Next Steps for Geoengineering

Europe / by James Wilsdon /

Uncertain about what to make of geoengineering? A new report from the Royal Society carves away science fiction from science fact.

For anyone working in public policy, the launch of a big report is a moment of high tension. Reports, pamphlets, white papers—these are the rhythms by which we wonks measure the passing of our lives. So it was with some trepidation that I looked out at the audience of 200 policymakers, scientists, and journalists who had gathered at the Royal Society on September 1 for the launch of Geoengineering the Climate.

Until recently, geoengineering was decidedly taboo in discussions of climate change. There were concerns that the prospect of a techno-fix might encourage governments to duck hard choices around mitigation or adaptation. But over the past few years, the volume and intensity of speculation has increased, to the extent that the Royal Society felt it was important to take a rigorous look at the feasibility and uncertainties of the different techniques that have been proposed. As Sir Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, says in his foreword to the report, geoengineering “is bedevilled by much doubt and confusion. Some schemes are manifestly far-fetched; others are more credible…”

To disentangle the facts from the science fiction, the Royal Society assembled a group of 12 experts, drawn from environmental science, oceanography, engineering, economics, law, and social science. Under the skilled chairmanship of John Shepherd of Southampton University, the group spent a year weighing the evidence, and last week’s launch was the moment when they shared their conclusions with the wider world.

So how has the report gone down? Reviewing the coverage that it has generated over the past few days, I hope we’ve succeeded in doing at least three things:

First, the report acts as a corrective to the more excitable cheerleaders for geoengineering, such as Bjorn Lomborg and the people at the American Enterprise Institute, who present it as a viable “plan B” to be implemented instead of current policies. On the contrary, the report insists “the safest and most predictable method of moderating climate change is to take early and effective action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases…. Nothing now known about geoengineering options gives any reason to diminish these efforts.” Three months ahead of the Copenhagen COP15 summit, it is crucial to locate geoengineering in its rightful place within the climate change debate: as something which may hold longer-term potential and merits more research, but which offers no quick-fix solutions that should distract policymakers from working toward a reduction of at least 50 percent in CO2 emissions by 2050.

Second, the report brings greater definitional clarity to the debate by distinguishing between the two basic classes of geoengineering methods: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and solar radiation management (SRM) techniques that reflect a small percentage of the sun’s light and heat back into space. There are significant differences in how these different types work, over what timescales, and with what consequences. This raises the question of how much longer “geoengineering” will remain a meaningful umbrella term. It seems likely that the field will fragment fairly quickly, particularly on the CDR side, where it makes little practical sense to link approaches to the more controversial and uncertain aspects of SRM. For example, discussions of biochar would be more neatly aligned with related debates over biofuels, and air capture has more in common with wider discussions of carbon capture and storage.

Third, the report looks beyond the science to highlight a broader set of governance questions that need to be answered before geoengineering can proceed. The mix of social, environmental, political, and economic factors at play is complex and combustible, and it’s possible to envisage geoengineering sparking a science-society confrontation that would make the debate over GM crops look benign. So it’s in everyone’s interests that any moves toward geoengineering research, let alone implementation, enjoy the legitimacy that comes from robust frameworks of governance, accountability, and public engagement. We nibbled at the edges of this challenge over the course of our study by running an ethics panel and a few public focus groups, but larger and more systematic efforts are now required.

Of course, the real test will be how the geoengineering debate plays out from here. At the launch, there was a lively discussion about next steps among a panel that included members of the working group, Greenpeace, Jim Lovelock, and John Beddington—the UK government’s chief scientific adviser. The Royal Society intends to remain involved in these debates by working in partnership with other academies and international bodies to create protocols for research and governance.

But between now and the Copenhagen talks, our main priority is ensuring the report’s headline messages reach as wide an audience as possible. Let me hand the last word to Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC who observed in a commentary on our findings at, “It’s too early to say whether this will be a truly seminal report in the history of managing global climate change—although my money is on it having a significant and lasting impact. But it is certainly a considered and mature report…. The question is, are we mature enough to act on it? Inevitably, time and consequences will tell…”

James Wilsdon is director of the Royal Society Science Policy Center, which last week published Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance, and Uncertainty.

Originally published September 14, 2009


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