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Geoengineering 'No Substitute' for Climate Targets, UK Minister Warns

Geoengineering is a topic we often discuss here on Worldchanging. And while we encourage careful debate concerning this topic, we are cautiously skeptical of any ideas that support tinkering with the intricate systems and delicate balances of the Earth. (Click here for a collection of Worldchanging discussions on Geoengineering.)

UK climate minister Joan Ruddock is wary of reliance on radical technology that could be used by some as an excuse to avoid meeting targets to reduce carbon emissions.

by James Randerson

Research into drastic solutions to climate change such as cloud seeding, sun shades in space and ocean fertilization risks hampering global climate negotiations by giving some countries an excuse for not agreeing to short-term emissions reductions, a UK government minister warned today.

The remarks by Joan Ruddock, a minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, appear to be a thinly veiled dig at the Bush administration, whose delegation attempted to insert a section into last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on developing technology to block sunlight and cool the planet. The proposed text referred to it as an "important insurance" against the impacts of climate change.

Speaking to MPs on the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee, Ruddock was defending the government's unwillingness to fund research into so-called geoengineering – large-scale, untested interventions that either soak up carbon dioxide or prevent sunlight warming the planet

"The concern is that people who don't want to enter into agreements that mean they have to reduce their emissions might see this as a means of doing nothing, of being able to say, 'science will provide, there will be a way out'," she said, "it could be used politically in that way which would be extremely unfortunate."

She added that funding research on such projects would deflect engineers away from more pressing solutions to climate change such as carbon capture and storage – extracting carbon dioxide from the emissions put out by fossil fuel power stations and injecting it underground.

The science minister Lord Drayson added that many of the proposals – such as launching huge mirrors into space, adding particles into the atmosphere to deflect light or seeding algal blooms in the ocean using iron fertilizer – were extremely costly and had risks that were poorly understood. "Some of the projects that are being postulated under geoengineering do strike one as being in the realm of science fiction," he said.

But Steve Rayner, professor of science and civilization at the Said Business School in Oxford, pointed out that not all options were expensive. Some such as iron fertilization would be within reach of wealthy individuals - he called them, "a 'Greenfinger' rather than 'Goldfinger'."

Currently, the research councils – which decide how public science funding is spent – do not fund any projects into geoengineering directly, although the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has allocated £3m for an "ideas factory" into potential projects next year.

According to Dr Phil Williamson at the University of East Anglia, who wrote the Natural Environment Research Council's submission to the select committee hearing, around £50m of the government's research spend is peripherally related to geo-engineering.

The select committee's chair, the liberal democrat MP Phil Willis, said he was disappointed with the government's position of adopting only a "watching brief" over the emerging field. "That seems to me a very very negative way of actually facing up to the challenge of the future," he said. "It's a very pessimistic view of emerging science and Britain's place within that emerging science community."

He said government should support many different avenues to tackling climate change. "There have to be plethora of solutions. Some of which we do not know whether they will work, but that is the whole purpose of science."

But the chief scientific advisor to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Prof Bob Watson, said that funding should be focussed on the most immediate solutions. "I think the question is whether [geoengineering] is the highest priority at the moment given scarce resources.

"First [priority] is actually putting investment into current technologies and pre-commercial technologies such as carbon capture and storage," he said, "Clearly I think this is something which has to be move quickly. I would call it an Apollo-type programme... we need to go in parallel and try multiple approaches simultaneously." He advocated that the EU, US and Japan work together on research into CCS.

Some scientists and engineers will also be disappointed with the government's dismissal of the field. In the introduction to a collection of scientific papers published by the Royal Society in September on the topic Prof Brian Launder of the University of Manchester and Prof Michael Thompson of the University of Cambridge wrote: "While such geoscale interventions may be risky, the time may well come when they are accepted as less risky than doing nothing... There is increasingly the sense that governments are failing to come to grips with the urgency of setting in place measures that will assuredly lead to our planet reaching a safe equilibrium."

· This article was amended on Thursday November 20 2008 to clarify that the figure of £50m mentioned in the piece is the per annum spend by the UK's research councils, not the total government spend. It covers research on climate modeling, carbon capture and storage and 'geoengineering relevant' research work.

This piece originally appeared on The Guardian, for which James Randerson is a science correspondent.

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"I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot." --Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

Here is what Climate Code Red says:

--Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.

--There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to "thermal inertia", or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.

--If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don't increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).

--Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assuming very optimistically that emissions don't increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, nor for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 21 Nov 08

"Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them." --Dr James Lovelock's lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. '07

"NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, says that the release of methane clathrates from permafrost regions and beneath the seabed will unleash powerful feedback forces that could produce runaway climate change that cannot be controlled - the so-called methane time bomb - a prediction of radical environmental transformation far worse than the worst-case scenarios theorised by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 21 Nov 08

It's amusing that the UK environment minister is criticizing people "not meeting targets" when essentially NONE of the kyoto signatories have ever met any of their targets. Except nations with negative economic growth).

One more example of the enormous "world changing" hypocrisy of the green movement. They talk big about climate change, but none of them seem willing to give up their jet travel.

For this reason, geoengineering has a bright future.

Posted by: Tom Franklin on 21 Nov 08

While the Minister is right to be wary about "geoengineering" those who would lump replenishement of deprived iron to the oceans to restore diminished plankton blooms do this planet a grave disservice. The science report a week ago moving the DEADline for the Southern Oceans acidification up to 2030, just 21 years from now is a clear signal, as is the Hansen report on present CO2 already being to high for life as we know it. The loss of 10% of ocean plants in the Southern Ocean, 17% in the N. Atlantic, 26% in the N. Pacific, and 50+% in the Tropics in 30 years clearly shows life in the oceans are doomed if we do not act promptly to choose ocean eco-restoration and life over ocean acidificaton and death.

Posted by: Russ George on 21 Nov 08

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