Engineering: turning ideas into reality - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

4  Geo-engineering—a new policy area

If you really want to change the world—choose a career in engineering. And I mean real engineering, not financial engineering.[190]

Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State, BERR


159.  To date, climate change research has tended to concentrate on: (a) understanding the climate and how human behaviour impacts upon it; (b) the reduction of carbon emissions (mitigation); and (c) adapting to the effects of climate change (adaptation). As pointed out by the Royal Academy of Engineering, however, increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere have "led some to propose a fourth strand in our fight against catastrophic climate change, namely geo-engineering".[191] Unlike mitigation and adaptation, the UK has not developed any policies relating to geo-engineering research or its potential role in mitigating against climate change. This case study therefore provides us with an opportunity to consider the implications of a new engineering discipline for UK policy-making.

160.  Geo-engineering can be loosely defined as relating to any engineering activity that is concerned with large-scale alterations to the Earth or its atmosphere.[192] Throughout the latter half of the 20th century a number of geo-engineering schemes were proposed to fulfil various climatic functions. For example, in the 1950s, Russian scientists proposed constructing "Saturn rings" in the earth's orbit. Composed of metallic aerosols, the rings would supposedly have supplied heat and light to northern Russia, and shadowed equatorial regions to provide their inhabitants with the supposed benefits of a temperate climate.[193]

161.  In 1965, the US Presidential Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) produced the first high-level Government policy document to draw attention to the threat of CO2-driven climate change. Presented to then President Lyndon B. Johnson, the report, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, discussed climate science in a manner consistent with similar reports today.[194] However, PSAC identified geo-engineering as the only response to the CO2 climate problem, reporting that "The possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes therefore need to be thoroughly explored"; the possibility of reducing fossil fuel use was not discussed.

162.  In this report, we use the term 'geo-engineering' to describe activities specifically and deliberately designed to effect a change in the global climate with the aim of minimising or reversing anthropogenic climate change. Rather than a 'fourth strand' in the fight against climate change, we consider these activities to be akin to mitigation efforts, albeit at a global level. Our definition does not encompass Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies as applied to power stations, because these technologies modify emissions content as opposed to the atmosphere.


163.  Two approaches have been suggested as means to reduce or reverse the impact of anthropogenic climate change: carbon sequestration and reducing the effect of solar insolation.[195] We describe some of the mechanisms proposed for geo-engineering the climate below. Our aim is not to undertake a comprehensive analysis of technologies or to assess their feasibility or relative merit, but to provide a context in which to consider the potential policy implications of this research area.


164.  Schemes to modify the Earth's radiation balance aim to offset the effects of increasing GHG concentrations on the climate by reducing the amount of solar radiation that reaches the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, or by reducing the fraction of incoming solar radiation that is absorbed by the atmosphere and/or surface (that is increase the Earth's albedo[196]).

165.  Some of the proposed mechanisms for altering the Earth's radiation balance are outlined below. None of these options will directly affect atmospheric CO2 concentrations.[197]

Sun shades

166.  Dr Roger Angel, University of Arizona, has proposed the launch of trillions of near transparent discs, each approximately 50 cm in diameter, into space to shade the Earth. He believes the discs would be sufficient to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth by approximately 1.8%.[198] The discs would last 50 years before needing to be replaced with fresh lenses. It is estimated that the deployment of sun shades on this scale might cost as much as $350 trillion.[199] Professor Angel has recently secured NASA funding for a pilot project.

Space mirrors

167.  Positioning a superfine reflective mesh of aluminium threads in space between the Earth and the Sun was proposed by Dr Lowell Wood and Professor Edward Teller as a means to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth."[200] It has been estimated that a 1% reduction in solar radiation would require approximately 1.5 million km2 of mirrors made of a reflective mesh.[201]

Aerosol injection

168.  Large volcano eruptions result in the mass injection of sulphate particles—formed from the emitted SO2—into the stratosphere.[202] As these aerosols reflect solar radiation back to space, or themselves absorb heat, mass eruptions result in a cooling of the lower atmosphere. The eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia, for example, was thought to have produced the 'year without a summer' in 1816. Likewise, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines caused a readily detectable change in global temperatures. In the 1970s, Professor Mikhail Budyko proposed that 'artificial volcanoes' be geo-engineered. That is, that sulphate aerosols be injected into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect caused by these 'super-eruptions'. This idea has recently been revived by chemistry Nobel Laureate Professor Paul Crutzen.[203]

169.  Rather than stratospheric aerosol injection, scientists such as Professor John Latham, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder Colorado (USA), and engineers such as Professor Stephen Salter, University of Edinburgh, have suggested spraying seawater into the troposphere.[204] Professor Salter believes that tropospheric seawater injection would increase the size, longevity and whiteness of maritime stratocumulus clouds, thereby increasing cloud reflectivity and inducing a cooling effect.[205]

170.  Irrespective of whether aerosols are injected into the stratosphere or troposphere, the impact of such injection on atmospheric temperatures is ephemeral. This was highlighted by Dr Vicky Pope, Met Office, when she told us: "you have got to keep doing it for hundreds of years because as soon as you stop doing it the warming goes up again".[206] Specifically, aerosols injected into the troposphere have a residence time of days to weeks, and aerosols injected into the stratosphere of two to five years.[207] The climatic impacts of tropospheric aerosol injection are currently being modelled by the Met Office Hadley Centre.[208] We discuss funding for, and the role of, climate-based models of geo-engineering technologies later in the report.

Changes in the land/ocean surface

171.  The type of vegetation cover could be changed to modify the albedo of natural or artificial surfaces. For example, deserts could be covered with a white material to increase reflectivity or plants could be genetically modified to increase their albedo.[209]


172.  Geo-engineering schemes proposed as a means of carbon sequestration require the capture and removal of atmospheric CO2. By removing and storing atmospheric CO2, it may be possible to mitigate directly the impact of rising GHG concentrations on the climate. These schemes may also function to combat the effects of increasing global CO2 levels such as ocean acidification.

173.  Several mechanisms for the removal and storage of atmospheric CO2 have been proposed for research and development. Some of these technologies are outlined below.

Ocean fertilisation

174.  Phytoplankton take up CO2 and fix it as biomass. When the organisms die, a small fraction of this 'captured' carbon sinks into the deep ocean. Proponents of ocean fertilisation schemes have argued that by fertilising the ocean it may be possible to increase phytoplankton growth and associated carbon 'removal'. Ocean fertilisation schemes involve the addition of nutrients to the ocean (soluble iron, for example), or the redistribution of nutrients extant in the deeper ocean to increase productivity (such as through ocean pipes).[210]

175.  Unlike ocean pipe technologies, iron fertilisation schemes have been tested in small (less than 100 m2) patches of seawater as research exercises. Of 11 studies conducted prior to 2007, two reported some sinking of additional biomass.[211] On 20 May 2008, 191 nations present at a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn agreed to a moratorium on large-scale ocean fertilisation schemes, but allowed for small-scale research experiments in coastal waters. This moratorium was established to prevent private companies carrying out large-scale commercially-driven experiments, while making allowance for legitimate scientific research. However, because iron is abundant in coastal waters—and therefore iron fertilisation would not increase algal growth—subsequent meetings of the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (the London Convention) agreed that small-scale ocean experiments should be permitted under regulation. Dr Santillo, Greenpeace, highlighted the London Convention's decision to permit regulated, small-scale experiments, as an exemplar for the development and implementation of future regulatory research protocols:

[T]he elegance of it is that it does not say no to new scientific studies, it simply says that there should be a consistent and precautionary set of rules that need to be applied by all countries in order to determine what is legitimate scientific research into these [geo-engineering] techniques and what is not.[212]

176.  On 26 January 2009, after conducting independent reviews to ensure compliance with the London Convention's guidelines, the German Government authorised one of the largest ocean fertilisation experiments to date. Researchers on the Lohafex expedition have started seeding six tonnes of iron sulphate over 300 km2 of the Scotia Sea, east of Argentina. Numerous biological, chemical and physical parameters will be continuously measured inside and outside the fertilised area, and ecological changes in all layers of the water column—from the surface to the seafloor in 3,800 metres depth—will be monitored for tens of days. The plankton community biomass is expected to increase substantially about two weeks following fertilisation, and the fate of the organic matter produced will be investigated in detail.

177.  The governance of geo-engineering research is an issue we will return to later.

Air capture

178.  Air capture technologies attempt to directly remove CO2 from the atmosphere and allow for its subsequent storage. The most well-known air capture option involves so-called 'synthetic trees'. In a synthetic tree, air passes over a structure coated with an alkaline chemical that removes CO2 for storage elsewhere. Professor Klaus Lackner, Columbia University (USA), has designed a 30 metre tall synthetic tree, or 'scrubber', that he claims has the potential to remove 90,000 tonnes of CO2 from the air each year (equivalent to 1,000 real trees):

I have been involved for the last nine years in an effort to develop the means of capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air. Some refer to this effort as the creation of synthetic trees. Just like a tractor is more powerful than a horse when it comes to plowing a field, these synthetic trees are about a thousand times faster in collecting carbon dioxide from the wind passing over them than their natural counterparts. […] Air capture would become the carbon dioxide collector of last resort, in that it would collect all carbon dioxide which is not amenable to capture at the point of emission. This includes but is not limited to the carbon dioxide from air plane engines, from the tail pipes of cars, and potentially the carbon dioxide from old power plants unsuitable for cost effective retrofits. We believe that air capture could compete with power plant retrofits and could collect the carbon dioxide from a liter of gasoline at a price that is dwarfed by gasoline taxes. We expect to move rapidly from an initial price of 20 pence a liter to ultimately less than three pence a liter.[213]

179.  Synthetic trees could be located either on land or at sea, and in those environments not otherwise suitable for human exploitation (for example deserts). Further, the deployment of this technology could be scaled up, or down, with relative ease meaning that, like aerosol injection schemes, its impacts would be reversible.

180.  Rather than deploy synthetic trees, increasing the land area under cultivation may result in greater CO2 absorption (as plants act as carbon sinks). The Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth, Japan, is undertaking research to develop large-scale plant-based CO2 fixation technologies through selective breeding and genetic modification.

181.  Over the course of this inquiry, we have heard different views as to whether carbon removal technologies are distinct from geo-engineering technologies. Intriguingly, views on this subject appear to depend on the country in which a researcher/organisation is based. Common to UK-based academics, Learned Societies and Government departments is the view that geo-engineering technologies encompass those that aim to reduce solar insolation or increase carbon sequestration.[214] By contrast, US-based academics Professor Lackner and Professor Ken Caldeira (Carnegie Institute, USA) drew a distinction between the two technological approaches, arguing that carbon sequestration technologies (synthetic trees and iron fertilisation schemes, for example) manipulate the carbon cycle and should therefore be viewed as a distinct research area: carbon-cycle management.[215] Specifically, Professor Lackner said:

In the press, this approach has also been called geo-engineering because it actively manages the global anthropogenic carbon cycle. However, it should also be seen as the logical extension of capture at the point of combustion. Here we want to contrast such carbon cycle management with albedo engineering efforts that try to counter greenhouse warming with active efforts of cooling the planet.[216]

182.  At this stage, we do not consider a narrow definition of geo-engineering technologies to be helpful. Technologies to reduce solar insolation and to increase carbon sequestration should both be considered as geo-engineering options.

Policy considerations

183.  We heard concern that current efforts to reduce GHG emissions may be insufficient, both in terms of scale and speed of implementation, to enable effective climate change management.[217] A similar view was expressed by Professor Launder, University of Manchester:

There is increasingly the sense that governments are failing to come to grips with the urgency of setting measures in place that will assuredly lead to our planet reaching a safe equilibrium. Today, the developed world is struggling to meet its (arguably inadequate) carbon-reduction targets while emissions by China and India have soared. Meanwhile, signs suggest the climate is even more sensitive to atmospheric CO2 levels than had hitherto been thought.[218]

184.  The potential for the Earth to undergo greater adverse climate change impacts than expected, or for carbon reduction measures to be less effective than anticipated, has led to the suggestion that geo-engineering technologies may need to be considered as an emergency option akin to an insurance policy.[219] That is, in the words of Professor Launder, geo-engineering schemes may "offer a means of gaining two or three decades of breathing space while the world must find routes for moving to a genuinely carbon-neutral society".[220] Lord Drayson also invoked the concept of an 'insurance policy' when explaining why he thought geo-engineering merited policy consideration:

I do not subscribe to the view that you should on purpose put all your eggs in one basket to make sure that you look after that one basket really carefully. […] I think it is right for us to have a watching brief […] on these areas of geo-engineering. I think they could rightly be described as an emergency plan B. That does not mean we should not absolutely put full effort into focusing our investments in plan A. But one never knows. That is the value of pure research and that is why it is right for us to be putting a moderate amount of money into this area, to be focusing on aspects such as modelling where we can learn an awful lot without having to invest too much.[221]

185.  Like the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, we believe that Government should give the full range of policy options for managing climate change due consideration, and we share the view of the Tyndall Centre that geo-engineering technologies should be evaluated as part of a portfolio of responses to climate change, alongside mainstream mitigation and adaptation efforts.[222]

186.  However, this view does not appear to be held across Government, as according to Joan Ruddock, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), DECC has decided not to countenance such a strategy:

Scientists should probably not be looking at what I regard as being somewhere down the list of priorities and potentially the plan B [geo-engineering], because we need all our energies directed at the plan A [mitigation and adaptation].[223]

187.  Given the need for urgent action in addressing the challenge of climate change, we can see no reason for not considering geo-engineering technologies as a 'plan B'. Quite the opposite, the decision not to consider any initiative other than 'plan A' could be considered negligent particularly, for example, if 'plan A' fails to act as planned or climate sensitivity is greater than expected. Asked why DECC was averse to exploring the potential of geo-engineering technologies, the Minister gave two reasons. The first appeared to be based on a presumption of failure: "If plan A has failed […] then there is very little reason to imagine plan B could succeed",[224] and the second predicated on a belief that supporting geo-engineering research might be perceived as signalling a waning commitment to more conventional mitigation efforts:

Our concern is that although we do not want to dismiss this work […], it could be used politically in that way, which would be extremely unfortunate because what we know about engineering is that [… it] can provide us with well-tried and trusted solutions to reduce CO2 emissions from a huge range of activities and it is those existing engineering solutions that we seek to promote in the international arena […]. So it could be a means of deflecting engineering from the very best work which can be done to help the world community to get such a deal.[225]

188.  This argument is a rehearsal of that originally used against examining climate change adaptation measures. The argument went as follows: "if we actually start to take adaptation seriously and look at it and analyse it seriously, then we are encouraging people to believe that it is okay to carry on emitting greenhouse gases".[226] Thankfully, this argument was dismissed, and adaptation research is now firmly on the international agenda. Given that this argument has been discredited, we are disappointed that the Government has sought to bring it back to the fore, and do not consider it to be helpful in progressing debate.

189.  None of the evidence we received suggested that the science and engineering community consider geo-engineering technologies as having the potential to act as a 'silver bullet' in mitigating global climate change, not least, as the Royal Academy of Engineering points out, because: "even if it [geo-engineering] could help to alleviate the effects of climate change it has nothing to add in terms of security or sustainability of energy supplies".[227] Instead, the overriding view of individuals we spoke to was that geo-engineering efforts might, in the future, have the potential to complement the conventional mitigation and adaptation agenda.

190.  We find the divergent views of DECC and DIUS, as outlined by Lord Drayson and Joan Ruddock, as to the future potential of geo-engineering research to be confusing, and urge the Government to establish a clear view on the matter.

191.  Further, we conclude that it would not be appropriate or sensible for opinion-leaders or the public to see any policy on the potential use of geo-engineering schemes as implying a lack of ongoing commitment to the development of conventional emission mitigation strategies or adaptation responses. We urge the Government to be proactive in communication efforts to dispel any incorrect perceptions.

Assessing potential

192.  Throughout this inquiry, we received repeated requests for an independent assessment to be undertaken to determine which, if any, of the proposed geo-engineering options would be technologically viable.[228] Dr Tim Fox, Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), told us that:

What really needs to be done is to create a listing […] of the risks associated with the projects and to look at those which have a real practical potential to be applied' […] and to assess the feasibility of these, the practicality of these, the costs and risks associated with deployment to enable us to make those initial assessments and recommendations as to which solutions might offer potential should geo-engineering be regarded as a route which we need to go down. There has been little, if none, engineering assessment of these solutions.[229]

193.  On the financial commitment required for technological research, development, demonstration and deployment (RDD&D)—initial expenditure and on-going costs—the Royal Academy of Engineering expressed the view that, compared to the global costs of co-ordinating and implementing conventional mitigation and adaptation efforts, geo-engineering technologies may not only have a more rapid impact, but may also be less expensive.[230]

194.  A number of witnesses called for a technological assessment of proposed geo-engineering options. It is not surprising that such an assessment has not been conducted to date if considered in the context of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change's (IPCC) view of geo-engineering technologies:

Geo-engineering options, such as ocean fertilization to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere, or blocking sunlight by bringing material into the upper atmosphere, remain largely speculative and unproven, and with the risk of unknown side-effects. Reliable cost estimates for these options have not been published.[231]

195.  As pointed out by Professor Watson, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser: "with that sort of statement by the IPCC it is not likely it [geo-engineering] would have been a major discussion point by politicians of the world".[232] Professor Watson went on, however, to highlight recent developments to begin assessing geo-engineering schemes:

As we know, the Royal Society is looking at this particular issue and it would not be surprising to me if the National Academy of Sciences in the US also looked at it, but what would be, in my opinion, quite worthwhile would indeed be a more in depth analysis by the IPCC or a combination of all the major academies of the world, the US with, I would say, the UK, also with China, India and Brazil. [233]

196.  The Royal Society has previously collaborated with the Science Academies of other nations to issue joint policy statements. For example, in June 2008 the Royal Society and the Science Academies of the G8 nations, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa signed a statement on global health.[234] This makes the Royal Society well-placed to bring an international perspective to bear on any assessment of the geo-engineering sector. Further, as much of the work in this area is not sufficiently developed to have resulted in the publication of research outputs, we believe the Royal Society is better suited to reviewing future technological potential than the IPCC. In its assessment of the sector, we would urge the Royal Society not simply to describe suggested technologies but to highlight those which, if any, hold the most potential in terms of safely engendering climatic change and might therefore be considered worthy of research support.

197.  In order 'to sort the wheat from the chaff' and identify those geo-engineering options it may be feasible to deploy safely in the future, it is essential that a detailed assessment of individual technologies be conducted. This assessment must consider the costs and benefits of geo-engineering options including their full life-cycle environmental impact and whether they are reversible. We welcome the efforts of the Royal Society to review the geo-engineering sector, and urge it to engage with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Science and Engineering Academies of other nations in this regard.

Geo-engineering research: finance and infrastructure

Current research activity

198.  Geo-engineering is very much an emerging research discipline. The focus of work conducted to date has been the application of climate models to quantify the potential impact of technological deployment. We briefly outline this area of research, before discussing current and potential sources of research funding.

Modelling the future

199.  Detailed modelling is critical as geo-engineering projects have the potential to trigger undesirable side-effects (making the oceans more acidic, adversely affecting air quality, or accidentally instigating an unexpected ecosystem response, for example).[235] The need for ongoing research in this area was highlighted by Professor Lackner:

I would argue that we are not ready to do serious climate engineering in this day. I do hear people who say we should not even study it for that reason. I am opposed to that […] there are all sorts of side-effects and I think it is therefore very important that we do basic research and most of this will, by its nature, be virtual. It is important to do that because if there is a crisis we will not have time to do it and we might go down a road which might be potentially far more dangerous because we refused to look it at earlier.[236]

200.  In addition to identifying possible side effects, modelling has the potential to determine the effectiveness of proposed geo-engineering technologies. In 2008, Dr Lunt and colleagues used a state-of-the-art climate model to assess the climatic impact of a space-based sunshade. The study found that although the deployment of a sunshade would reduce the climatic impact of CO2 emissions, it would not return the climate to its pre-industrial state and changes sufficient to precipitate the loss of Arctic sea ice would still occur.[237] The fact that climate simulations have shown that climate engineering is unlikely to reproduce "the status quo ante" was also raised by Professor Caldeira who made clear that "nearly every simulation has shown that there is the potential to reduce overall amounts of climate change".[238]

201.  To reduce the likelihood or extent of negative outcomes, modelling studies should be informed by real-world observations, monitoring and process experiments wherever possible.[239] We are aware, however, that the output of climate models may not be wholly representative of the 'real world' impacts of technological deployment, a point made by Dr Pope of the Met Office: "No prediction of the future can give you an absolute prediction of any sort. What we are really doing is assessing risk".[240]

202.  Key to maximising alignment between the outcomes of virtual studies with real-world impacts is the continued development of the model used. The climate model used by Dr Lunt to model the impact of a sunshade was the same as used by the Hadley Centre to model tropospheric aerosol injection, and by the IPCC.[241] We asked Dr Lunt to what extent he felt this model was imperfect:

Yes, it is certainly imperfect. The question is how good is good? How good do you need your model to be before you start interpreting the results? All I can say is that it does a good job compared to the observational record that we have had so far.[242]

203.  Support for detailed modelling studies will be essential for the development of future geo-engineering options, and to the construction of a credible cost-benefit analysis of technological feasibility. We urge the Research Councils to support research in this area.


i.  Public funding

204.  Professor Caldeira told us that public sector research funding was essential to ensure that policy makers received unbiased and accurate information with regard to potential geo-engineering technologies.[243] We were disappointed to find that none of the academics that we spoke to had received public funding to support their geo-engineering research (see Table 9). Table 9. Information as provided to the Committee during the first evidence session (10 November 2008) from academics engaged in research relevant to geo-engineering
Witness Research activity Funder
Professor Stephen Salter Research and development of a technology to increase the albedo of marine stratocumulus clouds. Professor Salter stated he received "no money at all". Previous EPSRC grant applications were unsuccessful.[244]
Professor Ken Caldeira Research to examine the unintended consequences of geo-engineering proposals. Professor Caldeira is supported by the Carnegie Institute (USA), which is privately endowed. He receives no federal or state funding, but has received funding from philanthropists.[245]
Professor Klaus Lackner Research and development of a synthetic tree to 'capture', and make available for storage, carbon dioxide from the air. Professor Lackner is supported by private endowments made to Columbia University.[246]
Dr Dan Lunt Modelled the impact of sun-shade deployment. Dr Lunt's research was conducted in his spare time.[247]

Government departments

205.  Prior to 3 October 2008, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was responsible for UK climate change policy. Professor Watson, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, explained that although Defra had not funded the development of any geo-engineering technology, it had compiled a discussion document on the subject "to see what the current thinking is of the academic community, what the potential implications are, positive and negative, of different approaches".[248] Further, Defra expressed a willingness to support the efforts of other nations in any future technological assessment.[249]

206.  Like Defra, DIUS has identified a potential role for geo-engineering technologies: "some of those geo-engineering approaches currently proposed, or others that may yet be put forward, may offer bridging solutions to mitigate, probably to a limited extent, global warming impacts over the period until stabilisation at a "safe" level can be achieved".[250] Given the views of DIUS and Defra, we asked the Minister whether the Government department now responsible for UK climate change policy, DECC, intended to support geo-engineering research. In line with her comments regarding the department's single-minded commitment to developing and implementing 'plan A', her reply made very clear it did not: "as for the Department, let us make it absolutely clear there are no plans for us to fund research in this field".[251]

The UK Research Councils

207.  Presently, two Research Councils support research relevant to geo-engineering: EPSRC and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Research projects focus on modelling the Earth's climate and systems, information that, as we described earlier, is critical to any study examining the impact of geo-engineering technologies on the Earth's climate. However, Dr Phil Williamson, NERC, told us that:

[I]n terms of absolutely directly saying, "This is money to support geo-engineering research," up until now I do not think we have actually funded any research grants or studentships.[252]

208.  The Research Councils have now signalled that support for geo-engineering research may be forthcoming. EPSRC has allocated £3 million for a geo-engineering IDEAS factory to be held in autumn 2009, and NERC has allocated £2 million to support a consortium-led study of cloud seeding and cloud formation (via sulphate aerosol) and related albedo effects. [253]

The Carbon Trust

209.  In 2001, the Government established the Carbon Trust as an independent company. Its mission is to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organisations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies. Professor Launder suggested that the Carbon Trust be required to earmark a proportion of its budget to support so-called 'air capture' geo-engineering technologies.[254] As described previously, air capture technologies are designed to directly absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

The Virgin Earth Challenge

210.  Sir Richard Branson launched the Virgin Earth Challenge on 9 February 2007. The Challenge offers a prize of $25 million to the individual or group able to demonstrate a commercially viable design that will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least ten years. The technology must not trigger countervailing harmful effects, but contribute materially to the stability of the Earth's climate.[255] A panel of experts will assess entries submitted for the prize.[256]

211.  The Virgin Earth Challenge prize is not relevant to technologies designed to modify the Earth's albedo. Further, as highlighted by Professor Rayner, Said Business School (University of Oxford), it does not offer support for technological development: "The problem is, that does not fund research. That is the prize at the end, so you have got to have sufficient capital to invest up front before you are even in the running for the prize."[257] Consequently, while it may have stimulated interest in geo-engineering, it has not provided a means to further technological development.

The Met Office Hadley Centre

212.  The Met Office Hadley Centre is the UK's official centre for climate change research. Partly funded by Defra and DECC, the Centre provides in-depth information to the Government on climate change issues.

213.  Models developed by the Hadley Centre are already being used in research pertinent to geo-engineering. For example, a study by Dr Lunt and his colleagues on the impact of deploying a sunshade (discussed previously) used a climate model developed at the Met Office.[258]

214.  Climate models will play a vital role in both testing whether proposed geo-engineering ideas will work and in identifying any unintended harmful or secondary effects. However, as Dr Vicky Pope (Met Office) explained, there are some discrepancies in the predictions of different models used:

There are obviously uncertainties in the science […]. All of the models show that [the] climate is warming. They all share very many characteristics. What they differ in is the degree of the change and the details of the regional change. By using a number of different models that make different assumptions about the science, you can actually look at the range of possible outcomes and we are now able to start looking at the probabilities of different outcomes so that we can assess risk.[259]

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change

215.  The Tyndall Centre brings together scientists, economists, engineers and social scientists to develop sustainable responses to climate change through multidisciplinary research. Further, it acts to engage the research community, business leaders, policy advisors, the media and the public in dialogue.[260]

216.  The Tyndall Centre's research programmes are selected and designed according to the criteria and strategic priorities of NERC, EPSRC and the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC). Current programmes include: Informing international climate policy; Constructing energy futures; and Building resilience to climate change.[261] Dr Tim Fox, IMechE, suggested that the Tyndall Centre's ability to undertake large multidisciplinary research programmes would make it an ideal 'hub' through which to co-ordinate and deliver a geo-engineering research programme:

I wonder […] whether there is potentially a model there for bringing together the multidisciplinary nature of the geo-engineering project through such an organisation similar to the Tyndall Centre, which has a number of strands of activity going on which are both social science oriented and hard science […] and technical and engineering issues.[262]

217.  The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change is well-placed to co-ordinate geo-engineering research, and we would welcome the conduct of geo-engineering-related work as an additional work-stream. Further, we recommend that the Government engage with organisations including the Tyndall Centre, Hadley Centre, Research Councils UK and the Carbon Trust to develop a publicly-funded programme of geo-engineering research. Research grants should be awarded on the basis of excellence after a process of competitive peer review.


218.  A number of commercial start-up companies have been established and are actively engaged in geo-engineering research (Box 1). Established outside of the UK, principally in the US and Australia, these companies hope to develop technologies to sequester carbon, with a view to selling carbon offsets in return for their services.
Box 1. US and Australian companies engaged in geo-engineering research.

1. Climos ( is a California-based start-up company engaged in research on ocean iron fertilisation. The company intends to carry out a demonstration programme in order to understand the potential of ocean iron fertilisation as carbon mitigation tool. The company's ultimate aim is to sell carbon offsets in exchange for performing ocean iron fertilisation.

2. Planktos was a California-based start-up company with a similar business model to Climos. The company ceased trading in Spring 2008 as it could not raise the funds necessary to conduct demonstration trials.

3. Atmocean Inc (, based in Sante Fe, USA, is developing a 200 metre deep wave-powered ocean pump to bring cold, nutrient-rich, water to the ocean's surface. The company believes that this will stimulate the biota which will sequester extra carbon, a proportion of which will sink to the deep ocean.

4. Ocean Nourishment Corporation (, based in Sydney, Australia, aims to increase oceanic photosynthesis and associated carbon sequestration. Unlike Climos, the company uses nitrogen-rich urea, not soluble iron, as a fertiliser.

219.  Dr Santillo argued there was a need for a mechanism to assess the legitimacy of commercial geo-engineering research, and its outputs:

A very key part of that has to be a consideration of the commercial involvement because if there is an element of commercial interest in those experiments having a particular outcome, I think that would counter that legitimacy in terms of research.[263]

220.  Lord Drayson did not rule out supporting such enterprises in the UK:

[A]lthough we would not see at the moment that the commercial opportunity for geo-engineering projects is well-established, we do see that there would be a sound commercial business plan based around a general research area, which would include geo-engineering as part of a number of different areas within marine science. Providing that was done in an area where you had the benefits of the cluster effect, good intellectual property and a sound infrastructure to support it, then we would be supportive of such a development.[264]

Socio-political and economic issues

221.  In furthering discussion of geo-engineering options, it is critical that debate does not focus solely on technological feasibility. As this inquiry has progressed, we have become keenly aware of the need to invest in research to examine the socio-political and economic impacts of geo-engineering research and the potential deployment of future technologies.

An ethical debate

222.  A recurring theme in the written and oral evidence we received was the moral legitimacy of geo-engineering the planet. Dr Santillo described the speculative promise of geo-engineering technologies as a 'moral hazard', with the potential to reinforce societal behaviours that impact negatively on the present climate:

In the public's mind there is a danger perhaps that people will favour what they see to be a solution which does not involve them changing their way of life, does not involve them having to make difficult choices, if they can simply contribute to a scheme which somehow very distant from them will engineer the climate back to its normal state.[265]

223.  While concerns over societal response to future technologies are valid, we believe that they are insufficient as a reason for not engaging in geo-engineering research. Instead, they highlight the need to develop a public dialogue on the issue, and to implement a programme of public education and engagement. If after such an initiative the overwhelming view of the public was that technologies were morally remiss, then at this point the authority of engaging in research could be questioned. At the present time, however, the assertion by Greenpeace that "tinkering with our entire planetary system is not a dynamic new technological and scientific frontier, but an expression of political despair"[266] appears to be a minority view. For example, the Royal Academy of Engineering, told us "if time really is running out and geo-engineering was able to provide some breathing space it would be morally remiss of us not to at least consider this option",[267] a view echoed by Professor Caldeira:

If we did find that the sea ice is melting and threatening polar bears and arctic ecosystems with extinction and Greenland is sliding into the sea, is it better to say let's have that ecosystem go extinct, let's lose Greenland and that will be a good motivator for people to reduce emissions, or do you say no, we actually care about these ecosystems, we care about Greenland and maybe we should put some dust in the atmosphere to prevent this from happening while we are working on reducing emissions. I do not think the ethical and moral high ground is necessarily to say let's allow environmental destruction to proceed unimpeded while we are trying to reduce emissions.[268]

224.  It is crucial that any geo-engineering research should be undertaken with one eye on societal understanding and public debate. We were therefore disappointed that Professor Launder, who is a leading advocate of geo-engineering research, was not familiar with the views of organisations commenting on this research area:

Dr Gibson: […] how do you see the criticisms that Greenpeace have levelled at the issue in terms of morality, ethics and so on? You must have had this levelled at you many times, I am sure.

Professor Launder: I do not think I can answer that simply because I have not acquainted myself sufficiently. I just keep my head down like any eager-beaver scientist. [269]

225.  We encourage scientists to familiarise themselves with arguments surrounding the validity of their research area, and to engage in debate relevant to that research, especially in areas as controversial as this one.

226.  Before deploying any technology with the capacity to geo-engineer the climate, it is essential that a rational debate on the ethics of geo-engineering be conducted. We urge the Department for Energy and Climate Change to lead this debate, and to consult on the full-range of geo-engineering options with representatives of the science, social science, and engineering communities and implementing agencies e.g. national Governments, international bodies or private sector organisations.


227.  Global planning permission was highlighted as fundamental to the future deployment of geo-engineering technologies by a number of organisations.[270] While international consensus might be the optimal context in which to deploy technologies, the Royal Academy of Engineering recognised the potential for a country to take unilateral action:

Individual governments could see geo-engineering as an excuse to continue with a business-as-usual approach and would be able to act independently, thus bypassing the sometimes tortuous path to international agreement. A number of international treaties covering the oceans, atmosphere and space would, in theory, prevent such action. However, these are not always adhered to hence the risk, albeit small, of a state acting unilaterally cannot be ignored.[271]

228.  Just as the effects of climate change will impact on different countries in different ways, the deployment of geo-engineering technologies is unlikely to impact on the climate of different countries with uniformity. The Tyndall Centre believes that there will effectively be "winners and losers associated with geo-engineering" (as there will be with climate change itself). As in any context where losses are incurred, 'losers' (in this case individual nation states) may appeal to beneficiaries for compensation. The need to develop an international framework to identify and manage these liabilities was raised by Professor Rayner, Said Business School:

[O]ne has to be developing the institutional apparatus for managing and governing these technologies alongside developing the technologies themselves, and I think it has to be done […] in a way that engenders public trust, which demonstrates there are appropriate mechanisms for dealing with liability […] and finally for ensuring that there is actually some notion of consent on the part of populations for the implementations of technologies.[272]

229.  It is essential that the Government support socio-economic research with regard to geo-engineering technologies in order that the UK can engage in informed, international discussions to develop a framework for any future legislation relating to technological deployment by nation states or industry.

Case study conclusion: an emerging policy area

230.  If the Government is to be an informed actor in the development of any future international policy relating to geo-engineering, it is essential that it draw on the expertise of the science and social science communities as well as that of the engineering base. The Government's capacity to act as an intelligent customer of engineering advice is a theme we explored in our final case study, Engineering in Government, and is the focus of the following chapter. In undertaking this inquiry, we became conscious of the potential of this sector to enthuse young people. We consider this possibility further, together with activities undertaken to inspire young people more generally, in Chapter 6.

190 Back

191   Ev 646 Back

192   As above. Back

193   David W Keith, Engineering the Planet, Climate Change Science and Policy, in press Back

194   President's Science Advisory Committee, Restoring the quality of our environment, Washington DC, Executive office of the president, 1965 Back

195   The solar radiation striking Earth. Back

196   The ratio of the outgoing solar radiation reflected by an object to the incoming solar radiation incident upon it. Back

197   Ev 649 Back

198   Angel, R., "Feasibility of cooling the Earth with a cloud of small spacecraft near the inner Lagrange point (L1)", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 203 (2006), pp 17184-17189 Back

199   The Telegraph, 27 February 2009, Back

200 Back

201   Note from Defra [not printed] Back

202   The region of the atmosphere above the troposphere and below the mesosphere-between 15 and 50km above the Earth. Back

203   Crutzen, P.J., "Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: A contribution to resolve a policy dilemma", Climatic Change, vol 77 (2006), pp 211-219 Back

204   The lower atmosphere: a height of 8-15km above the Earth. Back

205   Ev 634, 646, 652, 675 Back

206   Q 103 [Ev 618] Back

207   Ev 619; Q 72 [Ev 719] [Professor Watson] Back

208   Co-funded by Defra, the MOD and DECC, the Met Office Hadley Centre provides in-depth information to, and advise, the Government on climate change issues. Back

209   Geo-engineering Research, POSTnote 327, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, March 2009 Back

210   Lovelock, J.E. & Rapley, C.G., "Ocean pipes could help Earth cure itself", Nature, vol 449 (2007), p 403 Back

211 Back

212   Q 41 [Ev 609] Back

213   Ev 703 Back

214   Ev 619, 646, 649, 660, 665, 695, 697 Back

215   Ev 702; Q 73 [Ev 613] Back

216   Ev 702 Back

217   Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Cambridge-MIT Institute Symposium, Macro-engineering options for climate change management and mitigation, January 2004  Back

218   Launder, B. & Thompson, M., "Preface", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series A, vol 366 (2009), p 3841 Back

219   Ev 649  Back

220   Ev 639 Back

221   Q 67 [Ev 718] Back

222   Ev 649  Back

223   Q 68 [Ev 718-719] Back

224   Q 67 [Ev 718] Back

225   Q 60 [Ev 717] Back

226   Q 43 [Ev 713-714] [Professor Steve Rayner] Back

227   Ev 648 Back

228   Q 4 [Ev 610] [Professor Brian Launder], Q 11 [Ev 708] [Dr Tim Fox and Professor Steve Rayner], Q 49 [Ev 610] [Dr Dan Lunt] Back

229   Q 10 [Ev 708] Back

230   Ev 648 Back

231 Back

232   Q 68 [Ev 719] Back

233   Q 57 [Ev 716] Back

234 Back

235   Ev 647 Back

236   Q 84 [Ev 615] Back

237   Ev 639 Back

238   Q 84 [Ev 615] Back

239   Ev 662 Back

240   Q 85 [Ev 615] Back

241   Q 44 [Ev 609] Back

242   Q 46 [Ev 609] Back

243   Q 72 [Ev 613] Back

244   Q 68 [Ev 613] Back

245   Q 67 [Ev 612] Back

246   Q 68 [Ev 612] Back

247   Q 13 [Ev 606] Back

248   Q 46 [Ev 714] Back

249   Ev 700 Back

250   Ev 619 Back

251   Q 56 [Ev 716] Back

252   Q 6 [Ev 708] Back

253   Ev 670; Q 7 [Ev 708]. An IDEAS factory is a sandpit activity (a 5-day residential interactive workshop). Sandpits are led by a director with a group of stakeholders and international experts in support. This group is not eligible to receive research funding so act as impartial referees in the sandpit process. In addition to the group leading the sandpit,
20-30 people are selected to take part through a call for participants. Outcomes of sandpits range from a single large research project to several smaller projects, feasibility studies, networking activities, overseas visits and so on. The outcomes are not pre-determined but are defined during the sandpit.  

254   Ev 639 Back

255 Back

256   Sir Richard Branson, Al Gore, James Lovelock, Tim Flannery, James Hansen, Sir Crispin Tickell Back

257   Q 28 [Ev 711] Back

258   Ev 639 Back

259   Q 85 [Ev 615] Back

260 Back

261 Back

262   Q 20 [Ev 710] Back

263   Q 41 [Ev 609] Back

264   Q 69 [Ev 719] Back

265   Q 39 [Ev 608] Back

266   Ev 701 Back

267   Ev 648 Back

268   Q 101 [Ev 617] Back

269   Q 9 [Ev 606] Back

270   Ev 662, 671, 699 Back

271   Ev 648 Back

272   Q 40 [Ev 713] Back

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