change and the deteriorating air quality. In addition, research enhances societies’ capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change.  

Studying the impact of emissions from ships is one area, in which research in air quality and climate change interact. The sulphur content of shipping fuels has been reduced by international regulations. The goal is to improve air quality and minimise the adverse effects on health.  

“However, reducing the sulphur content of fuels may accelerate climate change, as emitted sulphur particles may have served as a cooling factor for the climate,” Ari Laaksonen says. 

Scientific studies have shown a decrease in sulphur particles being released into the atmosphere. The next stage is to assess the significance of this development. This work requires climate models that describe the cooling effect of sulphur particles in sufficient detail. So far, the results from different models have differed significantly from each other. However, as the topic has become increasingly relevant, numerous research groups have focused their efforts on it, which will potentially yield more accurate and consistent results in the near future. 

A cargo ship on an icy sea.
Photo: Shutterstock

Searching for methods to verify carbon sequestration 

In ACCC, research is carried out in three research programmes. The first one centres on the role of forests and agriculture as carbon sinks and the methods for verifying carbon sequestration in soil. The second research programme delves into the connection between air quality and climate, in which cities play a particularly pivotal role. The third one deals with the consequences of climate change and strategies for adapting to them. During its first three years of operation, the flagship has published almost 1,300 peer-reviewed scientific studies on these topics. 

One of the key objectives of the flagship is to develop reliable and research-based methods for verifying carbon emissions and carbon sequestration. The successful achievement of the objective is fostered by the fact that all three research divisions at the Finnish Meteorological Institute participate in the flagship: climate change research, meteorological and marine research, as well as the Space and Earth Observation Centre. For example, in the verification of carbon sequestration, carbon cycle researchers have carried out measurements on the surface of the earth, while remote sensing researchers have investigated carbon sinks and sources using data produced by satellites. 

One of the key objectives of the flagship is to develop reliable and research-based methods for verifying carbon emissions and carbon sequestration.

“Being able to measure and verify, for example, the carbon sequestration capacity of forests and soil is critical in evaluating the impact on climate change,” explains Ari Laaksonen. “Our researchers have developed methods for monitoring and verifying agricultural carbon sinks. The study produces information on cultivation methods that promote carbon sequestration in soil.” 

In the flagship project, funding has not been earmarked for particular studies. This allows research to be carried out in a more agile manner than usually. As an example, Ari Laaksonen mentions an attribution study that can be used to investigate the role of climate change in extreme weather phenomena. 

“We selected the attribution study as one of the focus areas of 2023 in FMI’s flagship research. We were able to launch the study quickly, and flagship funding enabled the researchers to dedicate their efforts to studying the topic,” Ari Laaksonen explains. 

This study allowed for a prompt examination of the contribution of climate change to the unusually warm September of 2023 and its influence on the chilly weather conditions of early 2024. 

Impact arises from the dissemination of research data 

In the flagship project, the impact of research is particularly important. The utilisation and understanding of research data in society is promoted through dialogue and cooperation with companies, other research projects, the public sector, non-governmental organisations, decision-makers, and citizens. 

For example, the research on carbon sequestration in soil involves working in close cooperation with a range of companies and farmers. Through this cooperation, studies can be conducted in authentic settings, allowing partners to quickly access the research findings. 

A key part of ACCC’s activities is the impact programme, which guides cooperation with societal actors. One of the spearheads of the impact programme is Climate University: a network of 11 universities offering free online courses open to everyone. The Finnish Meteorological Institute has produced the Living with Changing Climate course for the university. The course aims to provide participants with competence that enables them to assist companies and public authorities in the implementation of climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

The Finnish Meteorological Institute has also been developing specialised training for climate experts with the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research INAR. Launched for the first time in spring 2024, the education responds to the growing need for climate expertise in different sectors. 

Cooperation to be expanded beyond familiar networks 

Approximately 450 researchers and 1,000 research organisations worldwide are involved in the flagship. Extensive cooperation calls for clear coordination.  

Senior Researcher Tero Siili is the research coordinator for the flagship project in the Finnish Meteorological Institute. His role is for his part to prepare the necessary prerequisites for realising the project at the Finnish Meteorological Institute as seamlessly and productively as possible. One of the aims is to find partners and research data users in areas where cooperation has not traditionally been carried out.  

“The flagship project’s operating method encourages us to find partners outside the usual sectors in a constructive manner,” Tero Siili says. 

The flagship project involves a vast array of stakeholders. For Tero Siili, it has been an eye-opener to uncover the various connections that natural sciences research can have. For example, the expertise of lawyers plays a vital role in understanding and evaluating the implications and responsibilities of international climate-related agreements and the significance of verification methods developed by researchers. 

The flagship project involves a wide array of partnerships ranging from large companies to start-ups.

The flagship project involves a wide array of partnerships ranging from large companies to start-ups. The flagship project’s innovation forum brings companies together and enables them to develop new innovations related to climate and air quality together and in collaboration with other actors. 

Events for sharing information and brainstorming together 

Various events play a vital role in boosting the impact of the flagship programme. The annual Impact Week event spans a full week and brings together a wide variety of flagship stakeholders. The series of research seminars and an annual scientific meeting, for their part, serve as a platform for all researchers in the flagship to exchange the latest research findings. 

The Climate Security Festival, organised for the first time in September 2023, beautifully exemplifies the multidisciplinary character of the flagship project. 

“During the event, a diverse group of people engaged in an open dialogue, focusing on potential safety-related changes we can expect in the future, and brainstormed solutions that can be implemented right away,” Tero Siili says. 

Marine research raises the flagship sails higher 

The second funding period of the ACCC flagship will begin in 2025, following successful initial four years. Even more extensive research is expected to be carried out during this stage, as the Finnish Meteorological Institute’s marine research will join the project.  

Ari Laaksonen and Tero Siili are also looking forward to cooperating with other flagship projects involving the Finnish Meteorological Institute. Launched at the beginning of 2024, the Digital Waters (DIWA) flagship project and the Flagship of Advanced Mathematics for Sensing, Imaging and Modelling (FAME) have clear links with climate and air quality research. Common themes explored in all three projects include the modelling of snow cover and mapping of greenhouse gas sources and sinks using satellite observations and modelling. 

Atmosphere and Climate Competence Center (ACCC) 

  • Aiming to increase understanding of climate change and air pollution.  

  • Promotes international, EU and Finland’s climate objectives by producing scientific information and making it available to various societal actors.  

  • Implemented by the University of Helsinki, Finnish Meteorological Institute, University of Eastern Finland and Tampere University. 

  • Executed from 2020 to 2028. First phase from 2020 to 2024, second phase from 2025 to 2028. 

  • ACCC Flagship Project’s website 

Throughout the spring, we will publish articles on our website, focusing on the flagship projects in which the Finnish Meteorological Institute participates. Previously published articles: 

Text Kaisa Ryynänen