On February 10, The National Research Council wing of the The National Academies of Sciences released two reports, Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration, and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. They are interesting reports! They are also 135 and 235 pages long! You can find them in full here. The full text of the press release, which gives good context for how the study was conducted, what it covered and what it aimed to accomplish, along with an overview of the major findings as presented by the study’s authors, can be found at the bottom of this post.
Here are reactions from some North American civil society organizations to the release of the reports.
New Report on Geoengineering a “Significant Milestone” – SRMGI
International Scientists’ Group Praises Effort by U.S. National Academy of Sciences
(February 10, 2015) A report released today marks the first time the U.S. government has requested guidance on geoengineering technologies and their impacts, and represents a significant milestone in public exploration of geoengineering issues, according to an international group of experts.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released the report, Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth, today. Experts with the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) praised the underlying significance of the report.
“The billions of tons of climate pollution that we put into our atmosphere every year are causing serious changes to the climate,” said Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist for Environmental Defense Fund and co-chair of SRMGI. “The way to address the problem is cut the pollution. But given the urgency of this challenge, some are also exploring geoengineering. We come to this issue very concerned about the danger of unintended consequences, but agree that further discussion makes sense. And also believe it is critically important to have strong rules in place to govern the exploration of this topic.”
NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the United States on matters related to science and technology. It has published more than a dozen previous reports on climate change, but today’s report is the first study commissioned by the U.S. government that explains our understanding of the science, ethics, and governance issues presented by geoengineering (also known as “climate engineering”) technologies.
Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate system to counteract anthropogenic climate change. Geoengineering covers a wide range of ideas, including technologies such as “albedo modification” (AM), also known as “solar radiation management” or SRM.
SRMGI experts say today’s report should spur the U.S. and other governments to take the governance challenges of geoengineering technologies seriously.
“An important next step is to foster wider dialogue, including developing countries, on how to responsibly manage AM research,” says Romain Murenzi, Executive Director of TWAS and a member of SRMGI. “We welcome this NAS report as important input for achieving just that.”
The issues involved in geoengineering are necessarily global, and discussions about them need to be global as well. To date, however, most discussions have taken place in developed countries — even though people in developing countries are the most vulnerable both to climate change and any potential efforts to respond to it.
SRMGI was formed in 2010 by the Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund , and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) in response to that discrepancy. SRMGI is an international NGO-driven initiative to expand international discussions on albedo modification, particularly to include developing countries.
“SRMGI promotes early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, in order to increase the chances of any albedo modification research, should it occur, being managed responsibly, transparently, and cooperatively,” said John Shepherd of the Royal Society, a co-chair of SRMGI.
OTTAWA, Feb 9 2015 — As the climate crisis deepens and political and economic leaders remain in a state of paralysis, geoengineering is increasingly being advanced as a potentially “necessary” action; if recent attempts at opinionmaking are to be believed, it has gone from unthinkable to fundable. And yet, public opinion and much of the scientific community considers geoengineering technologies to be risky and more likely to aggravate than resolve the climate crisis.
As the National Academy of Sciences releases two new reports that support funding geoengineering pilot projects, an alliance of civil society groups is launching a new website, “Geoengineering Monitor,” to provide a space for critical perspectives, building resistance and tracking developments.
“Geoengineering proponents are taking to the airwaves and the op/ed pages to sell their proposals,” said Pat Mooney. “What is most troubling is that these engineers believe they know enough to take control of global atmospheric dynamics. Earth systems are complex and poorly understood; there is no way they can simply make changes and achieve a single, predictable outcome.”
“Proponents of geoengineering appear eager to play ‘god’ while experimenting with our only planet.”
ETC Group and Biofuelwatch, two organizations that have been critical of geoengineering schemes, are jointly launching the new website to provide a resource for people interested in understanding better the many risks associated with geoengineering proposals. GeoengineeringMonit
But it also critiques the thinking behind the schemes.
“People are coming to understand that the climate crisis is escalating while leaders do little or nothing,” said Rachel Smolker of BiofuelWatch. “The geoengineering clique is taking advantage of this situation to promote their planetary technological manipulations. Some of the most avid promoters of geoengineering have links to the fossil fuel industries and to institutions that have backed climate denial.”
“The technofix mentality says that we can cure the symptom with risky technologies instead of addressing the cause,” Smolker added. “That is a very tempting for politicians who are averse to taking bold steps and many of whom are funded by fossil fuel industries. “
The site provides a partial archive of media coverage of several attempts at conducting real-world geoengineering experiments, most of which were halted by civil society opposition.
“Civil society has put a stop to many attempts to sneak in geoengineering projects,” said Z. “It’s important to document those victories, because we’re going to need more of them as we work towards real, just climate solutions.”
Pat Mooney, Executive Director, ETC [next]
Plan B? What Happened to Plan A? Why we shouldn’t fund geoengineering experimentation, and what we still need to learn about the climate, 10 February 2015
The US National Academy of Sciences has released two reports on geoengineering that recommend investments in solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Geoengineering has become known as the US government’s “Plan B” response to climate change. Geoengineering proponents have recently pushed for government funding of geoengineering research in Nature and the Washington Post.
At first glance, this seems prudent: of course we should have more information about all of the options. Most geoengineering backers insist that these are only extreme measures of last resort. SRM (now rebranded as “albedo management” by the NAS report) which proposes blowing sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to block sunlight and lower global temperatures or CCS, which proposes to stuff billions of tonnes of CO2 into defunct mines and oil wells, are Plan B: only to be considered if governments can’t agree on emission targets in Paris later this year. Is geoengineering deplorable or deployable? We won’t know, backers argue, unless we do the research.
Saying we need more information sounds reasonable, but geoengineering research that involves experimentation and builds actual hardware is a clear and present danger to the climate for two reasons. If the US or other powerful governments accept geoengineering as a plausible “Plan B,” Plan A will evaporate faster than Congressional bipartisanship. The fossil fuel industry is desperate to protect between $20 and $28 trillion in booked assets that can only be extracted if the corporations are allowed to overshoot GHG-emissions. The theoretical assumption that carbon capture and storage will eventually let them recapture CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the earth or ocean provides the fossil fuel industry with the best way to avoid popping the “carbon bubble” other than outright climate denial. Spraying sulfates in the stratosphere can – theoretically – lower temperatures until carbon capture and storage techniques are viable. In other words, geoengineering research is becoming the only tool the fossil fuel industry has left to undermine the political and corporate will to lower actual emissions now.
Geoengineering could justify continued emissions, but it may also do direct damage to the climate. The two NAS reports are quiet about budgets and don’t define the scale of field studies. Most scientists concur that geoengineering is extremely risky, but also say that only very large field trials will yield useful data. Experimentation, in other words, equals hardware development and effective deployment. We already have examples: between 1993 and 2009, 11 governments conducted a dozen geoengineering experiments in international waters to see if spreading iron particles on the surface of the ocean could lead to the sequestering of carbon dioxide on the ocean floor. The first experiments dumped iron into 50-60 km² of ocean. When that didn’t work, they increased the surface area six-fold until the final 2009 dump was 300 km². It still failed. The geoengineers wanted bigger experiments, but three different UN conferences intervened and have effectively banned ocean fertilization. Sagely, the NAS report now concludes that ocean fertilization “is an immature technology whose high costs and technical and environmental risks currently outweigh the benefits.”
NAS also talks about the need for governance but only in the context of the United States. Stratospheric aerosol spraying can be undertaken by one country or a “Coalition of the Willing,” even though the impact will be global. For this reason, the United Nations must be in charge.
What about Plan A?
There is much that scientists don’t know about planetary systems. The acknowledged gaps in Plan A research have widened from a crevice to a chasm to a canyon. It would be extraordinarily foolhardy for policymakers to advance Plan B before Plan A’s research issues are addressed.
It is difficult, for example, to establish Plan A emission targets (or, for that matter, Plan B’s levels of stratospheric aerosol spraying) when governments don’t disclose their current emissions. China underreported its annual GHG emissions by about 20%, while the USA’s recent emission reductions aren’t quite what they’re fracked up to be. America cut back its emissions to 1992 levels because fracking lowered the demand for coal – but the coal was still burned overseas. The UK’s 14% reductions (between 1990 and 2008) in greenhouse gas emissions were erased by its 20% increase in emissions from outsourced manufacturing. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian emissions dropped 10 – 14% but only because farmland was temporarily abandoned.
How can we pursue “climate interventions” and call them scientific if governments don’t get the data right?
Governments have also had difficulties keeping track of their biomass, with implications for Plan B’s carbon capture and storage strategies. According to a UNEP report, up to 30% of all timber exports are mafia-controlled and 90% of tropical deforestation is due to illegal trade – making biomass calculations problematic. Meanwhile, India overestimated its forest cover by about 10%.
Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand have all flip-flopped on their emission commitments while the UK has cut back its renewable energy support. The EU’s carbon credit scheme is a laughingstock. This makes Plan A’s emission goals – or the levels of Plan B’s stratospheric aerosol interventions – subject to unexpected and dangerous changes.
Plan A and Plan B both need cutting-edge monitoring of planetary systems. However, by 2020, the number of civilian US climate monitoring satellites could drop from 23 to 6 and the number of monitoring instruments from 90 to 20. Monitoring is weakest over the Indian subcontinent and apparently deteriorating throughout the tropics. In 2014, for example, scientists discovered that an important swath of the Brazilian Amazon has been completely missed by satellites. The Economist called this “willful blindness.”
Recently, science has uncovered a vast deep-ocean “river”, a bacterial prairie the size of Greece beneath the Humboldt current, and reconsidered the impact of sulphates on cloud formation in polar regions that could significantly alter Plan B proposals for carbon sequestration or solar radiation management.
Money is indeed needed for climate change research. Governments should pony up and scientists should get to work. But the NAS needs to flatly condemn the deployment or hardware testing of dangerous technologies that have consequences for the whole planet.”
NAS support for geoengineering research creates a political space that could lead multinational oil companies and their governments off the hook. Precisely at the moment when climate denial is losing steam, it’s crucial to prevent it from being replaced with unicorn-like fantasies of magical technologies that allow the status quo to continue.
Pat Mooney is the Executive Director of ETC Group.
Friends of the Earth, U.S. [next]
Statement of Opposition to Geoengineering – Friends of the Earth U.S.
Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems, including systems related to climate. These technologies generally fall under three broad areas: solar radiation management (such as cloud whitening and covering deserts with reflective plastics), carbon dioxide removal and sequestration (such as ocean fertilization, biochar, and carbon extraction machines), and weather modification (such as cloud seeding and storm modification).
Geoengineering assumes that we can apply a dramatic technological fix to climate change. Instead of facing the reality that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, lower our consumption levels, and use renewable and sustainable sources of energy, some hope to simply reengineer the climate, the land, and the oceans to theoretically slow down and reverse climate change.
Friends of the Earth U.S. is opposed to geoengineering for the following reasons:
1) It violates treaties: In 2010, 193 Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity adopt a de facto moratorium on real-world testing of geoengineering until a series of conditions are met. The UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD) has prohibited the hostile uses of environmental modification since 1976.
2) It violates the precautionary principle: No experimental phase of geoengineering is possible. In order to have any noticeable impact on the climate or global temperatures geoengineering project must be deployed on a massive, global scale. “Experiments” or “field trials” equate to real-world deployment and would violate the Precautionary Principle. Additionally, the side effects of geoengineering interventions are unknown and untested but could easy have unintended consequences due to mechanical failure, human error, inadequate understanding of ecosystems and biodiversity and the Earth’s climate, unforeseen natural phenomena, irreversibility, or funding interruptions.
3) It’s a distraction: Geoengineering is a distraction from the core discussions and actions that need to take place to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It would allow the greatest contributors to climate change to continue polluting instead of committing to the necessary actions and funding needed to help those countries and communities that will be most harmed by climate change.
For these reasons, Friends of the Earth U.S. is opposed to geoengineering since it is counter to what we believe are sustainable and just solutions to the climate crisis.
Lisa Archer, Food and Technology Program Director at Friends of the Earth commented:
“A geoengineering technofix would take us in the wrong direction. Real climate justice requires dealing with root causes of climate change not launching risky, unproven and unjust schemes. Friends of the Earth supports the current moratorium agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity and would be highly critical of any proposals to move geoengineering towards real world experimentation.”
Natural Resources Defense Council [next]
The following is a statement by Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council: “There’s absolutely no substitute for slashing fossil fuel emissions in order to prevent catastrophic disruption of the Earth’s climate. But it’s prudent to do research into geoengineering because, for instance, improved carbon dioxide-removal techniques could help reduce such dangerous pollution. We also need research because manipulating solar radiation is risky and we must increase our understanding of those risks.” – Link
Union of Concerned Scientists [next]
Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth: The NAS Weighs Controversial Measures in New Report
The president’s science advisor John P. Holdren has often observed that humanity has three basic options for dealing with climate change: Mitigation (reducing heat-trapping emissions), adaptation (coping with unavoidable impacts of climate change), and suffering. The more swiftly we both mitigate and adapt, the less suffering we endure and impose on future generations.
Suppose, however, that we falter and temperatures continue to rise to dangerous levels. In a climate emergency, facing high risks of major and otherwise unavoidable impacts, should the U.S. or other governments consider forced cooling of Earth by injecting reflecting aerosol particles into the stratosphere?
Today, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) weighs in with a pair of major reports examining the scientific basis for considering this and other possible “climate interventions” — deliberate, potentially large-scale actions to reflect sunlight away from Earth or remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere should mitigation and adaptation prove insufficient to limit the risks of dangerous climate warming.
Kudos to the National Research Council (NRC) panel, chaired by Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the journal Science and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, for tackling this set of challenging and controversial issues. It is one of a growing number of scientific and related policy assessments on a suite of potential and problematic climate responses most commonly referred to as “geoengineering.”
Here’s a synopsis of key findings from the NRC report on Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. (In a related post, my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel looks at their report on Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration):
“Technologies that prevent sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface could reduce average global temperatures within a few years, similar to the effects of large volcanic eruptions. While many albedo-modification [i.e. solar energy reflecting] techniques have been proposed… two strategies that could potentially have a significant impact are injection of aerosols into the stratosphere and marine cloud brightening. [T]hese methods would not require major technological innovation to be implemented and are relatively inexpensive…
However, albedo modification would only temporarily mask the warming effect of greenhouse gases and would not address atmospheric concentrations of CO2 or related impacts such as ocean acidification. In the absence of CO2 reductions, albedo-modification activities would need to be sustained indefinitely and at increasingly large scales to offset warming, with severe negative consequences if they were to be terminated. In addition, albedo modification introduces secondary effects on the ozone layer, precipitation patterns, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and human health, with unknown social, political, and economic outcomes.
Many of the processes most relevant to albedo modification — such as those that control the formation of clouds and aerosols — are among the most difficult components of the climate system to model and monitor. Present-day observational capabilities lack sufficient capacity to monitor the environmental effects of an albedo-modification deployment. Improvements in the capacity to monitor direct and indirect changes on weather, climate, or larger Earth systems and to detect unilateral or uncoordinated deployment could help further understanding of albedo modification and climate science generally.
[I]t would be “irrational and irresponsible” to implement sustained albedo modification without also pursuing emissions mitigation, carbon dioxide removal, or both. [The Committee] oppose[s] deployment of albedo-modification techniques, but recommend[s] further research, particularly “multiple-benefit” research that simultaneously advances basic understanding of the climate system and quantifies the technologies’ potential costs, intended and unintended consequences, and risks.
Albedo-modification research will have legal, ethical, social, political, and economic ramifications. The committee recommend[s] the initiation of a serious deliberative process to examine what international research governance structures may be needed beyond those that already exist, and what types of research would require such governance. The degree and nature of governance should vary by activity and the associated risks, and should involve civil society in decision-making through a transparent and open process.”
In other words: Proposed strategies to alter the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth’s surface by (for example) deliberately injecting millions of tons of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere pose enormous risks and uncertainties and don ‘t address the underlying causes of global warming or other major risks from rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, such as ocean acidification. They should not be deployed today and we should do everything possible to avoid their being deployed in the future. As the NRC report emphasizes, there is no substitute for dramatic reductions in heat-trapping emissions. Preventative medicine is far more attractive than getting treated in the emergency room.
But the Committee also recommends the U.S. government invest in an “albedo-modification research program” focused on improving understanding of the intended and unintended impacts of these technologies on climate, people, and ecosystems. They consider — and firmly reject — the “moral hazard” argument that such research would somehow distract from efforts to reduce emissions, concluding that “as a society we have reached a point where the severity of the potential risks from climate change…outweigh[s] the potential [moral hazard] risks associated with a suitably designed and governed research program.”
I strongly agree. We need to better understand these technologies and their risks, even if we are determined to never deploy them. They are relatively low-cost, and if deployed unilaterally by others, would have global consequences. In the U.S. and internationally, societal debate over their use would be well served by better understanding their risks and consequences. A fuller understanding of their risks, informed by science, might well reinforce our collective determination to never use them and motivate greater commitment to mitigation and adaptation. And, should we falter in that effort, we would be well-served to better understand the impacts of such emergency-room measures.
That said, the question of who decides what research is appropriate is tricky. To date, studies have largely been confined to computer modeling. The NRC notes that “small-scale field experiments with controlled emissions [e.g. releasing reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere] may….be helpful.” Some scientists are eager to initiate field research. In my view, the NRC Committee has it exactly right when they call for any planning of such research to be subject to a “serious deliberative process” to weigh options for its governance. Such a process, they argue, should be fully transparent and informed by the active participation of civil society.
That process should begin now and subsequent guidance on the governance of albedo-modification research established before the U.S. supports any scale-up of albedo-modification research.
Groundbreaking New Report on Geoengineering Tackles Carbon Dioxide Removal Experiments
The scientific body established by a law signed by President Lincoln released two groundbreaking reports today on geoengineering. The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) emphasized in each report that reducing heat-trapping emissions and adapting to a changing climate are the two main options for reducing the risks of climate change.
The NAS committee, chaired by Marcia McNutt, recommended avoiding the terms “geoengineering” or “climate engineering,” which imply an engineering precision that is not warranted. Plus “geological engineering” has a different meaning in the context of mining. The committee preferred to define the term “climate intervention” as “purposeful actions intended to produce a targeted change in some aspect of the climate.”
The first report assesses ways to strike at the core of the problem by intentional carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. These have the potential to reduce the risks of most consequences that stem from overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, including ocean acidification. The second report, assesses ways of reflecting sunlight to cool Earth. (To learn more about this report check out the blog by my colleague Peter Frumhoff.)
Both reports also point out that intentional experiments such as these raise profound issues regarding governance that are at present not well developed in most countries or international organizations.
Appropriately, given the role of the NAS to advise the federal government on matters of science or of a technical nature, the reports recognize that other disciplines need to weigh in on improving governance before deployment should be considered in many cases. For example, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Oxford Principles in the UK represent early explorations of governance.
One of the issues raised is that those who may experience the consequences of intentional experiments would ideally be brought into the review of proposals, and prior approval would be sought before conducting experiments in the field. Another idea is to have an independent team of experts study potential consequences of any experiment proposed.
Among the key findings from the report on carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration is that the costs of many current proposals are likely to exceed that of reducing heat-trapping emissions through wide deployment of renewable energy sources and significant reductions in fossil fuel combustion.
For example, current cost estimates for scrubbing the parts per million carbon dioxide concentrations from the atmosphere are exceedingly high. Though less costly then direct air capture, costs are still high for capturing carbon dioxide directly at a concentrated point source such as a bioenergy source. As far as the reliable sequestration portion of the entire enterprise, saline aquifers seem the most promising of the geologic reservoirs examined in the United States.
The report noted that some carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration projects have already been explored with unequal results. For example, reforestation can sequester carbon for at least the lifetime of the trees. Far riskier is intentional acceleration of carbon dioxide removal by enhancing the biological uptake in the ocean through iron fertilization. According to the report, “deploying ocean iron fertilization at climatically relevant levels poses risks that outweigh potential benefits.”
Most proposals would likely take a decade or longer to achieve modest climate effects. What if the funding stopped for a carbon dioxide removal experiment? The report assesses this as well. The committee determined that any sudden stoppage of a carbon dioxide removal and sequestration experiment is considered a low-risk action. Given the time delay of most proposals, this gives time to conduct thorough research into potential consequences (e.g. earthquakes associated with injecting carbon deep into geologic reservoirs). Most of the carbon removal and sequestration research experiments examined were considered in the report to be relatively regional with regard to governance aspects.
The bottom line is that this report is a call for further research into safe ways for carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. In particular, ramping up research into land use and reforestation approaches seem the least risky of those covered in the report. The National Science Foundation and U.S. federal agencies could spur innovation with investments in transparent research programs on carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration.