Extreme problems sometimes require extreme solutions: A new UK research unit is looking at radical solutions to climate change.
Cambridge University has announced the creation of a new initiative which will explore some of the most radical methods aiming to address climate change. The project, dubbed the Centre for Climate Repair, will operate as part of the university’s already established Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, but will explicitly pursue endeavours that had previously been considered infeasible or too extreme.
Professor Sir David King, a former government advisor on climate issues, co-ordinates the new initiative and explained to the BBC that humanity is now approaching a dangerous precipice, stating:
"What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years. There is no major centre in the world that would be focused on this one big issue."
The Centre for Climate Repair (CCS) will primarily investigate methods of geoengineering; large scale, often invasive technologies designed to reduce the effects of climate change. Previously, such methods had been rejected for being too ineffective, grand in scale or potentially dangerous to the ecosystem. However, the centre’s lead, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, argues that the potential failure of current carbon reduction methods means all avenues - even those previously considered impractical - must now be explored.
As well as climate scientists, the CCS will also employ sociologists to better understand how humans can also change their behaviours to reduce environmental damage.
What Technologies Are Being Explored?
The CCS has already earmarked several ambitious technological solutions to be investigated. Many of them have previously only been seen on drawing boards and remain theoretical, however the new initiative plans to take them further and understand their real world implications.
One such project involves pumping seawater into the clouds to ‘re-freeze’ the poles. The idea would feature un-manned ships at the poles supporting tall sprouts that culminate in very fine nozzles. Sea water would be pumped up through the mast-like constructions and dissipated into the atmosphere. The tiny particles of salt within the seawater would, theoretically, increase the reflective properties of the clouds, diverting the sun’s heat and cooling the areas beneath them.
Another solution being explored by the CCS concerns carbon capture technology which sucks carbon from the environment, before mixing it with hydrogen and refining it into fuel that can be reused by vehicles.
Carbon capture technology - as illustrated in the image above - itself is not entirely new, and already practical experiments have been made into its feasibility, however the CCS would be looking at pairing such technologies with power stations in a routine and regular way. In addition to recycling the carbon into fuel, they will reportedly also be researching if the carbon could be stored safely and reliably underground.
Finally, ocean greening is also being explored by the researchers of the CCS. This controversial method would involve dumping iron particles into the seas and oceans to improve algae growth and in turn absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.
Again, such methods have been previously developed, however experimentation found that ocean greening did not improve carbon absorption at a worthwhile rate, while it could also have knock on effects for the ecosystem.
Although the invasive and radical nature of these methods may cause some to feel uncomfortable, the CCS’s Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, believes fully exploring all options is imperative, and that technologies must be developed which not only reduce the amount of carbon being produced, but which actively removes carbon from the atmosphere and counters its effects. He explained to the BBC:
If we reduce our emissions all we are doing is making the global climate warmer a bit more slowly. That is no good because it's already too warm and we have already got too much CO2 in the atmosphere. So climate repair can actually take it out of the atmosphere. We can get the level down below what it is now and actually cool the climate bringing it back to what it was before global warming.
Overall, such major and invasive technologies should always be seen as a last resort - and then only used if their full effects are known. In this sense, the work of the CCS could be an extremely important endeavour. Of course, the preferable options is not to ever need to use the technologies they will develop, and instead seek a change of behaviour in societies generally.