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10th May 2019: A landmark date in human history

  • 11 May 2019
  • By Dennis Sherwood

A guest blog kindly contributed by Dennis Sherwood, founder of Silver Bullet Machine

When the history of the world is written in 1,000 years’ time, Friday 10th May 2019 will be identified as a landmark date. For it was an event that happened on that day that enabled that history to be written: had that event not happened, human life would have long since become extinct.

Last Friday marked the announcement of the opening of the Cambridge-based Centre for Climate Repair. Co-ordinated by Professor Sir David King, government chief scientific advisor from 2000 to 2007, and drawing on inter-disciplinary resources from across the country and around the world, the Centre’s focus is ‘geoengineering’ the climate: the invention, development and large-scale deployment of technologies that will save the planet. Technologies such as ways to make clouds reflect more of the sun’s heat, so arresting the melting of polar ice; technologies such as ways to extract greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) directly from the atmosphere, so stopping a run-away increase in the Earth’s temperature.

The recent protests, Greta Thunberg’s visit, Sir Richard Attenborough’s compelling television programmes, and the latest report on the loss of biodiversity have all vividly publicised the dangers of climate change. Flood, famine, mass population migration, disease and war are all on the ever-approaching horizon. Those four horsemen of the apocalypse are heading our way, fast.

And yes, we all know about the importance of reducing emissions. But even if emissions were reduced to zero tomorrow, the earth’s temperature will still increase. This is because there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere now, due to the accumulation of man-made CO2 over the last century or so, and the inability of natural processes such as photosynthesis and the formation of calcium carbonate by marine algae to consume it fast enough.

To save the planet, these natural processes need to be ‘helped’: we must develop ways to extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere, and deploy them at scale.

This idea is not new. In 2009, the Royal Society published Geoengineering the climate, in which, in a box on the first page, we read

Carbon dioxide removal techniques address the root cause of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

‘Address with the root cause.’ That’s important.

A more recent report, Greenhouse gas removal (2018), published jointly by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, explores the subject in depth; there are also some pilot sites where particular methods are being trialled. Greenhouse gas removal is therefore not wishful thinking. It is real, but not at anywhere near the required scale. And although it is mentioned in the recent report by the Committee on Climate Change, it is described as a ‘further ambition’ rather than being highlighted as a fundamental, and urgent, priority.

Reducing emissions is hard. A necessary condition is international political agreement, followed by concerted international action – something that has been impossible to achieve for the last 40 years, as vividly described in the recently-published book Losing Earth. Reducing emissions also requires individuals around the world to change their personal behaviours, from reducing air travel to becoming vegan. Will that actually happen?

Geoengineering in general, and developing effective greenhouse gas removal in particular, are hard too, but hard in a very different way: hard intellectually (how to do things in principle), technically (how to do them at scale) and financially (how to fund them). But intellectual and technical problems have intellectual and technical solutions; solutions which, once found, will attract the required finance. And where better to look for the best resources to solve some complex intellectual and technical problems than within UK HE?

So, the good news is that UK HE, as represented by the consortium associated with the new Centre, has recognised the urgency. Rather than waiting for the government to bring the required resources together, as happened during WWII for the Manhattan project, and in the US in the 1960s for the Apollo moon landing, the group of academics led by Sir David King has seized the initiative, mobilising arguably the UK’s greatest asset – the intellectual power of UK HE.

Let’s all hope that the new Centre receives generous funding, not just from the public purse but from corporations and charitable foundations too. And let’s encourage the protesters to adopt a new slogan: What do we want? Geo-E! When do we want it? NOW!

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