engineering the future

Revising older chapters of a draft throws up a few discernible shifts in ongoing discussion. One is the detail and – as far as is possible with largely absent data – rigour of examinations of geoengineering (AKA hacking the planet) as a response to climate change.

Two recent reports – from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and, at greater length, the Royal Society – both argue that schemes to block or bounce back solar radiation or to remove atmospheric carbon need to be evaluated, not as possible get out of gaol free cards but as things we might need to do and should get better information about now in case the alternatives to deploying them are worse.

Believing both that current efforts fall far short of what will be needed to curb global warming, and are not likely to get ramped up enough to change that,  and that we need all the ideas we can get, this all seems good. Indeed, both reports, especially that from the RS, seem at first unduly apologetic about calling for a serious look at some schemes (lest we discourage people from other efforts at reduction, mitigation, adaptation or whatever – as if they were falling over themselves to do those things). Among all the reactions (surveyed by Oliver Morton at heliophage), I confess some sympathy with the blogged comment he highlights from Gaia Vince who says, simply, that current policies aren’t working: get real about geo-engineering, and get on with it before it is too late. (Wonder if she’s related to Dale Vince who we buy our power from at Ecotricity: quite a team, if so).

One doubt, though. At first look, the best of the various options looks like some kind of carbon scrubbing technology, combined with sequestration (doesn’t ignore ocean acidification, doesn’t involve astoundingly costly schemes to launch space mirrors, doesn’t require hazardous ploys like spraying acid into the upper atmosphere or seeding oceans with iron). If the chemistry and the energy costs can be made to work – and that looks possible in principle if there is some decent R&D support – it addresses the problem at its root.

It still looks best at second look, as in this plot which charts the relation between safety and effectiveness of geo-engineering options using data from the RS report. But I wonder if we really need to call this one geo-engineering? A widely dispersed, easily adjustable and manageable technology for taking out of the air some of the CO2 we put into it sounds so desirable it would be a pity if it attracted opposition because it is put under an umbrella label which makes it sound like some hubristic scheme for mad scientists to grab the controls of the planet.

Maybe too late now, but can one think of a better way of describing this one? Augmented air-conditioning? Atmospheric purification? Exhaust removal? Air-cleaning? Thinning the carbon blanket?

On the other hand, if simply trying to affect the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by direct action is geoengineering (can’t decide whether to hyphenate or not), then we are already doing it, so there is not much point in discussing the merits or otherwise of the project, just how to do it better…  No?

Explore posts in the same categories: climate, energy futures, Uncategorized

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