Wanted: new ways to dial down the temperature

Technological 'fixes' for global warming to get £3 million in research council cash, writes Zoe Corbyn

September 10, 2009

It may be difficult today to imagine installing giant mirrors in space, dumping vast quantities of soluble iron into the ocean or erecting enormous air-cleaning carbon-dioxide "scrubbers" to combat global warming.

But the research councils this week promised £3 million in funding for preliminary studies into geoengineering techniques designed to fight climate change.

The funding is the councils' response to a widely publicised report from the Royal Society last week, which concludes that although cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is still the top priority in the battle against global warming, large-scale technological fixes would be the only option if the world fails to hit the necessary reduction targets.

The report, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty, assesses a range of deliberate large-scale technological interventions in the climate system that could counter global warming.

It concludes that some are "very likely" to be "technically possible" and "potentially useful", although the ideas need to be studied thoroughly.

"Research is urgently needed for evaluating which methods are feasible, and to identify potential risks," says the report, which assesses two main technological approaches - one aiming to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the other attempting to reflect the Sun's energy away from the Earth.

The research councils' funding falls under the rubric of the three-year, £319 million energy programme led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but cuts across five different councils. The money will likely fund six to eight projects.

A funding first

It will be the first time the councils have made any significant investment in geoengineering, said Jason Green, head of energy research capacity at the EPSRC, stressing the money was an "initial investment".

"A lot of the science is untested and, as the report says, what's needed are small-scale feasibility studies. There are lots of different technologies, but we need to see whether they are feasible," he said. "In, say, 10 to 15 years, if we're not meeting our reduction targets, we may need to look at deploying some geoengineering ... This initiative is laying the groundwork while we still have the time."

A two-part process is envisaged for researchers keen to get their hands on the cash.

The first involves a "scoping workshop", which has places for about 50 participants, planned for 19 October. The event will consider all geoengineering technologies, not just those covered by the Royal Society report, and home in on those that seem most promising.

"It is narrowing it down to a few areas where we feel that we have the academic capacity to do something," Dr Green said.

The next stage, planned for the new year, is to run a so-called "sandpit" - an EPSRC-pioneered funding mechanism where 20 to 25 selected researchers from different areas come together for several days of intensive discussions on a topic. The sandpit is where the £3 million pot will be dished out through a group peer-review process.

Dr Green emphasised that the funding was not intended for scientific work alone.

As the councils also want to look at the environmental impact and social and ethical dimensions of the options, there are funding opportunities for those with backgrounds in law, ethics and governance. "For the project to be complete, they have to be involved," Dr Green said.

A good step, but a small one

The money was welcomed as a "small step in the right direction" by John Shepherd, professorial research fellow in earth system science at the University of Southampton, who chaired the group that produced the Royal Society report.

"It's a bit like the Kyoto Protocol," he told Times Higher Education. "It is the first dedicated funding, and that is very good, but it is one tenth of what we recommended for one third of the time.

"We recommended £10 million a year for ten years, and this is £1 million a year for three years. It is not enough money to do field trials."

He cited an idea by Stephen Salter, emeritus professor of engineering design at the University of Edinburgh, to pump fine particles of seawater into clouds, thickening them to reflect more of the Sun's rays.

"If you wanted to go and try that out, it would take a big chunk of this money," he said. "This funding will pay for some desk studies and computer modelling, which is great, and it is a speedy response (from the councils), but we need to do more than this. It is field trials that really need to be done."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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