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Climate change: Tinkering with the science

NAIROBI, 29 February 2012 (IRIN) - Huge mirrors in space, petrifying carbon dioxide, algae farms, and lots of white paint - these are some of the ideas being proposed to offset global warming amid fears that temperatures might rise by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

Global warming is driven by an increase in human-generated greenhouse gases (GHG), such as water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone and methane, by burning coal, oil and natural gas. The gases trap heat in the atmosphere, keeping the planet warmer than it would be otherwise.

With past attempts at persuading countries to commit to reducing their GHG emissions inconclusive, “some scientists are beginning to feel that they have an answer”, says Richard Samson Odingo, a University of Nairobi lecturer and former vice-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Whether or not we can tinker with science and intervene realistically is the issue.”

The main technologies being considered are Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

CDR entails removing carbon dioxide, CO2, from the atmosphere via sequestration, capture or ocean fertilization; CO2 emissions are said to be the dominant cause of global warming.

Methods include:

Solar Radiation Management aims at reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth and include:

''Whether or not we can tinker with science and intervene realistically is the issue.''
While SRM techniques have been proposed as possibly useful in case of an emergency as they are fast acting, to avoid a climate “tipping point”, there are concerns they could create other problems, such as changing precipitation patterns.

Odingo asks: “When you put reflectors in the atmosphere, how does that interfere with agriculture and forests? All of these need to be studied.”

According to critics, there is a need to keep in touch with the emerging geo-engineering scientific debate and to comment on the feasibility of the same, bearing in mind that the science may be a result of over-confidence in modelling.

There remains a need for countries to increase efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change, and in particular to agreeing to global emissions reductions of at least 50 percent on 1990 levels by 2050 and more because, “Nothing now known about geo-engineering options [CDR and SRM] gives any reason to diminish these efforts”, states the Royal Society.

But, geo-engineering may be needed if the apparent lack of political will to significantly reduce GHG emissions does not change, notes John Shepherd, a Fellow of the Royal Society.

There is thus a need to “work outside our national borders, bringing together interested parties from around the globe to debate the issues of geo-engineering, agree appropriate governance structures and ensure that any research is undertaken in a safe, transparent and socially acceptable manner”, states Shepherd. “The question of whether solar geo-engineering will prove to be helpful or harmful will largely depend on how humanity can govern the issue and its political implications, and avoid unilateral action.”

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Sources / Read more:
Biochar International
Bridging the Emissions Gap
CarbFix
Geo-engineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty
Environmental Science and Technology
IRIN In-depth
Johns Hopkins University’s Teaching Climate/Energy Law & Policy Master of Science programme in Energy Policy & Climate
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Oxford University’s Martin School blog
The Earth Institute Columbia University
The Royal Society
UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Theme(s): Environment, Governance, Natural Disasters,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]