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Geoengineering, Part 1: the research motivation.

Imagine for a moment that all manmade greenhouse gas emissions ceased tomorrow (go with it). What would be the likely consequence?

Unfortunately, the answer may be: runaway climate change.

As the Climate Safety report points out, the melting of the Arctic summer sea-ice is accelerating beyond even the worst-case predictions of the IPCC, potentially disappearing in the next decade. As Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) puts it, “for a number of reasons, we’re on a fast track”. Unfortunately, however, “what happens in the Arctic actually doesn’t stay in the Arctic”. The sea-ice is in essence a keystone in the global climate system: as this keystone crumbles and falls away, the other bricks start to fall inwards, ultimately collapsing the entire structure – or, in this case, causing climate change to spiral out of our control. As reflective white ice is replaced with absorbent open ocean, more heat is taken up by the surrounding region (and thus by the global climate system as a whole). This places greater pressure on the Greenland ice-sheet, leading to greater sea-level rise; and causes permafrost and sub-oceanic methane deposits in these northern latitudes to melt, potentially releasing a vast quantity of greenhouse gases as a result.

What happens in the Arctic actually doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

Walt Meier, NSIDC

Bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to a halt will of course be absolutely essential in retaining a safe climate – at present, indeed, it is the most significant step the global community can take. But because of the dynamic that has been set in motion in the Arctic, the melting of the sea-ice is set to continue whether or not these emissions are halted. The reason for this is fairly simple: the earth is warmed by atmospheric concentrations – the “blanket” of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere – not by emissions, which merely thicken that blanket over time. Atmospheric carbon is re-absorbed into the biosphere over time, of course, by trees, oceans, and other processes – but as a recent paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests, this process will be occurring at roughly the same rate as heat currently absorbed by the ocean is transferred into the atmosphere. For this reason, the heating caused by the gases emitted today is effectively irreversible for the next few thousand years.

More worryingly, greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the emissions of aerosols, tiny atmospheric particles that deflect incoming solar radiation, and which have thus provided a cooling effect, masking the heating we would otherwise have received. Unfortunately, it takes only a very short period of time for these particles to be washed out of the atmosphere – thus, as the “heat shield” masking the warming of the planet is removed, while the blanket of greenhouse gases remains, we can expect to experience a significant “pulse” of warming. Even more worryingly, major uncertainties remain as to just how effective this shield has been in dampening down the warming effect so far – if its effect has been strong enough, with decarbonisation (which will have the ancillary effect of removing the shield), we could cause a sudden temperature rise, at an unprecedented rate and intensity. We have been fortunate enough to enjoy two significant “lags” in the climate system’s response to human activity – the “thermal inertia” of the world’s oceans, and the masking effect of aerosols emitted alongside our greenhouse gases – which we might not be able to enjoy for much longer.

Along with the sheer political inertia that has stalled action globally, it is these troubling signs above all that are making scientists consider the possibility of geo-engineering – large-scale schemes to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and to actively cool the earth. On the one hand, geo-engineering as an alternative to decarbonising human activities is unconscionable, not least as climate change is not the only carbon-related problem: the absorption of carbon by the ocean turns it to acid, destroying the species that form the base of the marine food chain. On the other, in light of the most recent climate science, it appears that in terms of the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are already in the danger zone: climate change is set to spiral out of our control even with the complete cessation of all our greenhouse gas emissions.

This unpleasant reality has two significant implications. Firstly, reducing the risk of runaway climate change is likely to mean mopping up some of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Secondly, we must prepare for the worst. If the most extreme predictions of scientists are realised, and the arctic experiences an extremely rapid decline – particularly as levels of atmospheric aerosols dissipate – the vicious spiral of extra heating and further release of greenhouse gases could quickly make a return to a safe climate impossible to achieve. If that is the case, we may well need a crash programme of research into ways of actively cooling the planet.

Most such schemes have rightly been written off as highly implausible, expensive, incredibly dangerous, or all of the above. Nevertheless, out of dire necessity we shall surely need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Part II will contain a brief rundown of some of the proposals.

July Arctic Sea Ice Outlook

The Arctic Sea Ice Outlook has just been updated for July. It”s based on a synthesis of 16 estimates which utilise a range of different projection methods. They note that there is “no indication that a return to historical levels will occur”.

Big surprise!

The full range of estimates range from 4.0-5.2 million square kilometers, the record low in 2007 was around 4.3 million square kilometres (2008 was 4.7). Most estimates therefore fall between the record lows in 2007 and 2008, although they do note that:

There appears to be about a 20% chance of reaching a new minimum in 2009.

Arctic Sea Ice Outlook (July)

On the flip-side, based on their estimates there is a 40% chance of sea-ice coverage being greater than 2008 levels. Even more interestingly, depending on which method you select, the chance of 2009 levels setting a new record is between 5-36%...

Picture 4

To quote from the summary:

The two lowest estimates, 4.0 and 4.2 million square kilometers, would represent a new record minimum. All estimates are well online casino below the 1979–2007 September climatological mean value of 6.7 million square kilometers. The uncertainty / error values, from those groups that provided them, are about 0.4 million square kilometers, thus many of the values essentially overlap.

Although the majority of the responses indicate either persistent conditions or a slight increase over the 2008 sea ice extent, there appears to be about a 20% chance of reaching a new minimum in 2009. The September 2009 extent, as we track it for the rest of the summer, will depend on several factors, including the dynamics of the relatively high levels of thin, first year ice; temperature and wind conditions; and sea level pressure.

The report confirms the importance of first-year ice (FYI):

Multi-year sea ice has been reduced to such low levels that the overall September sea ice extent is largely tied to the fate of the first-year sea ice, which appears thin or with low concentrations away from the central Arctic. Depending on August conditions, much of this first-year sea ice could either melt out by September or survive the summer as a vast expanse of thin sea ice.

Accounting for their low 4 million square kilometre estimate, Rignor et al commented that:

In comparison to 2007 and 2008, there is much more first year (FY) ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2009, which we expect to precondition thisarea for a more extensive retreat than in 2007 and 2008.

Place your bets in the comments below, the winner gets a free trip to the PIRC office in sunny Machynlleth, mid-Wales!


Join our team…

Team Member

  • Location: Machynlleth, mid-Wales
  • Position Type: Paid / Full time / 1 year
  • Closing Date: Applications Closed
  • Contact: Richard Hawkins / 01654 70 22 77 /

We are seeking an enthusiastic and confident generalist with experience of project management, communications and research to join our small and dynamic team, based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales on a one-year contract.

PIRC is an independent charity integrating key research on climate change, energy & economics – widening its audience and increasing its impact.

Our recent work has included “Climate Safety“, a synthesis of the latest climate science and its implications on policymaking and campaigning; “Coal in the UK“, an interactive map exposing and monitoring the proposed expansion of the UK coal industry and “Zero Carbon Britain“, an ambitious 20 year decarbonisation plan for the UK in collaboration with the Centre for Alternative Technology.

We act as a bridge between the academic/scientific community and policymakers and campaigning groups, translating technical research into engaging materials including reports, briefing papers, presentations, websites, videos and animations.

Our future work will explore social and technical solutions to the challenges of climate change and energy security in the face of economic uncertainty. This will include: promoting the ability of renewable energy to provide the majority of our energy needs; critiquing the media’s role in climate change communications and exploring mechanisms which can finance the transition to zero-carbon infrastructure.

PIRC has three permanent staff members supported by a rolling internship programme. Our working model minimises hierarchy, with all staff sharing administrative tasks, alongside core/project work.

The successful applicant will become a core part our team, working on a number PIRC projects, both existing and upcoming as well as contributing to the overall running of the organisation, including administration and fundraising when necessary.

Become our Climate Intern…

Applications Closed

It’s that time of year again, when we’re looking for a budding, confident and enthusiastic intern to join our small and dynamic team, in mid-Wales – applications to – details below:

The successful candidate will work over a six-month period on one or two of the following projects:

  • Climate safety – a project synthesising the latest climate science and its implications on policymaking and campaigning;
  • Coal in the UK – documenting the proposed expansion of the UK coal industry;
  • Renewables can do it – a project promoting the potential for renewable energy to provide the majority of our energy needs;
  • Core work – exploring mechanisms which can finance the transition to zero-carbon infrastructure.

This will involve:

  • Independent research to support PIRC projects;
  • Participation in project development sessions;
  • Opportunities to present material in meetings and seminars;
  • Collective duties and some administrative work.

Full training will be provided where necessary.

Personal & skills:

  • Great organisational skills;
  • Self-motivated & hard-working;
  • Environmentally conscious;
  • Ability to work individually & in a small team;
  • Some experience of copywriting an advantage;
  • IT skills essential (Word, Excel, Email etc.. )

In return we can offer a chance to make a significant contribution
to our work, to get experience of working for a small charity on
environmental issues, and the supervision and support of our staff.

You would need to be based in mid-Wales for the duration of the
placement. Within certain limits, PIRC will cover accommodation, travel
and lunch expenses for volunteers.

About PIRC

PIRC is an independent charity integrating key research on climate
change, energy & economics – widening its audience and increasing
its impact. Our most recent work has included “Climate Safety”, a
report synthesising the latest climate science and its implications on
policymaking and campaigning (; “Coal in the UK”, an
interactive map and website exposing and monitoring the proposed
expansion of the UK coal industry ( and last year “Zero
Carbon Britain” a collaboration with the Centre for Alternative
Technology on an ambitious 20 year decarbonisation plan for the UK

PIRC has three permanent staff members, and a working model which
minimises hierarchy, with all staff members sharing administrative
tasks, as well as more interesting work!


6 month placement
Interviews will take place between the 19-21st February.


PIRC can cover accommodation, travel and lunch expenses, within certain limits

To Apply

Send a CV supported by a covering letter that shows how your experience and skillset suits the position, to arrive by 9am, Monday 2nd February, to:

Richard Hawkins
Y Plas
SY20 8ER

01654 702277

Zero Carbon Britain 2007

For thirty years CAT has been at the forefront of understanding environmental issues. Decades before there was an appreciation of the environmental challenges we now face, CAT was educating and informing about their inevitability, carrying our pioneering work into sustainability issues, and formulating practical solutions which are now finding enthusiastic adopters throughout government and business around the world.

Zero Carbon Britain found its inspiration in the 1977 CAT Alternative Energy Strategy – it is a testament to the prescience and integrity of CAT that it was undertaking work in a similar vein to Zero Carbon Britain thirty years ago, and has continued to do so since.

Zero Carbon Britain clearly demonstrates how Britain can escape its current reliance on fossil fuels by adopting key policy frameworks and utilising a carefully balanced spread of renewable technologies. PIRC Development Manager Tim Helweg-Larsen and CAT Development Director Paul Allen coordinated the Zero Carbon Britain research project, leading a team of researchers from CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment, and working closely with key thinkers like Aubrey Meyer and the late David Fleming to include their groundbreaking work in the report.

With enormous input from many different people, and funding from a variety of sources, PIRC’s policy-oriented expertise complemented CAT’s strong research skills. We worked on bridging the divide between climate science, policy and technology, and on integrating, producing and publishing the final

Zero Carbon Britain clearly demonstrates that in an emergency scenario, the reduction of Britain’s current fossil fuel consumption to zero within two decades is an achievable goal. Guided by Contraction and Convergence, the global framework for managing climate change, and using a electronic carbon allowance system, TEQs, to evenly distribute Britain’s carbon budget, the report describes powering down fossil fuel energy and waste, and powering up renewable energy generation. Sector by sector it explores the practical implications of this move towards a climate-safe future: outlining the transport systems we’ll be using, the homes we’ll live in and how industry, food and other sectors will operate.

Zero Carbon Britain has been published at a time when there is a need for clearly mapped out solutions.

Zero Carbon Britain has been published at a time when there is a need for clearly mapped out solutions. By presenting these in a realistic and achievable scenario, CAT and PIRC are at the cutting-edge of focused climate change policy generation, creating groundbreaking research and developing it into effective tools for change.

Claverton Energy Group


April 12th, 2007

We are giving a Zero Carbon Britain presentation to the Annual Conference of the Claverton Energy Group, an independent think-tank of renewable energy professionals considering policy and technology solutions for Britain and Europe.