Smokescreens and space mirrors

Thursday 16th Jun 2011 by theWeather Club

Conventional wisdom dictates that prevention must be better than cure. Yet when a group of leading climate scientists meet next month to discuss climate change this is not exactly the approach they will be suggesting. Papers leaked to the Guardian from inside the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ahead of their key meeting in Peru outline, not global emissions and sustainability targets, but a series of techniques in which scientists hope to manipulate the world's climate to reduce carbon emissions.

Lighter-coloured crops, iron filings in the ocean and blasting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight into space are just a few of the more outlandish ideas up for discussion next week, in a meeting that is billed as providing governments with a scientific assessment of geo-engineering technologies, but is widely expected to be in favour of more research and large-scale experimentation.

To anyone who remembers the UN adopting an international moratorium against risk-laden geo-engineering experiments last year, this move may come as a surprise. Yet experts who have seen the documents told the Guardian they show how the UN and other developed countries are "despairing" about reaching agreement by consensus at the global climate change talks.

So far the news has not gone down well. In an open letter addressed to Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel prize-winning head of the IPCC, environmental, developmental and human rights groups from over 100 countries described the geo-engineering solution as a "false' one", arguing that " the prospects of artificially changing the chemistry of our oceans to absorb more CO2, modifying the Earth's radiative balance, devising new carbon sinks in fragile ecosystems, redirecting hurricanes and other extreme weather events are alarming" while "the potential for accidents... illegitimate political goals and negative consequences for the global South is high."

As with any attempts to interfere with natural systems, there is an acknowledged risk that some projects might, if they work, unintentionally change weather patterns and possibly affect farming and livelihoods in some of the world's less developed areas.

Nevertheless Britain is, along with the US, strongly backing geo-engineering research and has supported scientists with millions of pounds of university research – including a Bristol University plan to develop a "hose" held up by balloons through which sulphates can be sent into the stratosphere.

As the head of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres explained to the Guardian last week, with emissions continuing to rise at the rate they are there is every chance geo-engineering will become more of necessity than an option.

"We are putting ourselves in a scenario where we will have to develop more powerful technologies to capture emissions out of the atmosphere," she said. "We are getting into very risky territory."