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

Memorandum 163

Submission from the Royal Society

  1.  Geoengineering of the climate covers a wide range of schemes and technologies. At present there is no single definition that is universally accepted, although it typically refers to any large scale intervention or manipulation of the earth's climate system. Schemes can be categorised in two forms:

  2.  Blocking or filtering sunlight. For example, through dispersing sulphates in the atmosphere, cloud seeding, or space-based mirrors.

  3.  Removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. For example by promoting algae blooms to increase oceanic carbon uptake (by fertilisation with iron or urea, or through tubes circulating deep ocean water); capturing of CO2 directly from the air or at the point of emission (as in carbon capture and storage); promoting carbon sequestration by terrestrial biological processes such as forestation, avoided deforestation and changes in agricultural practices.

  4.  Apart from point source carbon capture and storage, forestation and agriculture projects, most of the schemes are still conceptual and need considerable research and development to understand the effectiveness of these various technologies as well as the feasibility. It remains unknown whether any of these proposed schemes will ever offer any viable solution to climate change. Research will also be needed to understand and evaluate the potential wider environmental and social impacts of these technologies and the risk of unintended consequences. The diversity of issues and schemes will mean a wide range of expertise including scientists, engineers, social scientists and economists, across a number of disciplines, will be required.

  5.  Potential options for large scale engineering of the climate are slowly gaining prominence, both in the media and in parts of Government. The motivation for developing these schemes is driven by concerns about the continuing rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and the inadequate global response to cutting emissions. Furthermore, commercial interests are promoting some of these projects, driven by the potential to develop credits in a carbon market.

  6.  At this stage, with such a wide range of potential technologies and options, many of which are only concepts, too little is known to be prescriptive about the role of engineering in the development of geoengineering. This lack of knowledge about the potential of the various schemes means it is too early to make any assumptions about how they will interact with other responses to climate change.

  7.  Regulation will be needed for each of these various technologies and, more immediately, of the research needed to develop them. Decisions on research and development must be informed by the best available science and engineering to minimise the risks of unwanted or unintended environmental and social impacts. Uncertainties about the potential for these impacts have already led some international bodies, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, to raise concerns about the development of geoengineering technologies.

  8.  In response to this lack of reliable information on the topic, the Royal Society will be launching a major study of large scale climate engineering in October/November 2008. The working group, which will include scientists and engineers, will investigate the potential, feasibility and drawbacks of suggested geoengineering techniques. Consideration will also be given to the kind of regulatory framework that will be needed for the development of these technologies.

October 2008

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