September 6, 2017

Climate Engineering Research Gets a Shot in the Arm

A paper came across the wire late last week that demonstrates the growing interest in serious and urgent scientific study of climate engineering (CE), the intentional modification of the climate system to counteract the effects of climate change. In the opinion piece, Edward Parsons argues that the IPCC’s failure to report the use and extent of CE in its modeling scenarios that drove the Paris Agreement has lulled policymakers into a false sense of security about our ability to meet climate goals through emissions reductions alone. He argues that CE, and specifically solar geoengineering, should undergo “serious, critical investigation” to determine its ability to actually achieve the goals set through the IPCC process.

At Paris, it became clear that the goal of limiting global average temperature increases to 2°C was not realistic, given the inadequacy of current mitigation efforts. So much so in fact, that the IPCC modeling scientists “found that the target could not be met via plausible and cost-effective levels of mitigation.” To make up the difference, the modelers assumed two CE strategies (either direct air capture or solar geoengineering) could achieve what mitigation alone could not.

Parson’s is critical of the IPCC’s game of hide the ball:

This lack of transparency has fed several serious and persistent misconceptions, e.g., that these scenarios show 2 °C to be feasible by mitigation alone, that the reliance on carbon removal they imply is achievable through familiar and benign land and forest stewardship measures, and that the scale of assumed reliance on these removal methods is reliably feasible and acceptable. In fact, these assumptions and the policies based on them represent a high stakes gamble—and not a good one.

In response to this failure, Parsons says that research into climate engineering is urgently needed, because:

  • CE might be crucial for mitigating the worst climate change risks
  • The likely dramatic progression of climate change will encourage unilateral action by desperate actors
  • International agreements already rely on the ability to remove atmospheric CO2 in order to reach their stated goals

This, for Parsons, means that governments and academic climate bodies need to stop avoiding the technology and give it the serious consideration it deserves. The best place for this to start, as Parson points out, is in “the IPCC special report on the 1.5 °C target, now partway through its work.” That review could establish an agenda to direct climate community research, and solidify CE’s standing in the climate policy debate. That conversation is probably more important than most policymakers realize.

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