The down-to-earth side of geoengineering


Earlier this week I was wading through the Government’s 142-page Energy Market Reform White Paper, in a (not entirely successful) bid to understand how exactly it might affect some of our industries.

One of the key aims of the paper is to encourage investment in low-carbon energy generation in a bid to reduce emissions, achieve our ever looming EU targets and of course ultimately mitigate climate change.

But it takes quite a leap of faith to see how Contracts for Difference (CfD), Carbon Price Floors and Emissions Performance Standards (EPS) will somehow save the world. Nevertheless, listening to people who know far more about the industry than I do, it seems it is – at the very least – a step in the right direction after ‘years of dithering’.

And it’s the same tactic being employed across Europe. Leave the free markets largely to their own devices, but gently coax them into dabbling in green tech and eventually everyone will see the light of their own accord. It might work. But it certainly won’t be quick, and if you subscribe to even the most conservative climate models (and I know not all of our readers do) then we’re in for a warm time of it regardless.

I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a green evangelist, but deep into those 142 pages, my mind wandered to more radical solutions, namely geo-engineering. Yes, I know the idea of deliberately manipulating the Earth’s climate to negate warming is not a new one, and some of the ‘solutions’ are far-fetched to say the least, but it’s been slowly creeping back onto the agenda.

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met to discuss the feasibility of such measures as blasting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight into space; depositing massive quantities of iron filings into the oceans; and bio-engineering crops to be a lighter colour to reflect sunlight. Its intention was to set a framework for research in member countries, with a possible view to medium scale trials at some point in the near future.

Predictably, there was fierce opposition even to this modest statement of intent, culminating in a published letter to Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC from a group of more than 125 environment and human rights groups from 40 countries.

‘Indigenous peoples and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis… asking a group of geo-engineering scientists if more research should be done is like asking bears if they would like honey.’

Well it seems we have some sweet-toothed bears, since Britain, along with the US, is strongly backing geo-engineering research both with both public funding and wealthy private investors and corporations. Only last week the EPSRC awarded grants totalling £3.3 million to two geo-engineering projects.

One project, headed by Dr Matt Watson at Bristol University, takes inspiration from the massive Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 which cooled the planet by half a degree in the subsequent year through the reflective sulphate particles it deposited.

The team are evaluating the feasibility of launching a balloon system into the stratosphere (at around 20-25km) to release particles sulphate – with a protoype balloon planned for launch at 1km.

Meanwhile, in the private sector it has been reported that Bill Gates has recently put up $400m for two marine based methods involving cloud seeding to create more reflective clouds and another to mix warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths to suppress hurricanes.

And Richard Branson has long put his weight behind carbon capture and storage technologies with his ‘carbon war room’ initiative.

Cynics would argue it’s less about philanthropy and more about money making since entrepreneurs stand to make billions through a global system of trading carbon credits. Indeed, last month Branson told a conference in Sydney that ‘climate change is the greatest wealth creation opportunity of our lifetime.’

Last night I attended a round table discussion on geo-engineering hosted by Professor Tim Lenton of Exeter University, who according to the Financial Times is one of the world’s 10 most influential climate scientists. He’s also the protégée of James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory (which has a harmonious view of the planet as finely balanced organism of sorts) so I was expecting a bit of geo-engineering bashing.

But while he quite convincingly rubbished ideas like space mirrors and ocean fertilisation, he was lukewarm (pardon the pun) on stratospheric sulphur particulate dispersal and positively enthusiastic about carbon capture and storage technologies.

‘My point is simply, twiddle both dials: turn down emissions and create some [carbon] sinks and then we might start getting somewhere,’  he said.

‘Although I’m not a great free-marketer I think it’s about setting parameters of cost and credits, and then actually, you do want entrepreneurs and you do want the innovation sector to come in and just run with that because they see the future opportunities in being the first to lead the way with carbon removal technologies.’