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Can a techno-fix offer the world a global warming breathing space?

Updated Tuesday, 8th September 2009

Is geo-engineering and the use of artificial forests likely to provide a long-term solution to reducing our carbon dioxide levels?

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The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE) has published a report suggesting the geo-engineering could help provide a 'breathing space' while the world decarbonises the global economy. James Warren offers a first response.

The geo-engineering report gives readers of IMECHE's ideas some food for thought. The report selects three possible ideas which might help us lower CO2 emissions, but all three are proven at large scale stages, and all three won't necessarily help us change our behaviour.

In fact, this is probably the one big worry here - even if geo-engineering, or what I would call a "pure techno-fix" could reduce our historical emissions to nil, we may find ourselves polluting even more.

The report does make some allusions to the rebound effect but probably not enough for my liking. One of the three ideas put forward is that of artificial trees which capture CO2 which seems very interesting indeed.

Geo-engineering voice the opinion that we ought to get on with something, rather than wait for drawn-out multinational agreements which are sometimes not met anyway... these arguments to some extent are convincing. We might ask ourselves, just like other forms of basic science research, even if emissions capture or reflective materials don't hugely reduce our overall historic CO2, might we still learn something useful from this exercise? I suspect the answer to this is yes, and to some extent, even if these ideas seemed very far-fetched, and don't significantly reduce CO2 without other energy penalties, we may still gain something from them which is very important indeed.

We may learn which options to go for in a big way in terms of easy gains for example, and which are much harder to achieve with engineering, whether it be mechanical or social. With respect to reflectivity and countering the urban heat island effect, we also ought to be thinking much more deeply and widely about how we can lower the current overall energy use in heating homes.

Some estimates say that more than 50% of UK building stock needs to be torn down in order to start this new lower consumption process - so how does this square with the urban heat effects.

The one thing which still comes across is the rebound effect; if we reduce a typical UK citizen's 12 or 13 tonnes of CO2 per year to, say, half that - by whatever means - what will we be doing to keep it at six, or even - if possible - to lower it further and further? The report describes artificial trees as eventually being decommissioned, but who will police emissions to ensure that the growth of artificial forests doesn't take over?

Even the idea of artificial trees, or bio-algae buildings is a good start to get people thinking about their own use of energy - but we need to be careful: too many techno-fixes may result in a strong but unwanted backlash in further emissions.

Find out more

Discover more about The Design Group at The Open University

Explore The Open University course Environment: Journeys Through A Changing World

The University of Melbourne's Jon Morris explains Urban Heat Islands

In-depth guide to the rebound effect

 

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