£1.5m funding to create ‘Digital Twin’ model to reduce methane emissions

A ‘twin’ of the world’s wetlands is to be created by Leicester scientists from satellite data, mathematical models and artificial intelligence to help monitor and reduce methane emissions.

Dr Robert Parker from the University of Leicester and the National Centre for Earth Observation will lead the project as one of 75 new Future Leaders Fellows announced today (4 December) by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

It comes as climate experts from Leicester attend the COP28 climate conference in Dubai this week, showcasing the vital role of space technology and data in tackling climate change, as well as research on measuring methane emissions from space.

UKRI’s flagship Future Leaders Fellowships allow universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators and to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas. 75 of the most promising research leaders will benefit from £101 million to tackle major global issues and to commercialise their innovations in the UK. 

Dr Parker has been awarded £1.5m for his project ‘The First Environmental Digital Twin Dedicated to Understanding Tropical Wetland Methane Emissions for Improved Predictions of Climate Change’.

Methane is a major greenhouse gas and a significant target for mitigation of global warming. Many countries recently committed to the Global Methane Pledge, aiming to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. However, recent unexplained and significant increases in atmospheric methane highlight an increasingly urgent need to understand how tropical wetlands are responding to climate change and how potential methane-climate feedbacks are driving such increases. 

The Digital Twin, a virtual model using real-world data, will bring together our best capabilities for observing and predicting wetland emissions and make these results useful to researchers, policymakers or anyone who needs to ask questions about how the Earth responds to such changes. It will enable new types of analysis, generation of new data, new climate modelling capabilities, and improved decision support.

Dr Robert Parker from the University of Leicester School of Physics and Astronomy, and the National Centre for Earth Observation, said: “As we try to achieve Net Zero targets and meet commitments to the Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions, it is vital that we understand the background of underlying natural emissions upon which human-made emissions are added. Climate feedbacks which accelerate natural emissions could undermine any benefit from reducing human-generated emissions and significantly change advice given to policymakers.

“I’m delighted to have this opportunity to demonstrate how we can bring together our amazing wealth of satellite data, modelling capabilities and machine learning techniques to tackle some of the most urgent environmental issues. Understanding and reducing methane emissions is a major global challenge but there’s a massive benefit if we can achieve it and limit future warming.”

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with long-term support and training, giving them the freedom to explore adventurous new ideas, and to build dynamic careers that break down the boundaries between sectors and disciplines.  

“The fellows announced today illustrate how this scheme empowers talented researchers and innovators to build the diverse and connected research and innovation system we need to shorten the distance between discovery and prosperity across the UK.” 

COP28, the year’s biggest climate conference, will be attended by three climate experts from the University of Leicester whose research is making significant contribution to the agenda through their work at Space Park Leicester and the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).

Professor Heiko Balzter and Dr Cristina Ruiz Villena from NCEO, and Dr Harjinder Sembhi from Space Park Leicester are supporting the UK Space Agency’s collaborative action group, Space4Climate, who will be representing UK climate and space expertise from academia and industry. Dr Sembhi will also talk about how Earth Observing satellites can help address global challenges and will be showcasing some recent research on measuring methane emissions from space. Dr Cristina Ruiz Villena is one of 10 Early-Career Researchers awarded a UK Universities Climate Network (UUCN) scholarship to attend COP28.