Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Recap from the first global Climate Engineering Conference: how long can CDR stay in this conversation?

By Guy Lomax

Photo credit: visionshare / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A decade ago, one would have had to look very hard to find anyone who had heard of Climate Engineering (CE), deliberate large scale attempts to manipulate the Earth’s climate systems. But in the five years since the landmark Royal Society report brought the subject to the world’s attention, quite a lot has changed. Last week I travelled to Berlin for what was heralded as the first ever international Climate Engineering Conference, a five day event bringing together more than 300 people to share ideas on every aspect of this area.

The conference was a wonder of interdisciplinary research. The topics covered ran the full spectrum from the engineering of CE hardware, to politics, law, communication and engagement, climate justice and even a session entitled “Climate Engineering in Popular Culture”. It’s a true testament to the uniqueness of the CE field that so many perspectives were sought at such an early stage (even if the community is largely European and American academics so far). The sessions on social science and the wider issues outnumbered the purely technical sessions by nearly 2 to 1.

Nonetheless, the proverbial elephant in the room at the conference was the continued union of two classes of approach, Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM) (both defined and discussed in the 2009 Royal Society report), under one “Climate Engineering” banner. The conference revealed that this aggregation is becoming more and more uncomfortable in 2014.

“CDR and SRM frequently don’t belong in the same dialogue”


Many people have already argued (e.g. here on this blog and here in the academic literature, for example) that CDR raises an almost entirely different set of issues to SRM, and that grouping them both under the heading of “Geoengineering” or “Climate Engineering” is a distraction from the real and pressing questions facing the CDR sector. I won’t go over the arguments again here, but it was informative to see how this debate played out at the conference.

Explicitly, everyone in the community gathered at the conference seems to agree that CDR and SRM frequently don’t belong in the same dialogue. A noticeboard in the lobby posing the question, “Should discussions of SRM and CDR be separated?” was surrounded with emphatic “Yes” stickers. And discussion at the conference even questioned whether the CDR sub-categories should remain linked under the same carbon removal umbrella. Some speakers stressed their opinion that the environmental and governance questions raised by different CDR approaches didn’t have much in common either, and that productive dialogues on CDR might be best achieved when participants delve into the details and contexts of specific approaches. On the question of governance, at least, this has been recognised for some time: a House of Commons Select Committee hearing on “The Regulation of Geoengineering” in 2010, for example, concluded that techniques “should be graded according to factors such as trans-boundary effect, the dispersal of potentially hazardous materials in the environment and the direct effect on ecosystems. The regulatory regimes … should then be tailored accordingly.”

Yet although everyone seemed to agree on the need to separate CDR and SRM in principle, a lot of people still generalised too much in practice, especially on social science, governance and ethics questions.

Often in the conference, sessions claimed to explore the issues raised by Climate Engineering, while what was discussed were largely issues raised by SRM, and especially by high-leverage, global-scale interventions in the Earth’s radiation balance such as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection. In some cases, this was simply imprecise use of language – one session referred to the “termination risk” of Climate Engineering, although this is an issue only relevant to SRM. Other discussions blurred the boundaries more implicitly, raising the ethical or political implications associated with “control” of the climate. While the ability to “control” CO2 levels would indeed raise such issues, the sheer quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere means there is no proposed CDR technology that could achieve this to remotely the same extent as high-leverage SRM techniques such as aerosol injection. For this reason, CDR often felt like an afterthought to these discussions, with some speakers trying to justify the generalisation by stressing the few similarities (e.g. that some CDR methods may have international side-effects) rather than the more obvious differences.

What was more discouraging was that simply including CDR techniques as part of the agenda at the Climate Engineering conference seemed to encourage people to frame CDR techniques in the same way that SRM techniques are framed – as some silver-bullet and/or emergency response technology that might save humanity from the brink of climate disaster in future. Such a framing is arguably problematic even for fast-acting, high-leverage SRM methods. It is even more so for CDR techniques, and neglects their more relevant role as a potentially powerful (and perhaps essential) counterpart to reducing our emissions in the fight to prevent the root cause of climate change and ocean acidification.

For example, one talk on enhanced weathering explored the possible consequences of “doubling surface ocean alkalinity;” a poster explored the potential of planet-wide afforestation and biomass burial to form an “emergency climate response.” These “save the Earth in one fell swoop” conversations are rarely productive, and tend to lead to an exaggerated picture of both the benefits and risks of an option.

“separate the CDR and SRM discussions and start ensuring carbon removal is able to focus on the myriad material issues it currently faces”.


Where social science, politics and ethics have started to tackle CDR so far, they’ve tended to look at it in the abstract rather than by studying real techniques. One session on “The Ethics of Carbon Dioxide Removal”, for example, raised some fascinating thoughts about what the ability to remove historic emissions would mean for developed nations’ responsibilities. But the discussions were thought experiments, and began by positing a hypothetical, panacean CDR technology that could be limitlessly scalable, low-cost, permanent, and free of serious side effects! A wonderful idea… but a long way from the technical and political realities of CDR today.

And while a few sessions were exploring the near-term technical challenges of CDR methods, there was a conspicuous absence among the huge range of sessions on near-term policy perspectives or business models for CDR scale up.

In this sense, the conference was a paradox – everyone there I spoke to agreed that Climate Engineering as currently defined was an unhelpful and incoherent grouping, but the conference’s very existence threatened to further entrench this outdated concept among scientists, policymakers and the public. It’s time that this community starts to practise what it preaches – abandon the terms “Geoengineering” and “Climate Engineering”, separate the CDR and SRM discussions and start ensuring the emerging CDR “sector” is able to focus on the myriad material issues it currently faces.

Guy Lomax is a consultant and researcher currently working on various scientific and policy aspects of greenhouse gas removal approaches. His most recent work includes a comprehensive review of the state of the art of carbon removal with the Virgin Earth Challenge and academic research on the integration of CDR into current climate policy. He has a background in Natural Sciences and holds an MSc from Imperial College London in Sustainable Energy.