The deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system is not a “quick fix” for global warming, according to the findings of the UK’s first publicly funded studies on geoengineering.
The results of three projects – IAGP, led by the University of Leeds; SPICE, led by the University of Bristol; and CGG, led by the University of Oxford – are announced at an event held at The Royal Society, London, on 26 November 2014.
Professor Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change at the University of Leeds, and the principal investigator of the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP) project, said: “Our research shows that the devil is in the detail. Geoengineering will be much more expensive and challenging than previous estimates suggest and any benefits would be limited.
“For example, when simulating the spraying of sea salt particles into clouds to try to brighten them, we found that only a few clouds were susceptible and that the particles would tend to coagulate and fall out before reaching the cloud base.”
In September 2009, The Royal Society published a report, Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty. It influenced research worldwide, identified important gaps and called for a major UK funding programme into geoengineering. The IAGP and SPICE projects were funded the next year, and the CGG project followed in 2012.
IAGP is the UK’s first interdisciplinary research study into the controversial issue of geoengineering. It has brought together a range of expertise – climate modelling, philosophy and engineering – in addition to understanding public perceptions, to assess geoengineering within wider societal values.
“Cleverly designed simulations create less necessity for real-world testing.. My favourite part of the research involved creating a virtual reality in which we tried to rescue Arctic sea ice by dumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere from Stratotanker aircraft flying out of Svalbard in Norway,” said Professor Forster.
“Issues around monitoring and predicting the effects of our actions led to huge indecision and highlighted how challenging it would be to ever try and deploy these techniques in the real world.”
Researchers working on the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project took a different tack, but came to a similar cautionary conclusion.
Rather than running simulations, SPICE researchers used volcanoes as models to mimic the effect of a solar geoengineering proposal, in which sulphate aerosols are pumped into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space. This is a process that also naturally occurs due to particles emitted from volcanic eruptions.
Dr Matthew Watson, a reader in natural hazards from the University of Bristol, and principal investigator for the SPICE project, said: “Whilst it is clear that temperatures could be reduced during deployment, the potential for misstep is considerable. By identifying risks, we hope to contribute to the evidence base around geoengineering that will determine whether deployment, in the face of the threat of climate change, has the capacity to do more good than harm.”
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