“A controversial field trial of technology to mitigate climate change has been cancelled, but research continues. A robust governance framework is sorely needed to prevent further setbacks.“
Yes! That’s the spirit! You guys keep talking about it. Preferably forever. Just don’t do anything, alright?
Geoengineering research has a problem. That much should be clear following last week’s cancellation of a field trial for the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project. The solutions to this problem are not so obvious, but they must be found — and fast.
The SPICE field trial was supposed to involve spraying water into the atmosphere at an altitude of 1 kilometre using a balloon and hosepipe, as part of a host of work exploring whether it is possible to mitigate global warming by introducing particles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from Earth.
But the field trial — which is only a small part of the overall SPICE project — became bogged down in protests and delays almost as soon as it was announced. Last week, as first reported by Nature, the project’s lead investigator announced that it was being abandoned, citing concerns about intellectual-property rights, public engagement and the overall governance regime for such work.
Colleagues have leapt to the defence of the SPICE team, and praised its decision to continue with the theoretical strands of its work. Indeed, the researchers have acted with commendable honesty. But the SPICE issue is a perfect example of the problems that will persist until geoengineers grasp the nettle of regulation and oversight.
We have been here before. Work on ‘fertilizing’ the oceans to promote blooms of phytoplankton that would lock up carbon dioxide ran into similar protests and governance wrangles. In 2009, an experiment to test the idea by dumping tonnes of iron sulphate into the Southern Ocean caused huge public disquiet and went ahead only after further discussions.
Researchers argue that ‘geoengineering’ is a falsely inclusive term. They say that SPICE-style ‘solar-radiation management’ is completely different from ocean fertilization, and different again from carbon capture. But these technologies have similar aims and, when it comes to rules and regulations, they probably need to be dealt with together.