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Tag Archives: geoengineering

Is your ‘Vision’ the same as your climate science colleagues?

by Liz Kalaugher

In climate science, projections tend to be long-term and patience is required to discover their accuracy. But by entering the Vision Prize polls you can find out in just a few months how well you predicted your colleagues’ views, as well as how much you agree with majority thinking.

vision-prize-160x60In this quarter’s polls you can comment on when sea-level will rise 1 metre above 2000 levels, which regions will see most weather disasters in the 2030s, the likelihood of geoengineering deployment in the form of solar radiation management, which technologies could most slow climate change this century, and whether burning all currrent fossil fuel reserves would bring more than 3 degrees of warming.

It’s free to sign up, participants are vetted to ensure they have relevant expertise, the poll takes around 5-10 minutes to complete, and the best predictors win prizes for the charity of their choice.

  • environmentalresearchweb has set up a collaboration with VisionPrize.


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Should we engineer the climate to counter the effect of global warming?

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By James Dacey, Physics World

Geoengineering is the idea of controlling the weather and climate by the large-scale engineering of the environment. The idea has come to prominence in recent years as concerns about man-made global warming have increased and governments have faltered on negotiations to restrict carbon-dioxide emissions.

One of the more radical proposals is to intervene with the Earth’s solar-energy balance by deploying technologies to reflect sunlight. Suggestions include painting buildings white to make them more reflective, injecting reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, or even deploying a fleet of shields into the Earth’s orbit to directly intercept incoming sunlight.

The other main approach to geoengineering is to try to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One area already being developed is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a three-stage process that involves harvesting, transporting and then storing the carbon dioxide in suitable underground locations such as vast saline aquifers. A more radical approach is to fertilize the ocean with a limiting nutrient such as iron to promote more marine flora, which will draw more carbon out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis.

Earlier this month, environmentalresearchweb published an interview with the high-profile geophysicist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US. Caldeira has some severe reservations about geoengineering, specifically concerning: its environmental impact; how the presence of a “plan B” that may prove unreliable could affect efforts to cut carbon emissions; and who on the global stage should regulate use of the technology, particularly when it may reduce rainfall in some areas.

We want to know your opinion on this issue, via this week’s Physics World Facebook poll.

Should we engineer the climate to counter the effect of global warming?

Let’s do it!
We should prepare to do it as a “plan B” if carbon emissions continue to rise
No way! The environmental risks are too high
No, because it won’t work anyway

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of university ranking exercises. The issue was on our minds because the Times Higher Education (THE) had just released its annual list of the top 100 universities, which was dominated by institutions in English-speaking countries.  We asked whether you think these university ranking exercises are inherently biased. The outcome was highly conclusive, with 96% of respondents opting for “yes”.

Thank you for your participation and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

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Geoengineering – a last ditch response to climate change?

In its recent report on geo-engineering, the Royal Society argues that “air capture” carbon dioxide absorption techniques are probably the best geo-engineering option in that we should “address the root cause of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”. Solar heat reflector techniques were seen as generally less attractive. It may well be
true that carbon dioxide absorption is the best type of geo-engineering option,but surely, geo-engineering of whatever type in no way deals at source with the “root cause” of climate change – which is
the production of carbon dioxide in power stations, gas boilers and

The Royal Society report, like the parallel report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, does stress that “No geo-engineering method can provide an easy or readilyacceptable alternative solution to the problem of climate change” and that mitigation and adaptation programmes are vital. However, there is the risk that “technical fix” geo-engineering approaches may be seized on as an alternative to dealing with the problem at source, since they could seem to offer ways to allow continued use of fossil fuels. That’s not to say there is no role for geo-engineering, but we need a hierarchy of options.

Mitigation via renewables would come top of my list, along with improved energy efficiency. Adaptation will inevitably have to occur – given the emissions that we have already produced, whatever we do about mitigation, or for that matter geo-engineering, we are going to
be faced with some climate change. Geo-engineering, as a pretty inelegant “end of pipe”, trying to clean up “after the event” approach, might be seen as an ancillary option, rather than as a last line of defence, or as “Plan B”.

Tim Fox, who led the IMechE study, commented sensibly that “We’re not proposing that geo-engineering should be a substitute for mitigation [but] should be implemented alongside mitigation and adaptation. We are urging government not to regard geo-engineering as a plan B but as a fully integrated part of efforts against climate change.”

Even so, there are major uncertainties over costs, reliability and eco-impacts, as both reports recognised. Both proposed a £10 m pa UK research programme, which seems not unreasonable, to try to identify the best options and the risks more clearly. But let’s not get too deflected from what ought to be the primary aim of avoiding carbon dioxide release in the first place.

Prof. John Shepherd, from Southampton University, who chaired the Royal Society’s study, said: “It is an unpalatable truth that unless we can succeed in greatly reducing CO2 emissions, we are headed for a very uncomfortable and challenging climate future. Geo-engineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change.”

Fair enough. But, if we
really are worried about climate change, it would be better if we got seriously
stuck into mitigation, and didn’t have to add to our problems by launching potentially
risky large-scale geo-engineering programmes.

Of course not all will be
risky – though they still may not be wise. It was good to see re-afforestation
mentioned by the Royal Society as an option, even if it could only
realistically absorb a smallish proportion of our ever-increasing
emissions. However, while
the IMechE backed the idea of painting roof tops white to reflect solar heat
and reduce global or least local heating, the Royal Society said: “The overall cost of a ‘white roof
method’ covering an area of 1% of the land surface would be about $300
billion/yr, making this one of the least effective and most expensive
methods.” Putting solar collectors on roof-tops might be a better
idea! I’m not so sure about
chemical air capture though. Both reports back the “Artificial Tree” idea for
carbon dioxide absorption.
Submarines, and, famously, Apollo spacecraft, used sodium, hydroxide to do
this. If we are thinking along the
same lines now for the whole planet, we must be getting desperate. Biochar
might be a better option – but not if on a very large scale, surely?

Geo-engineering may have a
role, and these reports are useful, but there are still a lot of unknowns –
after all its basically about tinkering further with the climate and linked ecosystems,
albeit consciously rather than accidentally. Quite apart from the cost, there
is the risk that, if we adopt large-scale programmes like seeding the oceans
with nutrients to increase CO2 uptake, or pumping aerosols into the atmosphere
to reflect sunlight, we could create major new unexpected eco problems.

Geoengineering the climate

For more discussion of
renewable energy options and policies, visit Renew.


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The dangerous vagary in ‘geoengineering’

By James Dacey,

Ok, maybe I’m being a bit pedantic here but am I the only one to be slightly confused and a little concerned by the vagary of the term “geoengineering”?

I raise this question now because yesterday the UK’s most prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society, released a major report on the topic with the aim of clarifying the technical issues to better-inform climate policy. Politicians, however, like things to be spelt out veeerry cleeaarrly. Therefore, any confusion surrounding the central term in this policy document could stall the debate on what may become a key component of the fight against climate change.

So, let’s consult the Chambers English Dictionary, which just happens to be the only dictionary within grabbing distance at the time of writing:

“Geo” is the prefix – taken from Greek – for “Earth”; and engineer means “to put to practical use, engines or machinery of any type”.

I think you’ll agree that both of these words hold a broad range of meanings and a combination of the two makes for a very wide semantic field indeed. Use your own imagination here but I can picture all sorts of ways in which the naked Earth could be engineered – from spectacular agricultural terraces like those in the Andes to the idea of a giant Eiffel Tower replica carved into the Antarctic ice.

The Royal Society report, however, gives a specific definition of geoengineering as the “deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change”.

The report reviews a range of proposals such as launching giant mirrors into interstellar space to reflect the Sun’s rays, or injecting iron into the world’s oceans to rapidly increase the amount of phytoplankton that consume carbon dioxide.

The point is that all of these geoengineering proposals are related to the climate – specifically, technological solutions to minimizing the effects of anthropogenic climate change. So why are we not calling this “climate engineering”? It’s certainly not perfect but it’s surely a closer fit to the definition.

It just seems like the Royal Society has missed a great opportunity to kick this vague, poorly-chosen term into touch once and for all.

Anyway, if you can think of a better term that more accurately fits the definition then please feel free to offer your suggestion.

James Dacey,

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AGU Meeting: To geoengineer or not to geoengineer

By Liz Kalaugher

This year’s AGU Fall Meeting session on geoengineering had twice as many submissions as last year – proof that the field is attracting increasing serious attention. But it’s still a highly controversial area. Not only are there ethical issues involved in committing future generations to maintaining the technology and the fact that it may negatively affect some regions of the globe, but also little is known about which approach is best, how effectively it will work or how much it will cost.


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