In a world where the renewable energy solution to climate change is a problem bogged down in politics and economics, geoengineering can sometimes look like the perfect solution. As the University of Leeds puts it, “deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system” sounds wonderful — especially if it bypasses the need to do any actual change down here on Earth.
However, the University of Leeds’ description is immediately followed by a clarification: “The deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system is not a ‘quick fix’ for global warming,” they write in a joint-press release announcing the UK’s first publicly funded studies on geoengineering.
Three projects, conducted at three of the UK’s premier universities, each studied geoengineering and recently announced their results at an event held at The Royal Society in London. The three projects were: Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP), led by the University of Leeds; Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE), led by the University of Bristol; and Climate Geoengineering Governance (CGG), led by the University of Oxford.
For the uninitiated, geoengineering is just like the description above — imagine salting a chemical of some sort into the clouds to reflect more light back up into space rather than onto the ground, or fertilising the ocean with nutrients to grow plankton which will in turn soak up more carbon dioxide.
(Some of you are already beginning to wonder how on Earth any idea like this might be sensible, but they’re not as far-fetched or absurd as they sound on the surface.)
Absurd or not, geoengineering projects have long sat in the scientific consciousness as a possible third option — alongside doing nothing and the inevitable drawn-out renewable energy battle.
The results of the three projects can be essentially summed-up as definitely not being a “quick fix,” and as Professor Piers Forster adds, “the devil is in the details.”
“Geoengineering will be much more expensive and challenging than previous estimates suggest and any benefits would be limited,” said Professor Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change at the University of Leeds, and the principal investigator of the IAGP project.
“For example, when simulating the spraying of sea salt particles into clouds to try to brighten them, we found that only a few clouds were susceptible and that the particles would tend to coagulate and fall out before reaching the cloud base.”
Maybe because of these downfalls, and probably more because so many think it an absurd science-fiction story, geoengineering doesn’t get a lot of air time. Here at CleanTechnica, we’ve tagged the story a total of five times over the past six years — which is enough proof if you needed it (Planetsave, our sister site, has tagged it 23 times in five years).
In January, former US vice president Al Gore found the idea of geoengineering “less than appealing,” as our Sandy Dechert wrote at the time, putting it somewhat more mildly than Gore himself:
The idea that we can put a different form of pollution into the atmosphere to cancel out the effects of global warming pollution is utterly insane.
More Research Required
In September of 2009, The Royal Society published a report which influenced research worldwide, and identified major gaps in understanding which initiated the publicly funded studies. IGAP and SPICE were funded in 2010, and Oxford’s CGG study in 2012.
The University of Leeds Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals study was the UK’s first interdisciplinary research study bringing together experts from fields as diverse as climate modelling, philosophy, and engineering.
“Cleverly designed simulations create less necessity for real-world testing. My favourite part of the research involved creating a virtual reality in which we tried to rescue Arctic sea ice by dumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere from Stratotanker aircraft flying out of Svalbard in Norway,” said Professor Forster.
“Issues around monitoring and predicting the effects of our actions led to huge indecision and highlighted how challenging it would be to ever try and deploy these techniques in the real world.”
Researchers from the University of Bristol working on the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering study took a different tack, but came to a similar conclusion. SPICE researchers used volcanoes as models, rather than creating simulations, to mimic the effect of several geoengineering proposals.
Dr Matthew Watson, a reader in natural hazards from the University of Bristol, and principal investigator for the SPICE project, said: “Whilst it is clear that temperatures could be reduced during deployment, the potential for misstep is considerable. By identifying risks, we hope to contribute to the evidence base around geoengineering that will determine whether deployment, in the face of the threat of climate change, has the capacity to do more good than harm.”
Led by the University of Oxford, the Climate Geoengineering Governance study is the world’s first project to focus on the governance and regulatory challenges of research and deployment of geoengineering proposals. The findings showed that current cost estimates are unrealistic and that geoengineering has to focus only on mitigation and adaptation to climate change, rather than reversing climate change.
“Take everything you hear both for and against geoengineering with a large grain of salt,” said Professor Steve Rayner, the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at the University of Oxford, and principal investigator for the CGG project. “Mostly it is too soon to know what any of these technology ideas would look like in practice or what would be their true cost and benefit.
“But it’s almost certain that geoengineering will be neither a magic bullet nor Pandora’s Box.”
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