Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Climate damage science studied

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Pacific Ocean (BBC)
Stimulating growth of plankton in the oceans is one proposal under consideration

The UK's Royal Society is to investigate whether ambitious engineering schemes could reduce the impact of global warming.

Several "geo-engineering" schemes have been proposed including putting mirrors into space and iron filings in oceans.

The society says these must be properly assessed - however fantastical.

But environmental groups warn that technological solutions should not divert attention away from reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses.

I do think that some of these schemes have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and some of the schemes certainly do have the potential to cool the planet
Professor Andrew Watson, UEA
A working group of climate scientists and engineers are to study a variety of these ideas and produce a report by the middle of next year.

Schemes include putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the Earth, seeding the atmosphere with particles to act as a planetary sun block and using iron filings to stimulate the growth of plankton in the oceans, which would in turn absorb CO2.

According to Professor Andrew Watson, from the University of East Anglia, who is a member of the geo-engineering working group, "some of the ideas might have unpleasant side effects, some of them might be very expensive and some of them might not work".

But he added: "We feel that there's quite a variety of these schemes out there now and increasing interest in them. And it's time there was an authoritative scanning of the horizon to see which of these might be useful and what more needs to be done."

But aren't some of these schemes obviously barking mad?

"Not absolutely obviously barking - no," said Professor Watson.

"The working group will not dismiss them because they appear fantastical. I do think that some of these schemes have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and some of the schemes certainly do have the potential to cool the planet."

Dr Richard Lampitt: 'We have already changed the oceans'

The aim of the study is to provide a useful first step in order to define the parameters and limitations of these approaches and to offer recommendations on which deserve more serious attention.

In many cases, some of the proposals are likely to have unintended harmful effects on the environment. The working group aims to investigate these potential side effects and establish what further research needs to be commissioned.

Some environmentalists believe that even thinking about technological fixes diverts attention away from reducing CO2 emissions.

But according to Professor Watson, there is a feeling in the scientific community that these proposals should be researched because some may actually be useful as a last resort, at the very least.

"If the worst predictions of climate change are realised, what happens if, politically, we are unable to change our emission habits?" he said.

"As a last resort, we could turn to some of these possible methods. If we haven't done the research and properly evaluated these methods, that option would not be on the table."

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