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  Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty

01 September 2009The Royal Society has published the findings of a major study into geoengineering the climate.

The study, chaired by Professor John Shepherd FRS, was researched and written over a period of twelve months by twelve leading academics representing science, economics, law and social science.

Man-made climate change is happening and its impacts and costs will be large, serious and unevenly spread. The impacts may be reduced by adaptation and moderated by mitigation, especially by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. However, global efforts to reduce emissions have not yet been sufficiently successful to provide confidence that the reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change will be achieved. This has led to growing interest in geoengineering, defined here as the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.

However, despite this interest, there has been a lack of accessible, high quality information on the proposed geoengineering techniques which remain unproven and potentially dangerous. This study provides a detailed assessment of the various methods and considers the potential efficiency and unintended consequences they may pose. It divides geoengineering methods into two basic categories:

1.      Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) techniques, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere. As they address the root cause of climate change, rising CO2 concentrations, they have relatively low uncertainties and risks. However, these techniques work slowly to reduce global temperatures.

2.      Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques, which reflect a small percentage of the sun's light and heat back into space. These methods act quickly, and so may represent the only way to lower global temperatures quickly in the event of a climate crisis. However, they only reduce some, but not all, effects of climate change, while possibly creating other problems . They also do not affect CO2 levels and therefore fail to address the wider effects of rising CO2, including ocean acidification.

The report recommends:

    Parties to the UNFCCC should make increased efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change and in particular to agreeing to global emissions reductions of at least 50% on 1990 levels by 2050 and more thereafter;

     CDR and SRM geoengineering methods should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change. CDR methods should be regarded as preferable to SRM methods.

     Relevant UK government departments, in association with the UK Research Councils, should together fund a 10 year geoengineering research programme at a level of the order of 10M per annum.

               The Royal Society, in collaboration with international science partners, should develop a code of practice for geoengineering research and provide recommendations to the international scientific community for a voluntary research governance framework.

The Royal Society issued a call for submissions and convened a small ethics workshop as part of the evidence gathering process. More information is available in the main report.

Read the related press release here.

UPDATED March 2010 - The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is carrying out a public dialogue on geoengineering to assess public opinion on how future research relating to the subject should be directed, conducted and communicated. If you would like to take part in the dialogue the following link will take you to an online survey about geoengineering. http://geoengineering.dialoguebydesign.net

Related Royal Society publications:

       Towards a low carbon future: 29 Jun 2009 

     Inter-Academy Panel statement on Ocean Acidification: 1 Jun 2009 

     Ground-level ozone in the 21st century: future trends, impacts and policy implications: 6 Oct 2008 

     Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges:14 Jan 2008

Media coverage of the report includes:

                 The Independent (article)

                 The Independent (editorial)

                  The Times

                  The Sunday Times

                   The Financial Times (Clive Cookson)

                   The Financial Times (Fiona Harvey)

                     The Guardian

                      Nature

                     New Scientist

                      BBC news

                    20:20 Science

                    Bloomberg

 

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