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Climate change, government coffers and snake oil salesmen

By Rowen Cross - posted Thursday, 3 September 2009

Recently the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a UK professional engineering institution, released a report called Geo-Engineering - Cooling the Planet setting out proposals to tackle climate change using geo-engineering solutions. You can view the report here.

The report expresses the need for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions and how governments and societies have failed to make meaningful steps towards low-carbon or zero carbon economies. We are running out of time to act, but the Institution believes that geo-engineering - the use of technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or to reflect solar radiation back into space - might buy the world some extra time in the race to avoid dangerous global warming.

Having assessed a range of geo-engineering options, the Institution presents the three most promising technologies for helping to tackle climate change:

  1. Artificial Trees: Large goal post structures with slats that can remove carbon dioxide from the air as wind passes by. The carbon sticks to a solvent material that is then removed and buried underground.
  2. Algae-coated buildings: Strips of algae are grown on the outside of buildings. The algae removes carbon from the air through photosynthesis. It is then periodically harvested and used as a biofuel or as fertiliser.
  3. Reflective buildings: By making buildings more reflective, solar radiation can be reflected back out to space. Reflecting solar radiation will also make the buildings cooler themselves, which will reduce the amount of energy required to cool buildings. The Institution concedes that this option may not be as effective as the other two proposals.

The Institution claims that 100,000 artificial trees, at a cost of $20,000 each, could capture the UK's entire non-stationary dispersed emissions. This sounds impressive, but if you read through the report you'll find that the tree is little more than an idea and the numbers are pie-in-the-sky stuff. To meet this objective, each tree would have to capture 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide a day - current technology could only achieve one-tenth this level, and that's assuming the technology can move from concept, pass the feasibility, development and deployment stages, and become a real product.

The report concedes that the algae solution is very much at a conceptual stage and has attracted little, if any, assessment of its technical feasibility. The Institution also has concerns about integrating the algae units into the built environment.

The report also concedes that urban albedo modification (a fancy name for making buildings reflective) would lead to a drop in global surface temperatures of 0.01˚C to 0.16˚C - not enough to make a meaningful contribution to global cooling. The technology might reduce energy use in buildings by 10-60 per cent, but 10-60 per cent is a huge variation and existing technologies like roof insulation, while a little boring and conventional, do a pretty good job of conserving energy.

As you work through the report, look past the colour pictures and the "key facts" (that are generally nothing more than assertions based on flimsy assumptions) and it becomes pretty clear that the Institution is flogging nothing more than half-baked ideas.

The report calls for more research into the potential for geo-engineering to reduce global warming and further cost analysis, but its primary recommendation is for government funding. The report states:


It is now crucial to instigate publicly funded national and international programmes to carry out assessment and research at the feasibility level so that the global community is technically informed of the real practical potential of geo-engineering. A £10-20 million UK contribution to such a programme, carried out internationally for about £100 million might be expected to advance the scientific and engineering assessment significantly. (My emphasis.)

No guarantees of course, but give us money anyway. Paradoxically, the Institution calls for government funding on the basis that:

There is insufficient information to adequately support an informed debate on this topic, for formation of robust Government policy, or the laying out of a detailed roadmap.

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About the Author

Rowen Cross is a lawyer practising in the private equity, hedge funds and banking industries.

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