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02 September 2011
Volcanoes belch chemical particles into the atmosphere, which reflect solar radiation and reduce surface temperatures on the planet. Researchers from various UK universities want to mimic this activity by spraying out sulphate aerosol particles from a 20km-high, stadium-sized balloon.
It might sound like the barmy plan of a comic supervillian, but the concept is serious. The Cambridge, Oxford, Reading and Bristol universities' SPICE proposal -- aka Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering -- received a £1.6 million government grant and Royal Society backing in 2010.
Now, the British engineers are nearly ready to put their plan into fruition, and The Guardian notes that the team will carry out its first field test in October. The opening experiment will be seriously scaled down -- just 0.6km high, a smaller balloon and water droplets instead of sulphate -- to see if the plan is even feasible.
In its secret location out at sea, the water-spewing balloon will be connected to a ship by a tethered hosepipe. This will feed those water droplets to the buoyant, geoengineering zeppelin in the sky. If the plan works, the team will move onto bigger balloons, higher altitude and -- eventually -- sulphate aerosol particles.
As a recent paper in Nature Geoscience points out, it is "physically not feasible" to stabilise global rainfall and temperature by means of this technique while greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. The effects of shooting particles into the atmosphere will vary dramatically in different parts of the world, helping some, harming others. It's impossible to see how the countries likely to be harmed by this technique would agree to it. If it were imposed on them it would lead to the mother of all conflicts – and the mother of all lawsuits.
It is so obvious that this approach is a non-starter that the £1.6m the UK government is spending on the experiment would be better used to investigate those age-old questions of how to turn lead into gold or extract sunshine from cucumbers.
This is not to suggest that we should dismiss all geo-engineering techniques out of hand. But, like liposuction, none of those being proposed are simultaneously safer, cheaper and more effective than addressing the problem at source. This means reducing our greenhouse gases. A good diet and plenty of exercise are better than the knife.
A time may come when mankind will need to consider geoengineering the climate to counteract climatic effects of greenhouse gases. If that time comes, we need to have a good understanding of whether such efforts will work and, just as importantly, whether they will have any negative side effects. Those who oppose such exploratory research on the grounds that we do not know what its effects may be (Want to mimic a volcano to combat global warming? Launch a Wembley-size balloon, 1 September) are missing a fundamental point of research, which is to allow us to potentially rule out any technology that would have negative effects that outweigh the positive.
The article was incorrect in stating that the Royal Society backs the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project, the subject of the article. The Society's comprehensive review of possible geoengineering technologies, published in 2009, did identify stratospheric aerosols, which the Spice project is investigating, as one of the more plausible ideas that required further research. However, the Society's current work is focused on the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI), a project to develop guidelines to ensure that geoengineering research is conducted in a manner that is transparent, responsible and environmentally sound.
Geoengineering research can be considered analogous to pharmaceutical research. One would not take a medicine that had not been rigorously tested to make sure that it worked and was safe. But, if there was a risk of disease, one would research possible treatments and, once the effects were established, one would take the medicine if needed and appropriate. Similarly we need controlled testing of any technologies that might be used in the future. Hopefully we will never need geoengineering but, if we do, to fail to assess its usefulness and safety in advance would be a risk no one, least of all those most concerned with the environment, would thank us for.
President of the Royal Society