An inspirational woman in a changing world

We’re becoming increasingly aware that carbon emissions and their impact are vital issues in the world, and that understanding is largely thanks to the work of people such as Corinne Le Quéré

Had she not applied 24 hours too late to a small university in Canada, Corinne Le Quéré CBE, FRS might be a sports teacher today. Instead, the Professor of Climate Change Science at the UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences is ranked as one of the most influential scientists in the world studying the climate - and is one of only a handful of women. 

Only 10% of physics professors in Britain are women, just seven have ever won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and only four have won the prize for physics.

When not on campus in Norwich or at her idyllic retreat at Wells-Next-the-Sea, Corinne undertakes works for the French High Council on Climate, is a member of the UK Climate Change Committee, wrote the 3rd, 4th and 5th assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and regularly advises politicians and policymakers in the UK and Europe. 

“Now is the time when climate science is most needed to inform the big decisions of our time,” she says. “The more we learn about the Earth the more obvious it becomes that humans are an intrinsic part of the planet.”

Corinne’s research mainly focuses on the interactions between the carbon cycle and climate change in the atmosphere and oceans, and despite all her qualifications and awards she’s the first to admit that she doesn’t know everything.

For example, turn the clock back to March 2020 and you’d have found Corinne (like most of us) largely confined her home office. 

The streets were deserted, it seemed the world had come to a sudden stop, and there was an odd silence pretty much everywhere. Apart from Corinne’s phone, however, which rang from a range of colleagues and journalists -  most of whom were asking her the same question.

“They wanted to know what this global pandemic was likely to mean for our emissions of carbon dioxide – and for human-driven climate change itself,” she remembers. “Since this is my area of research it seems obvious to ask me, but I was surprised to discover that I really didn’t know the answer.”

By the middle of March, she’d sent an e-mail to various colleagues, contacts and associates and had assembled a team of 13 scientists in six different countries to discover the immediate effects of the sudden and drastic drop in the global burning of fossil fuels.

Just over three weeks later the collected data had been analysed (an incredibly fast feat in the usually slow-paced field of scientific research), and the results were published in the middle of May. They made headlines around the world, showing that in one day in April 2020, carbon-dioxide emissions had dropped by 17% to levels not seen for almost 15 years. 

However, in an update published exactly a year ago the team reported that overall carbon dioxide emissions fell by a comparatively meagre 7% for the whole of 2020.

“It was quite a sobering reminder that in order to reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions that heat the planet significantly,” says Corinne, “we’ll have to do a lot more than stay at home, avoid driving, and cut down on our use of natural resources for a year or so. We need to start taking a longer view.” 

And if anyone’s familiar with the longer view it’s Corinne - she once demonstrated the complex processes to David Cameron with a 100,000 year old piece of ice she’d taken with her on the train to London.

Born in Quebec, her favourite subject in high school was physics - so when she was told by the university in Gatineau that applications for the sports education programme had closed the day before, she decided to call the physics department at the University of Montreal.

ABOVE: In March 2020, Corinne Le Quéré assembled a team of academics to study the environmental effects of the global lockdown, which saw cities around the world such as New Delhi experience significant changes in air quality and pollution levels. © Anushree Fadnavis & Adnan Abidi.

“They said ‘yeah, you’re welcome here - we take everybody,’” she recalls. “However, I didn’t realise that physics would become my life’s work until I was a research assistant at Princeton University in the late 1990s.”

In addition to raising her young daughter with her first husband, Corinne  helped her boss Jorge Sarmiento and his team solve a programming problem that was preventing them producing accurate computer models of changes in the climate - some of which are still in use today. Corinne and her family then moved to Paris, where she studied for her Ph.D.

In 1997, she was spotted when she gave a presentation in Australia to an audience of scientists studying carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in China.

Shortly after finishing her Ph.D, Corinne was recruited by ecosystem scientist Colin Prentice to join his team at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, which had been tasked with writing a chapter on the carbon cycle for the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By 2004 however, Corinne was on the move again - moving to Norwich and joining the UEA, where she remains as Professor of Climate Change Science at the university’s School of Environmental Sciences.

She’s a genuine inspiration, but Corinne’s feet are firmly on the ground.

“If we want to make progress on tackling climate change and make good decisions we need to understand how humans deal with with scientific knowledge,” she says. “That’s why I’ve always worked hard - not only to do great science, but also to interact effectively with other researchers, with policymakers and with the public.”

PICTURES: © UEA / Corinne Le Querque

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