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

Memorandum 165

Submission from Greenpeace

  Greenpeace is a campaigning organization which has as its main objective the protection of the natural environment. Greenpeace has offices in 40 countries, 2.8 million supporters worldwide and around 150,000 in the UK. It is independent of governments and businesses, being funded entirely by individual subscriptions.

  Greenpeace was one of the first organizations to campaign for action to be taken to halt anthropogenic climate change. It has built up considerable expertise and has access to independent expertise on the links between energy use and climate change. The expertise includes scientific knowledge, economics and analysis of state subsidy, as well as understanding of how the development of traditional approaches to energy can have detrimental effects on the development of new, cleaner technology to combat climate change.

  It is widely recognised that climate change is the gravest threat presently faced by humanity. The most important greenhouse gas in terms of anthropogenic radiative forcing is carbon dioxide. The 4th Assessment Report from the IPCC[26] presented the firmest evidence yet that the threat of severe climate change impacts means the economies of the developed world must be decarbonised within such a rapid timeframe that radical action is necessary. We have less than a decade in which to slow, stop and reverse the trend of rising greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

  An average rise in global temperature of 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures is widely regarded as the limit beyond which irreversible climate change impacts will occur. Global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, have already generated a rise of 0.7°C and the inbuilt lag in the earth's atmospheric system means we are already committed to a further rise of approximately 0.7°C. It is therefore clear that the window of opportunity to limit global temperature rise below 2°C is closing swiftly. The very latest evidence from the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre confirms the necessity to act very swiftly to cut emissions.[27]

  The context is clearly that global emissions need to be on a downward path before a further decade has passed-developed country emissions need to be declining immediately. Yet in UK CO2 emissions have barely gone down the past decade. This is despite obvious technical and policy measures that could deliver energy and carbon saving including better management of heat, product standards on appliances and vehicles, better support to renewable energy technologies, proactive policy to deal with the poor thermal quality of the UK building stock etc. Much or all of this critique could be applied to EU and North America. In other words, the most effective ways of dealing with climate change are not being adopted owing to a lack of political will and commitment to tackling the greatest long-term threat to humanity.

  It is also clear that action is being impeded by vested interests including the industries that profit from the status quo. This has been most visible in the case of Exxon,[28] vehicles,[29] energy intensive industries[30]-other examples of effective industry lobby to avoid environmental protection are from chemicals regulation.[31] Even this month challenges to weaken rules on the EU Emissions Trading Scheme-the preferred low-cost compliance option which is the cornerstone of EU Emissions reduction plans-came from governments representing coal based industry.[32] The reason for this political activity by companies is straightforward-it prevents change that would otherwise undermine their commercial position. Time, money, effort and innovation which could be dedicated to solving the climate crisis are instead dedicated to its maintenance.

  Thus the concept of "geo-engineering" enters a highly charged political and economic context where change on climate policy grounds will create winners and losers. At a societal level we have a "moral hazard"[33] in that the promise of geo-engineering, however speculative, reinforces behaviour that makes its need more likely. The wider point is not the pros and cons of particular technologies, but that the scientific community is becoming so scared of our collective inability to tackle climate emissions that such outlandish schemes are being considered for serious study. We already have the technology and know-how to make dramatic cuts in global emissions-but it's not happening, and those closest to the climate science are coming near to pressing the panic button. A focus on tinkering with our entire planetary system is not a dynamic new technological and scientific frontier, but an expression of political despair.

  Consequently, Greenpeace believes that there need to be very strict conditions attached to research into any potential candidates for geo-engineering. Specifically:

  1.  All propositions for geo-engineering research must be evaluated using strict and precautionary sets of rules, including scientific, legal and policy components, developed and overseen by international cross-disciplinary advisory committees set up under UN auspices. Scientific expertise needs to include ecology, engineering and life cycle analysis. Political components need to have at the very least regional and stakeholder representation. Legal compliance with international agreements would be a necessity.

  2.  There need to be pre-set criteria for environmental and social acceptability.

  3.  Actual geo-engineering should be prohibited except for research agreed through the international governance arrangements. No payments should be considered through, eg CDM, before sign off by these committees.

  Criteria in (2) need to recognize that not every proposition is necessarily environmentally damaging, but there are features of the risks associated with their implementation.

  1.  Ideas which remove CO2 and other gases from the atmosphere by physical means are less interventionist that those which use existing ecosystems, and deliver more effective change than those which try to "reflect" heat. In addition to climate change, CO2 also causes ocean acidification which will potentially have serious impacts on the marine ecosystems and on coastal communities. Ocean fertilization as a mitigation strategy, whether with iron or other nutrients, could exacerbate this problem, damage marine ecosystems and even result in increased emissions of other, biogenic greenhouse gases. A Note published on iron fertilization published last year by the Greenpeace International Science Laboratory is submitted as an appendix.

  2.  Large scale intervention in natural ecosystems is generally perturbing systems that we do not understand with the potential for widespread, unpredictable and long-lasting adverse consequences. It should be subject to the precautionary principle.

  3.  There needs to be a thorough understanding of the life-cycle impacts of any propositions.

  This approach and criteria are suggested because of the context in which geo-engineering ideas are being raised. It is a much better option for society as a whole to use existing technology and policy to reduce emissions rather than attempt the potentially dangerous approaches that geo-engineering propositions represent. Public money and policy focus is better spent on this than on speculative and potentially risky geo-engineering ideas.

November 2008

26   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report-Summary for Policymakers. Back

27   Vicky Pope, Hadley Centre, Met Office "Degrees of Caution", Guardian, 1 October 2008 Back

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