Time to take geo-engineering seriously?

The Planet RemadeGeo-engineering approaches to tackling climate change range have an element of science fiction about them: giant reflectors in space, enormous machines to suck carbon dioxide out of the air etc. – although admittedly some are less fantastical, such as schemes for returning carbon to the ground as biochar. Should such approaches be taken seriously, or are they a distraction from the main issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Oliver Morton starts his book “The Planet Remade: how Geo-engineering could Change the World” with two questions, which in summary are (a) do you believe that the risks of climate change merit serious action, and (b) do you think that reducing CO2 emissions will be very difficult? Morton says that if you answer “yes” to both questions then you are attuned to the two main driving forces for geo-engineering solutions to climate change. He points out, for example, how, for all the rhetoric, no concrete progress has yet been globally in reducing emissions: in 2014 global CO2 emissions were a massive 45% more than in 1997, the year in which the Kyoto Treaty was signed.

But the book is more than a description of the different geo-engineering schemes that have been proposed. Indeed, there is little specific technical information about these. Instead, Morton puts geo-engineering into a broad historical and scientific context which highlights changing attitudes to attempts to consciously tinker with the environment.

Morton also does an excellent job of enumerating the arguments in favour of geo-engineering solutions, exposing along the way different attitudes towards the subject within the environmental movement.

The first argument is that, even if reducing emissions is our Plan A, we also need a Plan B, given the seeming lack of progress so far on Plan A. This argument is looked on with suspicion by many campaigners, as it appears to suggest that emissions reductions can be dispensed with. Other arguments include the “Emergency, Break Glass” rationale, which says that geo-engineering could be an emergency measure if, for example, climate change develops more quickly than models predict. There is also the “Breathing Space” argument which suggests using geo-engineering as a stop-gap until we have got our acts together in stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels.

So far, nobody is investing heavily in geo-engineering schemes, which are all essentially at the research stage. Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, which offers a prize of $ 25 million for a feasible concept for removing CO2 from that atmosphere, has been running for over eight years and there is still no winner. And, to many, the risks associated with some of the schemes – particularly those that tinker chemically with the upper atmosphere – are too scary to seriously contemplate.

There are certainly substantial arguments against pursuing geo-engineering routes to controlling climate change – arguments which are set out with clarity in Mike Hulme’s “Can Science Fix Climate Change?: A Case Against Climate Engineering”. But with the huge gap that still exists between the politicians’ rhetoric and concrete action – a gap that has widened with the euphoria following COP 21 in Paris – the case for at least doing the research necessary to validate (or otherwise) some of the geo-engineering approaches is arguably stronger than ever. Books like “The Planet Re-Made” and other introductions to this fascinating area such as “Suck it Up” by Marc Gunther, and David Keith’s “A Case for Climate Engineering” are therefore timely reading – even if you hope that these technologies will never be needed.