The IPCC and geoengineering
September 28, 2013, 3:18 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) just released by the IPCC’s Working Group 1 (pdf) ends with a para on geoengineering (p21), and this fact is receiving some play in media coverage. Not everyone is writing about it, and very few are putting it high up the story, but it’s there, and as various people have pointed out, last time WG1 reported, in 2007, it wasn’t.

Here’s the para is in full. I’ve annotated it to highlight changes made to the authors’ final draft, prepared after all the review stages of the document and thus forming the text that the governments attending the Stockholm plenary started from:

Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. <Before Stockholm this was just “Methods to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed” so some more definition has been added] 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. <This was previously the last sentence; I’d assume moving it up is meant to let this point about nescience set the context for the subsequent sentences, rather than to seem to follow from them.] CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale. Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. <In draft, this sentence began “Modelling shows that some SRM methods have the potential…”: thus a slightly stronger statement about a subset of SRM has been weakened to include all SRM. ] If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence [emphasis in original] that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale. <the draft said “unintended side effects” not just “side effects”. Piers Forster, one of the authors, tweeted me that “US wanted “unintentional” dropped in last [sentence]. We agreed – only change.”]

If Russian negotiators tried to strengthen the language on geoengineering at the Stockholm plenary, as The Guardian reported that they wanted to, they were singularly unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this quite anodyne paragraph seems to have significance, at least for some people. The ETC group put out a news release “Concern as IPCC bangs the drum for geoengineering“, though it noted that “the text approved in Stockholm fell far short of endorsing geoengineering”. If you’re puzzled about how it is possible to bang the drum for something you aren’t endorsing, ETC’s Jim Thomas, friend of this blog, makes the point more clearly: “We are beginning to hear a drumbeat where geoengineering advocates will use the IPCC’s reports to press for geoengineering experimentation and, eventually, deployment.” So it’s not the IPCC banging, then.

Jim is probably right that we will see some of this sort of thing, and it will be interesting to trace. But ETCs suggestion that talking about geoengineering in some way strays from the IPCC’s mandate to be policy relevant not policy prescriptive strikes me as quite a stretch; “policy relevant” surely includes “relevant to policy that ETC doesn’t support”. For example, the IPCC spends quite a lot of time on what will happen under business as usual. Should it not be doing this?

Jim’s main worry is that the IPCC even mentioned geoengineering, thus “lending legitimacy and respectability to a set of suggestions that were previously considered unacceptable and should remain so.” Jack Stilgoe takes a somewhat similar view about the “premature legitimacy” conferred by mention of geoengineering in the Working Group 1 SPM in an article for The Guardian:

To include mention of geoengineering, and its supporting “evidence” in a statement of scientific consensus, no matter how layered with caveats, is extraordinary.

It’s really not. To begin with, the IPCC was mandated to talk about geoengineering in this report. The scoping meeting which gave the panel its marching orders for the massive fifth assessment specified that all three working groups look at geoengineering (the first, this one, is on the state of play on climate change in the sciences-previously-known-as-natural; the second is on the impacts of climate change; the third is on responses). It’s worth noting that though a fair amount of geoengineering talk buys into the idea that geoengineering became a bigger part of the conversation after the Copenhagen climate summit, and this may be true, the scoping meeting took place before Copenhagen.

Having to look at geoengineering , though, does not mean having to include it in the highly visible SPM — it could have been left in the vastly longer main report. And it might have been. A leaked copy of the an earlier draft of the SPM had no geoengineering paragraph. According to Piers, the authors decided it was necessary because they were mandated to discuss RCP2.6. The RCPs are “representative concentration pathways” – pictures of how greenhouse gas concentrations in the decades to come. RCP 2.6 is a pathway in which it is unlikely for the temperature to rise two degrees over preindustrial, and in which it is possible for the temperature not to rise more than 1.5 degrees.

These numbers matter because the UNFCCC puts particular stock in the 2 degree limit, and IIRC is bound to consider whether the limit should be tightened to 1.5 degrees in 2015. As the concentration pathway that delivers this, RCP2.6 matters. And as the SPM says (p19) when asked to produce a scenario in which greenhouse gases follow the RCP2.6 pathway,

By the end of the 21st century, about half of the [Earth System Models] infer emissions slightly above zero, while the other half infer a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. {6.4}

If you have a situation where the scenarios being suggested for crucial policy-relevant outcomes seem likely to involve net removal of carbon from the atmosphere, it makes sense to talk about technologies for carbon-dioxide removal. Thus the geoengineering paragraph in the summary for policy makers. The link to RCP2.6 isn’t explicit, but it’s confirmed by Piers in a couple of tweets.

Govts asked for it at scoping. We had long discussions about raising it to SPM. Massive CDR in RCP2.6 clinched it

ie. RCP2.6 pathway looks attractive but is unattainable without huge unrealistic CDR with side effects etc.

I’m happy with this: as I have argued before, if you are going to talk seriously about the two degree limit intellectual honesty requires mentioning geoengineering. I’m a little surprised that Jack isn’t. His post shows him OK with, or at least resigned to, more extensive discussion of geoengineering in Working Group 2 and Working Group 3; it’s finding it in Working Group 1′s SPM that’s a problematic legitimisation, and especially in finding it at the very end of the summary, which he regards as a special position. I must say I don’t read the placing that way — it comes off more as a position where you put an afterthought, and Piers’s account of its moderately late addition seems to bear that out. Beyond that, saying it’s OK for WG2 and/or WG3 but not for WG1 seems to represent a privileging of the physical sciences that I wouldn’t expect from Jack. How can it be OK to talk about geoengineering in policy discussions but not in a discussion of the science? I’m not sure I’d go as far as Matt Watson does in an interesting post at The Reluctant Geoengineer:

It appears to me that Jack’s piece counters his position that rational debate is the most desirable outcome.

But I am left unsure how Jack differentiates between venues where that debate is good and where it is “premature legitimisation”.

Update: Jack and Matt continue their discussion in the comments at The Reluctant Geoengineer. More from Jim Thomas in the comments here.

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10 Comments so far
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Intellectual honesty is a rare thing in these discussions.

Approximately 10% of the annual increase in energy consumption is coming from wind and solar. Nuclear is in decline. Biofuels and biomass grow because of dubious policy decisions in Europe, and are doing rather little to decrease emissions. Hydro grows with the accompanying displacement of millions of people in China. 1.2 TW of new coal plants are being planned globally. Absolute growth in energy consumption is growing faster than ever and almost 50% of this growth is coming from coal.

Despite delusional talk of China greening, and moving away from coal it is building large numbers of plants to convert coal to synthetic natural gas (which has a higher carbon footprint than the coal would have had in the first place).

An overly optimistic reading of events would have global emissions peaking a decade from now. Widespread incompetence, energy illiteracy, outright innumeracy of politicians and environmentalists does not make me optimistic these things will peak any time soon. Consider the fools who imagine you can shut nuclear power plants in Germany without increasing carbon emissions. Intellectual honesty should replace delusion in these discussions, but I don’t expect it to.

So, yes if we were intellectually honest we would either abandon the 2 degree target or begin an open discussion on geoengineering. Given the inertial nature of these discussions I expect these things to be talked about no earlier than a decade from now.

Comment by Robert Wilson

You may be right, but I believe discussions of geoengineering are probably going to become prominent sooner than ten years from now, and that is the cheap Solar Radiation Management techniques that will be front and center.

My sense from speaking to conservatives in the US is that they would embrace this approach the moment the Republican party abandons their position that global warming is a hoax and/or harmless, and latches onto this as a way to continue pleasing the fossil fuel lobby, while creating a whole new profitable industry.

Another dishonesty would emerge at that point – that America would be able to set the global thermostat to whatever target we wished. I don’t know how long they would be able to believe that, but recent history says it would be a long time.

Comment by Neil Gundel

“Approximately 10% of the annual increase in energy consumption is coming from wind and solar.”

“An overly optimistic reading of events would have global emissions peaking a decade from now.”

This is probably what is going to happen. A growth of 40% per year in renewables means that they double every 2 years. In 2 years 20% of the annual increase in energy consumption will come from wind and solar, in four years it will be 40%, in 6 years 80%. Soon after that wind and solar will be growing faster than total energy consumption, meaning that carbon dioxide emissions will begin to fall.

Comment by Søren Lassen

Delighted but amused to be called a ‘friend of the blog’ (sounds like ‘friends of the earth’) but I’d like to respond:

Yes, the perplexing thing is that Geoengineering turned up in WG1 and moreover someone decided to push for an entire paragraph in the SPM. The SPM as you know is a political document and SPM for WGI is probably the most politically important of the IPCC’s output.

While I can understand Working group III keeping a skeptical eye on geoengineering topics (they have done so in the past) I don’t see any credible reason why Working group I should address geoengineering – much less devote a concluding paragraph of the SPM to the topic (conclusion/afterthought? – either way its there and it was fought to put it there).

Working Group 1′s job is to concerned with the diagnosis of the problems, not to crack open a discussion of possible quack cures to the ailment. No other single response measure was mentioned in the SPM of Working Group 1 – not solar energy, not biomass, not carbon markets, not public transport, not CCS – not a single one. If the final paragraph of SPM Working Group 1 had been a shoehorned-in discussion of nuclear power or of whetehr population control measures are needed to reduce global carbon footprint those also would have seemed equally incongruous and wrong. The single choice of ending on the Geoengineering question alone in a highly political document was, in our view, a very bad decision by the IPCC – its effect is to add to the drumbeat telling policymakers that they can relax about the geoengineering option – its acceptable these days. It doesn’t matter what the paragraph content says, what it says regardless is ‘ think of geoengineering’ – Like Lakoff’s classic framing trick of ‘Don’t think of an elephant’

You have suggested above that the rational reason the paragraph was added was because the RCP’s included a scenario with large scale CDR. But the paragraph in question talks mostly about SRM so that reasoning doesn’t actually make sense.

Its there because somebody (‘governments’?) wanted to exploit the shock of IPCC WG1′s core message (‘things are bad’) to position geoengineering as a possible saviour product.

Doctor: You have a deadly cancer you know some people think that drinking cocacola might cure cancer…

Wouldn’t you be more inclined to go and buy a coke?

Comment by Jim Thomas

Jim — everyone who bothers to read and comment and to whom I am well disposed is a friend of the blog :-) Your point about RCP2.6 not providing a reason for the discussion of sunshine geoengineering in the SPM is an interesting one. I suspect it’s because sunshine anc carbon methods are still habitually lumped together under this one heading, which some people approvie of and some really dislike. I’m pretty sure they’re discussed together in the main report, making it easy for the authors to move the summary of that discussion up to SPM unchanged.

It is possible that there were pro-solar-geoengineering agendas at play, but note that Piers presents the decision to include the paragraph as a decision of the authors before plenary politics got in on the act, so any such agendas would seem to be in the writing team. Perhaps interesting, though, that no governments thought to suggest taking sunshine methods out of the draft at the plenary.

Comment by Oliver

My understanding is that Governments _did_ ask for this to be removed from the SPM at an earlier stage (just as Russia asked for stronger language in the initial government comments). My guess is that when the relevant paragraph finally went through the plenary at 3am on friday morning everyone was too exhausted…

Comment by Jim Thomas

Jim, that’s interesting — when I see reviews of the earlier SPM drafts I’ll be interested in finding those comments and responses. Piers says via twitter that the inclusion of sunshine geoengineering methods “came from authors trying to structure TS, not any govt request”|“BECCS or SRM can both alter forcing to reach targets. So addressed together in TS, then added to SPM”

Comment by Oliver

Jim, et al:

Pielke Jr and others say IPCC is in the bag for politicians who want to push mitigation as a political effort. Your uneasiness with the inclusion of geonengineering as the only “response” — for lack of a better term to group geo with mitigation and adaptation (we know its a blend of each) — in the SPM for WG1 would undercut this argument, I’d say.

Eli K

Comment by Eli K

As one of the very few people at the centre of the geoengineereing cyclone I find this news of the IPCC illuminating. It is so not because “geoengineering” is hoving into view as an option but rather because the media continues to spin the story in such a bizarre fashion.

My work of restoring mineral dust to the oceans so as to help Mother Nature restore her ocean pastures to life and abundance is classified as “geoengineering.” My project last summer based on a single fishing boat taking ~100 tonnes of iron rich mineral dust to a particularly severely depleted ocean pasture deserves some attention to the details.

My work has been thoroughly savaged in the media around the world as “rogue”, against the law, and all manner of pejorative descriptions. Only one single ultra-conservative media writer at the National Review wrote a story about the project which was not an attack.

Here’s what we did and what we saw and recorded.

We worked for about 6 years with myriad government officials developing the project plan. Eventually we gained the support of many government research ministries both with funding and in kind scientific support.

We studied the location of the ocean pasture we would restore by all means for more than a year. We collected physical samples months in advance using ships of opportunity in the area. We sent robotic ocean gliders in first to gather even more data. We lastly sailed into the area and studied what were the ecological and oceanographic characteristics before and as we began our deployment of the infinitesimal amount of restoration mineral. Our target was to raise the level of iron in the “patch” 100x100km by just tens of parts per billion.

What happened? It just worked!

Where that ocean was harbouring very low levels of plankton and other sea life before our mere dozen men and women began work after it became an oasis of life. Where before the bloom sea birds were seen and counted in ones and twos on any given day during the bloom seabirds were counted by the thousands feeding in the bloom. The cacophony of bird song at dawn was so great one could hear it over the roaring of the ships mighty engines.

Where whales were spotted in numbers of one or two per week before on some days in the bloom the greatest of all whales the big baleen whales were counted by the score. Sometimes the rarest and shyest of all the great whales were seen, in the words of captain with 50 years of sea time to his credit, “hey look at that they are coming right to us, they think they are sneaking up on us, see see look they are turning their great heads to get a better look at us.”

We observed salmon and tuna and other fish arriving in the bloom in abundance. The old captain again with most of his life as a tuna boat captain was regularly scampering off the bridge of the boat to personally haul in the albacore tuna we were catching in waters far too cold for those tuna but yet they were there.

All of ocean life thrived and flourished in this restored ocean pasture. And today and for many weeks now from Alaska to Oregon the largest runs of salmon have returned in all of history. Was our restored ocean pasture, selected to be provided on site in the heart of the salmon ocean rearing grounds the cause of this years miraculous runs of salmon… we are still studying that but no other phenomenon other than our restored pasture exists. Certainly far more than 100 million extra salmon have been caught in SE Alaska alone this year. Double the previous historic high.

So if we’ve fed sea birds, whales, tuna, and salmon what is it that we fed them? We’ll we are all carbon based life on this planet and that is what plankton blooms are the very best at of all plant ecosystems, converting deadly life threatening ocean acidfying CO2 into life itself. The helping hand our band of a dozen Indians gave to Mother Nature what she needed to grow and sustain her vital ocean pasture. That pasture converted scores or millions of tonnes of CO2 into life and into fish. Instead of eating canned tuna for the next year you might enjoy the taste of the bloom by choosing canned Alaska Pink Salmon instead… 100 million salmon can’t be wrong.

And the cost? In designing and making this ocean pasture restoration project happen I had to scrounge for money to do great science. Some few millions were raised in cash and in kind largely targeted at doing great science. We gathered more than 168 million discrete measurements of the ocean and its environment and ecology by working 24 hours a day at sea and using state of the art ocean robotic gliders and drifters.

Is this “geoengineering”?

Our tiny 100 tonnes of mineral dust pales in comparison to the 50 million tonnes of similar rock dust being poured into the Pacific Ocean starting in January of this year out of the National Park lands of the the Olympic penninsula of Washington State. But that $350 million dam removal project gathers nothing but praise for potentially restoring one small river system. In our work we might rise to match the load of minerals dumped into our common Pacific Ocean by doing our work over and over again for 500,000 years! But our Native village project is declared by the media in their quest to fabricate a fight story cast us me a rogue “geoengineer” while simultaneously casting our neighbour tribe the Elwha people living beside the Elwha River are heros, So be it.

The happy coincidence of our work to bring back the fish is that scores of millions of tonnes of CO2 becomes life. The cost to actually deploy the minerals and restore the ocean blooms was much less than $500,000! The cost of converting planet killing CO2 into ocean life… just a penny per tonne!

What’s required to restore the ocean pastures of 100 villages around the world where the fish have all but disappeared? This effort had the potential to feed billions of people with healthy fish. It will bring life back to the oceans everwhere. It doesn’t require 100 nations it just requires 100 tiny villages. And it will convert the lions share of our collective deadly CO2 into life at a cost of mere millions not the hundreds of billions, even trillions the true geoengineers want the world to spend.

To read more I have a blog at russgeorge.net

Join me and 100 villages who choose to bring forth life not death as our response to the crisis facing our Blue Planet.

Comment by russ george (@russgeorge2)

[…] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s summary statement for policymakers controversially mentioned geoengineering for the first time in the panel’s 25-year history. And the National Academy of Sciences is working on a […]

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