A statement by the U.N.-convened group suggests that tinkering with the atmosphere could be necessary to meet climate goals
Attempts to counter global warming by modifying Earth’s atmosphere have been thrust into the spotlight following last week’s report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Mention of ‘geoengineering’ in the report summary was brief, but it suggests that the controversial area is now firmly on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperature rises to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.
Most geoengineering technologies generally either reflect sunlight — through artificial ‘clouds’ of stratospheric aerosols, for example — or reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The latter approach, described as ‘negative emissions’, involves capturing carbon dioxide with strategies that range from building towers to collect it from the atmosphere to grinding up rocks to react with CO2 and take it out of circulation.
Critics say that the technologies are unproven, will have unforeseen impacts and could distract from attempts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. But advocates point to language in the summary for policy-makers produced by the IPCC working group that assessed the scientific evidence for climate change as evidence that reducing emissions will not be enough.
The document notes that a “large fraction” of anthropogenic climate change is irreversible except with a “large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period”. Under some climate models, keeping temperature rise below 2 °C will require negative emissions.
The summary reads: “Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system.”
Piers Forster, a climate-change researcher at the University of Leeds, UK, and one of the authors of the summary, says: “The policy relevance of the information is that if you do not start mitigating [ie reducing emissions] tomorrow we will have to start to consider these unattractive options.”
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