Russian Roulette with four chambers loaded

13 December 2011

Portrait of Tim Kruger

by Tim Kruger
Programme Manager

Tim leads a group across the university exploring proposed geoengineering techniques and the governance mechanisms required to ensure that any research in this field is undertaken in a responsible way. He has investigated in detail one potential geoe...

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In 2009, at Copenhagen, the climate summit ended in a debacle. But one thing emerged from that meeting and that was a commitment to ensure that rises in global mean temperatures would be held to 2C. But there was no binding framework as to how this goal was to be achieved.

The recently concluded summit at Durban has agreed to a routemap for a framework with ‘legal force’ (definition yet to be determined) that commits nations to agree reductions in emissions from 2020.

If the commitments at Copenhagen and Durban are taken together, then perhaps we can prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. But unfortunately, the 2020 timeline of Durban effectively precludes the 2C limit on temperature rises of Copenhagen. If (a big ‘if’) all current emission reduction commitments were met, then in 2020 total global emissions would be about 15% higher than the 44 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent that scientists calculate is the level which gives us a 50:50 chance of limiting global mean temperature rises to 2C.

Think of it as if you were playing Russian Roulette. Except, of the six chambers of the revolver, three are filled with live rounds and three are empty, rather than the standard 1 in 6. Not a game which many of us would chose to play ourselves, let alone one which we would choose to play on the whole planet.

The deal that has just been struck effectively fills four of the six chambers with live rounds. The other two are not empty – rather they are pending the decisions of policymakers who have given themselves until 2015 to agree a deal and another five years to implement it. The history of such commitments being honoured is not good. You only need to look back two years to Copenhagen and see that the 2C rise limit has, in effect, already been abandoned.

So what should we do? Yes, press on with efforts to reduce emissions, through our own actions and by creating the structures required to achieve a global reduction in greenhouse gases. But while this is necessary – indeed essential – it is not sufficient to counter climate change. We need to consider geoengineering – the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change – not as an alternative to emissions reduction, but in addition to emissions reduction.

The emissions trajectory that we are already locked into will mean the disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice and catastrophic degradation of coral reefs well before the end of this century. Even a slam stop in emissions would not prevent the loss of these ecosystems, as CO2 persists in the atmosphere for about a thousand years – once up there, it stays there, for a very long time.

If future generations are to witness the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef and the Arctic it will be because we have successfully geoengineered our planet. It is not clear whether any of the proposed geoengineering techniques are feasible options, but we must explore them. If we cannot find a suitable technique, then future generations will inevitably lose that heritage.

A decade ago, an argument raged as to whether it was appropriate to put resources into adaptation to climate change. It was seen as defeatist and as potentially undermining resources, both monetary and political in the battle to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions. Surely prevention is better than a cure? And indeed it is – but if you get the disease, you sure need a cure.

Some people argue that even talking about geoengineering would undermine the political will to reduce emissions. But which is it? Is the argument that emissions reductions are all that is required so weak that it can be blown off course by someone saying; ‘perhaps we should consider ways of counteracting climate change should we happen to overshoot our emissions targets.’ Or is the argument so strong that we really do not need to plan for such a contingency, despite the persistent failure of climate negotiations to deliver the required cuts?

The Oxford Geoengineering Programme, an initiative of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, advocates research into geoengineering, but it does not advocate geoengineering. It aims to assess the social, ethical and technical aspects of all proposed geoengineering techniques to determine which, if any, of them could be employed without creating countervailing side-effects.

The first priority is governance – how this new and widely diverse field should be regulated and managed. To that end we coordinated the production of a set of draft principles for the conduct of geoengineering research (known as the ‘Oxford Principles’) with leading experts from Oxford, UCL and Cardiff University. These were endorsed by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in their report “The Regulation of Geoengineering” and subsequently adopted as policy by the UK Government in their response to that report.

But this is just the start. Much more work is required to ensure that global society is engaged in determining the rules that should govern activities that would affect everybody in the world. That process of dialogue is just beginning. Without it, there will be no social license to conduct such research and without research we cannot hope to unload some of the chambers in the revolver pointing at all our heads.

Blog written by Tim Kruger, Programme Manager, Oxford Geoengineering Programme. Opinions of blog authors are not necessarily endorsed by, or representative of, the Oxford Martin School.

Photo credit: By america.gov.Malte at da.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons