Are 'Hail Mary' Technological Solutions Our Only Hope to Prevent Disastrous Climate Change?
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An emergency "Plan B" using the latest technology is needed to save the world from dangerous climate change, according to a poll of leading scientists carried out by The Independent . The collective international failure to curb the growing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has meant that an alternative to merely curbing emissions may become necessary.
The plan would involve highly controversial proposals to lower global temperatures artificially through daringly ambitious schemes that either reduce sunlight levels by man-made means or take CO2 out of the air. This "geoengineering" approach -- including schemes such as fertilising the oceans with iron to stimulate algal blooms -- would have been dismissed as a distraction a few years ago but is now being seen by the majority of scientists we surveyed as a viable emergency backup plan that could save the planet from the worst effects of climate change, at least until deep cuts are made in CO2 emissions.
What has worried many of the experts, who include recognised authorities from the world's leading universities and research institutes, as well as a Nobel Laureate, is the failure to curb global greenhouse gas emissions through international agreements, namely the Kyoto Treaty, and recent studies indicating that the Earth's natural carbon "sinks" are becoming less efficient at absorbing man-made CO2 from the atmosphere.
Levels of CO2 have continued to increase during the past decade since the treaty was agreed and they are now rising faster than even the worst-case scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body. In the meantime the natural absorption of CO2 by the world's forests and oceans has decreased significantly. Most of the scientists we polled agreed that the failure to curb emissions of CO2, which are increasing at a rate of 1 per cent a year, has created the need for an emergency "plan B" involving research, development and possible implementation of a worldwide geoengineering strategy.
Just over half -- 54 per cent -- of the 80 international specialists in climate science who took part in our survey agreed that the situation is now so dire that we need a backup plan that involves the artificial manipulation of the global climate to counter the effects of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. About 35 per cent of respondents disagreed with the need for a "plan B", arguing that it would distract from the main objective of cutting CO2 emissions, with the remaining 11 per cent saying that they did not know whether a geoengineering strategy is needed or not.
Almost everyone who thought that geoengineering should be studied as a possible plan B said that it must not be seen as an alternative to international agreements on cutting carbon emissions but something that runs in parallel to binding treaties in case climate change runs out of control and there an urgent need to cool the planet quickly.
Geoengineering was dismissed as a distraction a few years ago but it has recently become a serious topic of research. Next summer, for example, the Royal Society, in London, is due to publish a report on the subject, led by Professor John Shepherd of the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton University. Professor Shepherd was one of the scientists who said that a plan B was needed because he was now less optimistic about the prospects of curbing CO2 levels since Kyoto was agreed, and less optimistic about the ability of the Earth's climate system to cope with the expected CO2 increases. "Geoengineering options... must not be allowed to detract from efforts to reduce CO2 emissions directly," said Professor Shepherd, who studies the interaction between the climate and oceans. In answer to the question of whether scientists were more optimistic or less optimistic about the ability of the climate system to cope with increases in man-made CO2 without dangerous climate change, just one out of the 80 respondents to our survey was more optimistic, 72 per cent were less optimistic, and 23 per cent felt about the same.