Cambridge University has created a research unit dedicated to exploring radical approaches for repairing the Earth's climate, but concerns over geo-engineering remain
Refreezing the Earth's poles and removing CO2 from the atmosphere are just some of the potential global warming solutions that scientists from Cambridge University are to explore at a major new research centre in the city.
Named the Centre for Climate Repair, the initiative will test radical approaches for repairing the Earth's climate, amid concerns that accelerating climate impacts may make geo-engineering techniques essential to protect human civilisation. Advocates of geo-engineering technologies have long argued that the failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement may mean more radical measures are required later in the century to minimise the risk of runaway warming.
But some environmental campaigners remain fiercely opposed to the concept and today attacked the new centre's focus on unproven geoengineering fixes, arguing they distract from the urgent necessity to enact the social, technological, and political change necessary to cut carbon emissions.
The new centre will see scientists, engineers, and social scientists work together to develop and test innovative ideas, such as injecting clouds above the poles with salt to enable sea ice to refreeze. The salt - which would be implanted into clouds by pumping seawater up tall masts through very fine nozzles - would cause the clouds to become more widespread and reflective, cooling the areas beneath them.
Another idea being considered seeks to artificially expand the role of the oceans as a carbon sink. By fertilising the sea with iron salts, scientists could encourage the growth of plankton to absorb CO2. The idea - known as 'greening the ocean' - has previously been criticised by environmental groups, who argue it could disrupt ecosystems. Previous experiments resulted in a negligible quantity of CO2 ultimately being absorbed.
The Cambridge initiative - which forms part of the university's Carbon Neutral Futures programme - joins a raft of projects at UK universities exploring ways of harnessing technology to limit or reverse the damage done by greenhouse gas emissions. The University of Sheffield has a unit dedicated to developing an alternative to Carbon Capture and Storage known as Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CDU). Instead of storing a power plant's carbon emissions underground, this technique - currently being piloted with Tata Steel in Port Talbot as part of a £10m project headed by Swansea University - would convert the emissions into fuel using the plant's waste heat.
Professor Peter Styring, a specialist in CDU at the University of Sheffield, welcomed the new Centre for Climate Repair.
"What they are doing at Cambridge is vital because we need to look the whole range of possible solutions, considering complementary and opposing technologies," he told BusinessGreen. "As we see when we look at past winners of the Nobel Prize, radical solutions tend to come out of the blue, and I expect this is an area where we will see a Nobel Prize awarded before too long."
The focus on some geo-engineering solutions is likely to intensify in the coming years as more governments and companies sign up to net zero emission targets, which are likely to contain negative emissions approaches that can offset remaining emissions from those sectors that remain hard to decarbonise. A number of innovative research programmes are already exploring how capturing emissions from biomass power stations or using chemical reactions to extract CO2 from the atmosphere could help deliver negative emissions.
However, some environmental campaigners criticised the investment in the Cambridge research centre as just a mechanism for defending "business at usual". Critics of geo-engineering have long argued that the technology provides governments and businesses with an excuse to continue polluting, insisting that where negative emissions are required natural solutions such as tree planting or peatland restoration should take precedence.
"Sorry but how is setting up a geo-engineering research agenda at Cambridge University a radical plan?" tweeted Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University. "It's business as usual not even a new research agenda. Would be more radical if Cambridge divested from fossil fuels and changed its economics curriculum!"
Greenpeace UK Chief Scientist Doug Parr argued that publicity around such unproven technical fixes risked creating a sense of complacency, leading people to think that technology will resolve the climate crisis.
"The idea that there is some technical fix to our failure to cut emissions of greenhouse gases could become one of the most pernicious and dangerous ideas to have political currency," he tweeted.
Professor Styring acknowledged the concerns but argued that all possible avenues for tackling climate change need to be pursued.
"I fully agree that we must cut down on the amount of carbon we introduce into the supply chain," he said. "We must move away from a linear economy which extracts resources, manufactures products and then disposes of them. Here in Sheffield we are applying for funding for a new centre focused on how to push forwards the development of a circular economy, which uses technology to turn waste into new products.
"But environmentalists talk about preventing climate change, when we're past that stage. It's happened, it's happening, and we must work to limit its effects on civilisation. This is what the Cambridge centre is about: reversing the damage that we've already done. The problem is with this word 'geoengineering', which has a very bad environmental history. But the Cambridge centre will work precisely to test this tech and ensure it is used appropriately and ethically."
As the climate crisis escalates an increased focus on and investment in geo-engineering is all but inevitable. However, the question as to whether it proves to be a dangerous distraction or an invaluable addition to the decarbonisation armoury remains very much live.
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