Geo-engineering: Giving us the time to act?

This report argues that geo-engineering could be another potential component in our approach to climate change that could provide the world with extra time to decarbonise the global economy.

Many people believe we are fast approaching a critical point in dealing with climate change. Our planet is continuing to get hotter due to the release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, most worryingly carbon dioxide (CO2), due to human activity.

The consensus is that we cannot allow global average temperatures to rise by 2°C above pre-industrial levels. If we do - and many predict this will happen within the next few decades - dramatic changes to our climate may occur which could jeopardise modern civilisation.

What can be done to prevent this rise? For many years, governments have primarily focused on climate change mitigation – reducing the amount of CO2 each nation emits into the atmosphere. More recently, climate change adaptation has been embraced – an approach which sets out to ensure that critical assets, such as power generation, transport links, water supplies and the urban environment are redesigned and rebuilt to protect against future changes in climate.

A third, less explored approach, is geo-engineering – using technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or cooling the planet by reflecting solar radiation back into space. Geo-engineering is not an encompassing solution to global warming; it is no 'silver bullet', but it could be another potential component in our approach to climate change that could provide the world with extra time to decarbonise the global economy.

Key recommendations

  1. Support geo-engineering research
    We call upon the government to support a national programme of geo-engineering feasibility research and development in an international context. As little as £10 million could provide us with more reliable quantitative understanding of the effectiveness, risks and costs of geo-engineering, as well as the ethical, governance and moral perspectives associated with it. This needs to bring together climate scientists and modellers, engineers, economists, social scientists and philosophers. Given the urgency of our climate challenge, we should wait no longer.
  2. Use the resources we already have
    The UK is already a world leader in climate modelling and impact studies, as well as mitigation and adaptation research. The world-renowned Tyndall Centre, working with the Hadley Centre, is therefore ideally placed to lead, co-ordinate and deliver geo-engineering research. The centre’s programmes are characteristically multidiscipline in nature and therefore ideally suited to the task.
  3. Pilot promising schemes
    Schemes that show the most promise should be carried through to demonstrator phase to enable their relative potential to be accurately assessed, and for the best schemes to become available for possible deployment. Such work requires investment in new modelling capabilities, tools and pilot-project scale engineering studies.
  4. Adopt a realistic roadmap for decarbonisation of the global economy integrating geo-engineering
    Building on knowledge acquired through a rigorous comprehensive technology assessment, we recommend that a comprehensive roadmap to implementation be devised for a global transition to a low-carbon future incorporating geo-engineering.
  5. Maximise the commercial opportunities for UK plc
    If the engineering industry sees government policy moving research spend into geo-engineering, commercial companies are highly likely to start investing in their own research and initial feasibility assessments to try to second-guess the market opportunities which might arise out of the policy being pursued.


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