Report recommends research on geoengineering for climate change but points to major risks

A University of Sussex energy policy and climate change expert has joined with other leading academics to recommend that more research is needed on new technology to tackle climate change.

The findings of their report, released this week, also warn that some of these technologies could pose a further threat to viable life on Earth.

Professor Gordon MacKerron is a member of the Royal Society’s geoengineering group, which this week published the findings of a major survey in a report - The report, Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty.


The report warns that failure to cut greenhouse emissions could mean having to rely on further action in the form of geoengineering to cool the planet, which also carry their own serious risks.


Professor MacKerron, who is Director of SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research), says: “Progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions has, in the UK and internationally, been disappointing. Unless we can much improve on this record globally, we will have to consider seriously some radical alternatives to avoid excessive planetary heating, for example geoengineering technologies.


“At present we know far too little about their potential for unintended but major ecological damage. The right response is to conduct research into the most promising technologies, but to be fully aware of the potential harmful side effects and to put in place decision-making processes to ensure that we do not get locked into damaging technologies.”


The report, written over the past 12 months, is a summary of opinion from experts in science engineering, economics, law and social science from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Southampton, Exeter, Imperial College London, University College London and Manchester, along with academics from Calgary (Canada), the Carnegie Institution in the USA and Sussex. The group is chaired by Professor John Shepherd FRS.


The report found that geoengineering technologies – split into Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management  (SRM) – could be technically possible and even potentially useful in avoiding excessive heating of the planet. However, the report identified major uncertainties regarding their effectiveness, costs and environmental impacts.


CDR techniques address the root of the problem – rising CO2 – and so have fewer uncertainties and risks, as they work to return the Earth to a more normal state. Techniques include carbon dioxide capture (the preferred method), enhanced weathering, which utilises naturally occurring reactions of CO2 from the air with rocks and minerals, creation of forests and ocean fertilisation.


SRM techniques act by reflecting the sun’s energy away from Earth, meaning they lower temperatures rapidly, but do not affect the root of the problem – CO2 levels. Other techniques include high-tech reflectors in space and stratospheric aerosols to mimic the screening effect of volcano fall-out.


None of the techniques, however, have been proven to be effective at an affordable cost, with acceptable environmental impacts, and they only work to reduce temperatures over very long timescales. 


Professor John Shepherd, who chaired the Royal Society’s geoengineering study, said, “None of the geoengineering technologies so far suggested is a magic bullet. It is an unpalatable truth that unless we can succeed in greatly reducing CO2 emissions we are headed for a very uncomfortable and challenging climate future. Geoengineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change.”


Notes for Editors



For further comment, interviews etc, please contact:

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The Royal Society, London

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Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty is published by the Royal Society, the UK’s leading independent science academy, promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. See the Royal Society’s web site for details of its 350th anniversary celebrations for 2010.


Professor Gordon Mackerron is Director of SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research) at the University of Sussex. Also has also served as Chair for the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, an independent committee advising UK Government on long-term radioactive waste management policy.


The Sussex Energy Group research aims to identify ways of achieving the transition to sustainable, low carbon energy systems while addressing other important policy objectives such as energy security.


Contact the University of Sussex Press office for further information about climate change and energy research at Sussex

Last updated: Wednesday, 2 September 2009