NEGATIVE EMISSIONS TECHNOLOGIES (NETS): WORTH THE RISK?

Jessica Bridgman

Geoengineering, or the manipulation of the planetary environment, is one of the ‘Next Big Things’ according to Policy Exchange which is currently hosting a lecture series with Nesta and the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.

These events look at ground-breaking technology which reportedly has the potential to overcome some of the most imminent threats to society and discuss the benefits and possible ramifications.

One of these ‘Next Big Things’ is Geoengineering, more specifically Negative Emissions Technologies(NETs) which can remove CO2 and other Green House Gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere, slowing down the rate the earth’s temperature is increasing. It has become widely acknowledged by well-respected organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that we will not be able to halt the 2°C rise in global temperature (the level at which significant environmental damage will occur) without actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

There is huge excitement about this technology and its necessity was summoned up by Mike Childs from Friends of the Earth, who explained that ‘we can’t stop climate change without it’. A very bold statement from an organisation which has traditionally advocated grassroots activism as the means to combat climate change.

Whilst this could be a quick-fix antidote for our addiction to emissions, questions still loom: what if it doesn’t work? What if the carbon leaks? What if we can’t build fast enough or if there is huge public objection (think: onshore wind!)?

The problem also exists that this technology is still in early stages of development and unsurprisingly, the manipulation of the planetary environment is quite complex and has a number of unforeseeable risks. Professor Steve Rayner, coordinator of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, spoke about the obstacles facing the technology. He said for NETs to effectively reduce emissions plants would have to be built worldwide taking money, resources and time which are already in short supply.

A major concern also debated was that if we went down the path of NETs and it didn’t work, money and resources which could have been used for mitigation will have been absorbed by fruitless efforts.

Chi Onwurah MP, the only politician at the debate, clearly thought the risk was too high, exclaiming that we struggle to predict the weather, how would we be able to predict the outcomes of planetary manipulation?

There is a dilemma then: we need a technology that can actively combat climate change as the current path of mitigation is not working fast enough, but the risks associated with NETs make the costs hard to justify.

Even harder to justify, though perhaps, is being on the precipice of a technology that has the potential to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change, and not taking the leap?

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