6 Technological innovation

6.1 Geo-engineering

Since climate change first became a mainstream issue, as well as carbon reduction programmes, there have been proposed technological fixes aiming to reverse climate change without the need to reduce emissions.

These large-scale ‘geo-engineering’ proposals have included seeding the oceans with iron, large-scale sequestration, ‘engineered weathering’ of marine chemistry, spraying liquefied SO2 into the stratosphere, launching orbital mirrors and building tens of millions of atmospheric CO2 filter systems. Though sometimes appealing as a way of circumventing or delaying the difficulty of reducing emissions, it has become increasingly clear that there is no quick fix.

There is no evidence that technological alterations of the climate system would be as quick or easy as claimed by their proponents, and many might not work – certainly, all remain speculative at an early experimental stage. With the uncertainties surrounding the precise impacts of climate change, the effects of technological change may not be predictable and risk creating even greater global problems (e.g. slowing the hydrological cycle). Geo-engineering has been used in Russia and China to seed clouds as drought relief and to disperse rain ahead of public holidays and events. Chinese claims that cloud seeding lowered daytime temperatures during the 2008 Summer Olympics and kept rain away from the opening ceremony are difficult to verify. However, even at this smaller scale, weather manipulation can amplify drought conditions in one area or increase the risk of floods in another, and – beyond political rhetoric – is highly unreliable. Under the Bush administration, geo-engineering was seen as a viable option. However, Obama has moved the USA quickly towards a targets-based approach; and in the UK, climate minister Joan Ruddock is wary of radical technologies being used as an excuse to avoid meeting emissions targets.

However, despite the problems associated with geo-engineering, there are some areas of genuine technological innovation that have the potential to help tackle climate change. These include renewables, improved efficiencies, fuels, infrastructure and energy carriers, environmental technologies, smart energy systems and technologies relating to adaptation.

Activity 17

Aside from the proponents of particular technologies, there is a strong feeling in the scientific community that geo-engineering is not the solution to climate change – we simply need to reduce emissions and make the difficult choices that come with this. However, do you feel that geo-engineering could provide a back-up plan in case emissions do not fall sufficiently? Given the cost, would it drain resources from emissions reduction programmes?

5.5 Transition initiatives

6.2 Other innovations: smart energy systems