Royal Society Launches Large-Scale Review of Geoengineering Proposals

royal society review image

Image from Nature Geoscience

Desperate times call for desperate measures -- and, no, I'm not talking about the financial crisis. Giving new legitimacy to the study of geoengineering, the Royal Society announced yesterday that it would conduct a large-scale review of the various proposed planetary engineering schemes, such as iron fertilization and space mirrors, reports The Guardian's Alok Jha. (It recently dedicated an entire issue to the controversial topic.)

The review will seek to determine which methods might be feasible to use (if any) and what their potential side-effects on humans and the environment could be. As John Shepherd, the chair of the Royal Society, put it, the review will try to "separate the science from the science fiction"; its objective is to provide recommendations on which methods deserve further scrutiny and funding by governments.

phytoplankton bloom image

Image from NASA

With many scientists worried that we are not tackling global warming with the urgency that is needed to avert a future climate crisis (and, really, who can blame them?), geoengineering has experienced a wave of interest in recent months -- even by some once staunch skeptics. According to some recent studies, inaction, or weak action, to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions could lead to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeding 650 parts per million (ppm) within the next century, a radical increase that could cause average global temperatures to rise by 4 degrees C.

The image I included at the beginning of the post is a ranking of the alternatives (darker colors = higher ranking) done by Philip Boyd, a geochemist from New Zealand's University of Otago, who wrote a recent Nature Geoscience commentary piece (sub. required) advocating for more research into the most promising schemes.

It's a bit hard to see all the alternatives on the picture, but they include ocean fertilization, stratospheric aerosols (basically injecting sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere), cloud whitening (to reflect more sunlight), atmospheric carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and geochemical CCS. (Nature's Anna Barnett has more on this and some related studies.)

Other scientists, however, remain leery of geoengineering and its fantastical-sounding remedies, arguing that, since we already have all the necessary technologies to handle climate change, we should be focusing on political and economic solutions. Indeed, it's hard to get too excited about any of these techniques since we still know so little about their efficacy -- or their impacts on ecosystems and society. The review does seem like it will do a good job of assessing both the potential benefits and adverse effects of the proposals; any recommendations it makes are more likely to be on the cautious side.

More research into the area certainly doesn't seem like a bad idea in of itself. As long as scientists and policymakers continue their focus on cost-effective, clean technologies -- those we already have -- and other emission-reducing measures (which are much more likely to get us out of this mess than is geoengineering), it can't hurt to invest some time and effort into preparing for a worst-case scenario.

More news about geoengineering
This Month In Wired: Geoengineering and Ken Caldeira
Quote of the Day: James Lovelock on Geoengineering & The "Practice of Planetary Medicine"
Giving Geo-Engineering Another Go: Dumping Limestone into the Oceans to Fight Acidification

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