Climate engineering: Technical status, future directions, and potential responses

Ethical Markets Trendspotting, Earth Systems Science

There are two new reports out on geoengineering that we would like to bring to your attention.

First of all the long-awaited “technology assessment” done by the US Government Accountability Office has just been released in Washington – as hundreds of protestors continue to be arrested for opposing the Keystone pipeline that will carry dirty oil from the Canadian Tar Sands to the US.

The report, “Climate engineering: Technical status, future directions, and potential responses” is a detailed technical examination of different geoengineering technologies that concludes that none of them are now an option for addressing climate change, and the top one (direct air capture AKA carbon-sucking machines) scores only 3 out of  9 on a “technology readiness level (TRL)”. The report states that the majority of experts consulted favoured more research on geoengineering, while warning about risks and misuse of results. The GAO also undertook a survey of public opinion in the US and found concern about possible harm from geoengineering as well as a high level of support for CO2 emissions reduction. They found 50-75% of the public worried about the safety of such technologies and strong support for the involvement of multiple organizations and interests in decision-making around geoengineering.  In an earlier report, the GAO had recommended a coordinated federal programme on climate engineering research.

For another view of what technology assessment is, see this short paper by ETC Group.  The GAO report does not deal in any depth with the serious international, equity and justice concerns raised by geoengineering technologies. Using the GAO’s TRL methodology, “technological maturity”  must include “testing in a relevant environment” (which in this case means mostly the ocean or the atmosphere).  Given that the US is not a Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity which adopted a moratorium on geoengineering last year, this is extremely worrying. Some geoengineers will race to jump through the different levels of TRL and this may further increase the pressure to proceed with real-world testing.  Rather than focusing on the critical problem of the lack of political will in the US to cut emissions, this report looks like it will encourage policy makers to continue down the delusionary path of trying to find a technical fix to climate change, squandering precious research funds and lending political capital to the geoengineering lobby.

Also in the realm of public opinion about geoengineering, a new report was also recently released in the UK: Public Engagement on Geoengineering Research: Preliminary Report on the SPICE deliberative workshops.  This report concerns two of the major research projects that were funded in the UK following the release of the Royal Society report in 2009: the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP) and the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE).  The SPICE research is of particular interest to the HOME campaign because it involves an experiment of one of the delivery mechanisms that is foreseen for shooting sulfates into the stratosphere (to reflect sunlight away from Earth).  These engineers are actually trying to build a hose, 25 kilometers long – that reaches the stratosphere – that will be held up by balloons and will inject chemicals into the upper atmosphere!  The prototype they are planning to test – and this “public engagement exercise” seems designed to help them sell it to a sceptical public – will be one kilometre long but will serve as a key piece of hardware development for solar radiation management.  It is called a test-bed. According to an interview with the sponsors on The Naked Scientist the testing is planned for October-November 2011.  Stay tuned.

A key quote from the report:

Given our participants significant reservations regarding pursuing stratospheric aerosols, it is perhaps not surprising that they engaged  critically with all aspects of the research process underpinning the test-bed.  Importantly, questions were not only related to the more mundane/logistical inquires into how the test-bed would operate, participants were also deeply interested in why researchers, funders and so forth had all opted to pursue the lines of enquiry in the ways that they have.