Risky to manipulate the climate

The risks of intentionally manipulating the climate to stop the discussed back and forth over the years. A new report from Linköping University shows that there is insufficient knowledge of the technology and what it could mean for the environment. 

“Internationally, there is debate about geoengineering, and it has intensified after the UN climate meeting in Paris since some of the formulations in the agreement could open up the door to geoengineering. The issue, however, has sailed under the radar here in Sweden,” says Victoria Wibeck, associate professor at Linköping University.

Together with five other researchers from Linköping University, she has recently published a report that summarises research around geoengineering – a concept that doesn’t exist in Swedish, but is based on either gradually reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or reducing solar insolation. Among other things, the report shows that one of the technologies used in a great majority of climate scenarios, called BECCS or Bio-CCS, has not been sufficiently researched. BECCS, which strips carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, involves using biomass in production, and that the carbon dioxide created as a by-product is then separated and stored. For example, carbon dioxide from paper mills, biofuel production or bioenergy plants can be captured, and stored underground. Then the equivalent amount of biomass is planted – for example, forests with great ability to take up carbon dioxide.

“This way, emissions already done can be recovered. But many completely crucial issues are unresolved,” Ms Wibeck says.

These issues deal with leakage, water consumption, threats to biological diversity, and storage capacity. An additional issue is the one about access to land for cultivating biomass – research has shown that it could require a land area up to three times the size of India.

“There is a risk of relying on BECCS – a technology still in its cradle – since we’d then be without a solution if it didn’t live up to expectations. Riskier technologies may then need to be used in order to meet environmental objectives,” Ms Wibeck argues.

Researchers have also looked at technologies within geoengineering that deal with limiting incoming solar insolation. This could be done through things such as putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which reduces the temperature. Research here, however, shows that the consequence could be acidification of the oceans and that the ozone layer could be affected.

The conclusion the authors of the report draw is that BECCS could be developed to have a role in climate policy in the future. Neither the potential nor the consequences, however, have been demonstrated enough that any of the technologies should currently be counted as available for achieving climate objectives.

“More research is required, and the social and ethical aspects must be discussed,” Ms Wibeck says.

The report was written as part of the Linköping University Climate Engineering Programme (LUCE), with support from the Swedish Research Council and Formas. LUCE investigates policies, research, and communications concerning technological manipulation of the global climate. The programme is run by the Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research in the Department of Thematic Studies – Environmental Change, and by the Department of Thematic Studies – Technology and Social Change. It also includes researchers from Oxford and the University of Nottingham.

Photo: Top – iStock photo, bottom – LiU

The report:
Policy brief on climate engineering. Victoria Wibeck, Anders Hansson, Raffael Himmelsbach, Mathias Fridahl, Björn-Ola Linnér and Jonas Anshelm (2016).

Related content