The Royal Society report: some more follow-up
September 3, 2009, 6:29 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering

Some more discussion and fall out from Tuesday’s report.

Peter Cox (a member of the Royal Society working group) and Hazel Jeffery have a feature in Physics World that effectively recaps the report, but puts a more pro-geoengineering spin on it.

Given that conventional mitigation now appears insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change, do we have a plan B? This is the motivation for geoengineering, a term that describes deliberate intervention in the climate system to counteract man-made global warming … For scientists who want to save the planet, there should be no more attractive research field than geoengineering.

This also includes a rather more easily understood, and I think generally better, summary diagram than the one included in the report (“Figure 5.1”, as gently mocked by my friend Geoff), which leaves out some of the modalities that Cox and Jeffery don’t think so much of, and which puts everything in the context of conventional mitigation.

The Cox and Jeffery plot

And here’s 5.1.

Geoengineering the climate, figure 5.1

Geoengineering the climate, figure 5.1

One interesting thing is that Cox and Jeffery don’t give any diagram space to enhanced weathering: I wonder why not?

Speaking of enhanced weathering, this comment on a post by Joe Romm provides a bunch of references in the context of ocean de-acidification, including stuff which fed into the RoySoc report. Joe’s post is on ocean acidification and reefs, with a side swipe at geo-engineering, of which he generally disapproves; as it happens, half the front page and an inside spread of the Guardian are devoted to a report by David Adam on the same topic. The piece doesn’t mention geoengineering, but it does say that the only solution is an atmospheric CO2 level a lot lower than today’s, and there’s no route to that without some sort of carbon dioxide reduction. (On the topic of the Guardian, The Yorkshire Ranter has some harsh things to say about the 10:10 campaign…)

Meanwhile Roger Pielke Jr greets the RoySoc report with a modicum of snark

The UK Royal Society committee on geoengineering has put out a report (PDF) that reads, well, like it was put together by a committee … The Committee expresses considerable ignorance about the costs of air capture … [and] was either unaware of or chose to ignore (I’m not sure which option is worse) the only peer-reviewed paper that compares … costs of air capture to other approaches

That only peer reviewed paper to which he refers is, by happy chance, Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2009. An Idealized Assessment of the Economics of Air Capture of Carbon Dioxide in Mitigation Policy, Environmental Science & Policy, 12, pp 216-225. And I tend to agree that it is an odd thing to leave out, since the report’s references do include this blog post of Roger’s that make similar points. The paper is definitely worth a look.

Meanwhile, in the world of whacky, Gerard Wynn at Reuters brings us “Sweet dreams are made of geoengineering“, which is devoted in large part to the remarkable claims of a company called Blacklight. You should feel free, if you believe yourself to live beyond the reach of English libel law, to substitute “crazy” or possibly indeed “fraudulent” for the term remarkable, should googling around the subject of Blacklight’s claims of near unlimited energy based on a completely new (but not, apparently, complete) formulation of quantum mechanics lead you to form such an opinion. The man claiming that increased use of paddocks can store billions of tonnes of carbon in grassland seems reasonable by comparison…

Though not written in response to the Royal Society report, this NYT piece by Felicity Barringer seems to me one of the better things I’ve read on white roofs (via FT Energy Source), though its a little light on costs. In another post at FT Energy Source, Kate Mackenzie goes through the Royal Society’s numbers on the various different methods (figure 5.1 again), and also includes a Google Trends plot showing how interest in geoengineering has shot up this year in terms of search traffic. (FWIW, the highest-google-ranked piece of geoengineering journalism turns out to be this from a few years ago, which is nice…)

Over on China Dialogue there’s a rather good Q&A with Ken Caldeira, another of the Royal Society authors, in which he muses on the possibility that, in a world where things were rum enough for geoengineering to be an urgent need, concerns about governance might prove a touch academic

It’s easy to say that nobody should ever deploy one of these systems without getting global consensus – and in measured times that is what we would do. But let’s say we had a situation where climate change was causing massive crop failure in China: what if Chinese scientists figured that if they intervened in the climate system by putting particles in the stratosphere, and this would likely restore the rains to China and allow China to feed its people once again? If the Chinese leaders thought that they would be saving many millions of lives by putting particles in the stratosphere, it’s hard to imagine that a Chinese leader would say: “No, I’m going to let my people starve because I can’t achieve international consensus.” I think in the case of an emergency, where a political leader thinks it could potentially save many millions of lives, it’s hard to see how that leader could allow their people to starve or die. I could envision a situation where political leaders might deploy these systems in the absence of a worldwide consensus.

That said, I think that it’s important for us to get our governments to start discussing these issues and develop governance and regulation over these technologies to try to make sure that as much as possible there are international controls and consensus over how these tools are used. But I think when push comes to shove and a political leader has their back against the wall, they may feel compelled to deploy these things unilaterally.

As it happens, this is much the same point as Eric Posner made on The Volokh Conspiracy in the context of the lack of tort law in international relations.


1 Comment so far
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Do note that both the Cox and Jeffery plot and the one from the RS directly contradict the results in my air capture paper which find its costs directly comparable to that of conventional mitigation.

Indeed the RS report says that it is very likely that costs can come down from those levels. So it is unclear what their estimate of costs of air capture refer to since they did not actually perform or cite a comprehensive cost analysis.

Comment by Roger Pielke, Jr.

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