The proposed use of geo-engineering to potentially modify the earth’s climate through technology is a topic that has, in recent issues, split the opinions of PE readers right down the middle. For some, the very idea of radical plans such as positioning billions of sunshades in space to block out sunlight, or of spraying sulphur into the stratosphere with the effect of temporarily cooling the planet, comes as nothing short of an abhorrence. They are the stuff of lunacy – classic examples of mankind playing God with nature, with all the detrimental effects that that is likely to bring.
But, for others, geo-engineering comes as truly visionary thinking. For its supporters, it is exactly the kind of bold response that is required to meet climate change head-on, thus potentially saving us from environmental doom.
That’s the opinion of several well-regarded academics, who have been scoping out their own geo-engineering ideas with a view to progressing them on to the next stage.
The polarisation of views means that geo-engineering will remain an extremely controversial subject, provoking anger and advocacy in equal measures. But that contention doesn’t mean that it is a subject that the engineering profession should ignore.
Quite the opposite in fact – geo-engineering is something that needs to be debated and discussed by technically competent people as openly and as throughly as possible, even if opinions clash and discord results.
So fair play to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers for leading the debate on the subject, publishing as it has a series of reports in recent times, culminating last month in a policy statement examining the role that air-capture technologies could play in tackling the challenge of global warming (see related News article).
Air capture is a method of directly extracting greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere, therefore enabling industrialised and industrialising nations to maintain economic growth without causing further damage to the environment. Again – it’s controversial, some would say fanciful, but it’s a technology that IMechE energy experts believe has potential and one that therefore needs to be considered.
But eventually the subject of geo-engineering needs to move on from one of debate to actual demonstration. And that time is surely coming soon. At present, geo-engineering technologies receive a minuscule amount of cash from research organisations, and it’s nowhere near enough. If geo-engineering really is to emerge as a serious contender, then technologies such as air capture need to be pilot tested and demonstrated at scale, with detailed cost assessment carried out. And that sort of activity costs money.
Ethical discussions surrounding geo-engineering will continue to rumble on. But it’s clear that there’s a new industry emerging here – and research budgets need to start reflecting that.
- Contact Lee Hibbert with your views and opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org