Engineering: turning ideas into reality: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Geo-engineering: a new policy area


23. 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. (Paragraph 182)

The Government agrees that technologies which reduce solar insolation or increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere (excluding Carbon Capture and Storage) should both be considered as forms of geo-engineering.

24. 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. (Paragraph 185)

25. 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. (Paragraph 187)

[Combined response to 24 and 25:]

The Government's foremost ('Plan A') priorities for tackling climate change are developing and deploying methods for emissions reductions, reaching a global agreement on emissions abatement and adapting to unavoidable change. Geo-engineering options currently do not represent viable alternatives to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. However, we recognise that it is important to keep such options under review as some might ultimately have a role to play in helping to ameliorate climate change, if emissions reductions are not achieved quickly enough. We therefore see a need for some research on the potential of geo-engineering technologies, to determine whether any of them could be used as an additional ('Plan B') policy option for managing climate change, to complement the conventional mitigation and adaptation approaches.

26. 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. (Paragraph 190)

We disagree with the Committee's conclusion that DECC and the former DIUS (now part of BIS) have divergent views on the future potential of geo-engineering research; rather the views of the two Departments are complementary and the Government has already established a clear view on this matter. Whilst there is merit in undertaking some further research, particularly modelling studies, to evaluate the feasibility and suitability of geo-engineering technologies in more detail, it is also vital to ensure that developing and implementing solutions for emissions abatement remains the primary engineering focus. Research into the more speculative geo-engineering technologies should not therefore take precedence over engineering research into proven technologies to reduce emissions. This should be seen in the context of the international negotiations on climate change, where the priority is to achieve an agreement on emissions reductions.

Although DECC is not intending to provide any significant funding for geo-engineering research, the Department is closely involved in supporting the Met Office Hadley Centre's development of its climate modelling capabilities and has also funded some modelling studies there into the environmental effects of geo-engineering options. Similarly, BIS continues to support the Research Councils' activities, which are noted in response to Recommendation 29.

27. 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. (Paragraph 191)

The Government recognises an effective communications strategy would be needed if any geo-engineering options were also to be incorporated into climate change policy approaches, to minimise the risk of any public misperceptions about a continued commitment to using conventional mitigation and adaptation measures.

28. 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. (Paragraph 197)

We agree that a detailed (and independent) assessment of geo-engineering options is needed and, like the Committee, also welcome the study that the Royal Society has been undertaking into climate engineering. The stated aims of this study are to provide a balanced assessment of a range of different climate geo-engineering proposals, assessing their feasibility, efficacy, likely environmental impacts, and any possible unintended consequences. We will consider carefully the findings of this study, which are expected to be reported in the Autumn of 2009, and use it to inform our policy development on geo-engineering.

29. 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. (Paragraph 203)

The Government agrees with the Committee's view that support for detailed modelling studies will be essential, to help evaluate the feasibility and suitability of different geo-engineering options. As indicated in the Committee's report, the nature of geo-engineering research means that much of it will need to be done on a 'virtual' basis and the use of climate models will also enable a risk assessment of individual options.

The Government and the Research Councils recognise the need for scientific studies in this area, though the Research Councils set their own detailed research priorities. As part of the Cross Research Council Energy Programme a geo-engineering 'Sandpit'[1] is planned for early 2010. The sandpit will intensively discuss engineering, physical science, economic, social and environmental aspects of geo-engineering projects. A £3M funding pot will be made available for research projects developed during the sandpit, though a variety of outcomes are possible. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) will take the Committee's report on geo-engineering and the outcome of the Royal Society study into account when refreshing its strategy, starting later this year

30. 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. (Paragraph 217)

The Government notes that it is already possible to carry out publicly-funded geo-engineering research. However, we acknowledge there is a need to co-ordinate any future UK research into geo-engineering and consider that the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change is one of several research organisations which could undertake an overall co-ordinating role.

The Tyndall Centre capability built through Research Council funding to 2010 is well-placed to compete for geo-engineering research should this area be within the Tyndall Centre's future strategy. NERC will consider geo-engineering as part of a review/refresh of NERC strategy later this year, and would welcome engagement with Government and other stakeholders as part of this.

31. 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. (Paragraph 226)

We recognise there are a number of ethical issues around geo-engineering, some of which at least were identified in the discussion paper that Defra/DECC submitted as part of the Department's evidence to the Committee's geo-engineering case study inquiry. We agree this aspect of geo-engineering needs further, rational debate across a wide range of disciplines and other interested parties to address the various and complex issues it raises at an international level. We suggest this is an area of work that could be undertaken as part of a wider publicly-funded programme of geo-engineering research.

32. 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. (Paragraph 229)

Geo-engineering technologies raise a number of very significant and difficult socio-economic issues and the Government agrees that some publicly-funded research on this aspect will also be needed, to inform and underpin its policy position in any future international negotiations that might take place on the possible deployment of individual geo-engineering options.

As the main funding body in the UK for social science research the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is in principle also open to supporting such research. The ESRC would welcome opportunities to explore research collaborations in this area in dialogue with stakeholders. Particular topics worth exploring would include issues relating to public acceptability of large scale geo-engineering deployment. In advance of any future research funding opportunities which may arise from these discussions the ESRC would draw attention to its responsive mode scheme through which it would be happy to receive proposals on geo-engineering.



1  http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/ResearchFunding/Opportunities/Networking/IDEASFactory/WhatIsASandpit.htm

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