Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty

This morning the BES Policy Team attended the launch of the Royal Society’s new report, “Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty”. The report is the first to provide a wide-ranging assessment of potential future geoengineering options (the large scale manipulation of the earth’s climate) and is the result of over a year’s activity by the working group set up to develop the document, chaired by John Shepherd FRS.

Speaking at the launch, Professor John Beddington FRS, the Chief Scientific Advisor, UK Government, congratulated the Society on producing an authoritative and sensible contribution to a controversial area. Other speakers referred to geoengineering as an area in which there is ‘a lot of heat but not much light’, and welcomed the Society’s report as a means to dispel some of the misinformation quoted regarding geoengineering.

Geoengineering is not a ‘magic bullet’ or an alternative to emissions reductions but may help to support efforts to mitigate climate change: this was the high level conclusion of the report as outlined by John Shepherd. All speakers were clear that geoengineering is not ‘Plan B’ to the ‘Plan A’ of emissions reductions facilitated by this December’s climate change negotiations in Copenhagen but must be seen as part of a ‘toolkit’ of options to tackle dangerous climate change.

The report calls for more research to be conducted not only into the technology needed for geoengineering to proceed but into the social, ethical and legal consequences of developing geoengineering schemes. Catherine Redgwell, a member of the working group and a professor of international law at the University of London, touched upon this at the launch, stating that at present no single institution or treatise exists under which deployment of geoengineering technologies could be regulated.

The report concludes that in most respects, carbon removal systems are preferable to solar radiation management systems in that carbon removal systems directly tackle the cause of climate change, including tackling consequences such as ocean acidification. Direct removal of carbon dioxide from the air, through ‘air capture’ is outlined as a highly effective, but also highly expensive, carbon removal option, whilst stratospheric aerosols may be a highly effective and affordable method of solar management. The report concludes however that there are great risks and legal implications associated with the use of this technology.The working group advocates research into both classes of method.

Summing up discussion, which also saw contributions from Professor James Lovelock FRS, Professor Ken Caldeira and Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist and Policy Director at Greenpeace, Professor Beddington stated that the Government would examine the report and consider geoengineering as part of the overall solution to climate change. Professor Beddington did not see a major shift in funding towards geoengineering research as practical but said that the Research Councils and others in the ‘government advisory community’ would consider how to take forward the recommendations of the report in concert with international partners.

Read the Royal Society’s report: Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty