Geoengineering – it is an option?

Today and yesterday there have been a number of side events that have discussed, in some way or another, the prospects of geoengineering in the future. A portion of these talks have focused on the geoengineering options that are currently thought to be viable in the future, including carbon dioxide removal (artificial trees), solar radiation management (pumping sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere), and cloud albedo enhancement (cloud seeding ships). A recent report by The Royal Society on geoengineering (http://royalsociety.org/Report_WF.aspx?pageid=7856) discusses the pros and cons of each geoengineering option and attempts to rank them by effectiveness, affordability, timeliness, and safety. It has been mentioned that the cloud albedo enhancement option has been particularly discussed by some groups here at the COP 15. In addition, the study tries to answer the keys questions for geoengineering and its applications.

An important aspect to keep in mind when considering the prospects of geoengineering is that it is not just a technical problem; it also has a human dimension, such as public attitudes and social implications. This inherently makes geoengineering a more contentious issue. While, I believe there is a need for research along the lines of geoengineering, I believe it is most important to still attempt other methods to abate climate change, through renewable energies and carbon capture. This is a point of view that is repeated numerous times throughout the discussions of geoengineering here at the COP 15. During one of the talks it is mentioned that there is a need for research into geoengineering to check viability, and while some of this research has already started there are different stages of research. In addition it is mentioned that there needs to be broader international awareness and engagement in geoengineering, but there is also a need to be careful here.

I have noticed that many of the discussions on geoengineering lead to the discussion of research and the advancement of geoengineering in preparation for the worst case scenario in which there needs to a quick change to avoid a climate “tipping point.” While the speakers mention that we need a precautionary approach to geoengineering, I am unsure how this is feasible. I question whether we are actually following the precautionary principle in asking for more research of geoengineering for the worst-case scenario? Perhaps the first line of action should be to research whether a certain option is safe for people and the environment. Then if the option is safe then the technological viability should be assessed and understood. However, this is not a clear-cut issue. As the whole principle behind geoengineering is to limit the impact of climate change, most options will in fact alter the climate (the entire point) and weather systems. The question is: will the changes be worse than it would be without geoengineering? This makes following the precautionary principle more difficult, because what you are doing is changing climate, but you are changing climate to ensure that it is better than you “predict” it would be without geoengineering, due to global warming and climate change.

Geoengineering is a very touchy issue, but I think the very fact that it is being discussed at this venue means that we are advancing in the manners in which we are addressing climate change. If anything, the prospect of geoengineering should provide additional motivation for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we don’t have to rely on geoengineering.

Written by KEVIN REED.

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