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expert reaction to decision not to launch the 1km balloon as part of the SPICE geoengineering research project

The team behind the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project made the decision to cancel the test experiment planned for 2012. Matt Watson, lead scientist on the project, spoke out about the decision through the SMC.

 

Dr Matt Watson, University of Bristol and lead scientist on the SPICE project, said:

“It is with some regret that today the SPICE team has announced we’ve decided to call off the outdoor ‘1km testbed’ experiment that was scheduled for later this year. The reasons for this are complex and I will try to explain the decision here. It should be noted that these views are my own and do not necessarily imply consensus within SPICE. Where a range of opinions exist I will try to make that clear. Importantly however, the decision to call off the experiment was made by all the project partners in agreement.

“Firstly, there are issues of governance. Despite receiving considerable attention no international agreements exist. Whilst it is hard to imagine a more environmentally benign experiment, which sought to only pump 150 litres (2 bath loads) of pure water into the atmosphere to a height of one kilometre over a deserted field, in terms of SRMGI[1] nomenclature it represented a transition from stage 2 to stage 3 research. Most experts agree that governance architecture is needed and, to me personally, a technology demonstrator, even a benign 1/20 scale model feels somewhat premature, though many in SPICE would disagree. Counter to my personal feelings is the argument that technologies that could inject SO2 into the stratosphere, particularly aircraft, already exist and that process could, but obviously should not, begin tomorrow. It is therefore wrong to consider the tested experiment as an enabling technology and that various delivery mechanisms should be tested given there is minimal, well managed proximal (e.g. health and safety) risk and no impacts on climate or biodiversity.

“Secondly, there are issues of intellectual property. SPICE, as a team, is committed to researching climate engineering carefully with the profound belief that all such research should be done, as per the Oxford Principles, for the greater good. We have all agreed, through a partner-wide collaboration agreement to (a) put all results into the public domain in a timely manner and (b) not to exploit (i.e. profit from or patent) results from the SPICE project. However, a patent application exists that was filed prior to the SPICE project being proposed, describing the delivery technology. The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project lifetime and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort. Efforts are underway to make the patent application’s intentions unambiguously to protect intellectual property and not for commercial purposes.

“Thirdly, it will take time to explore these issues through deliberation and stakeholder engagement. Serious discussions on the issues described above will need to take place. This means that any postponement of the 1km tested would be a de facto cancellation as the experiment’s value, to elucidate balloon and tether dynamics, diminishes over the project lifetime. The SPICE team sincerely hopes that this decision will facilitate rational, unrushed discussion on issues that include both governance and intellectual property but span broader issues surrounding SRM[2].”

[1]Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative [2]Solar Radiation Management

Prof John Shepherd FRS, National Oceanography Centre and chair of the Royal Society’s Geoengineering the Climate report in 2009, said:

“This shows how commercial and financial interests can complicate the management of research on geoengineering, especially SRM technology, even if everyone agrees that it is safe. The project team have done the right thing, but this is an issue that needs to be explored in depth with stakeholders.

“It’s a shame that the balloon experiment won’t be done now, as it would be really interesting to know if this technology would work, and I am quite sceptical about it. However, it was always an optional extra to the rest of the project, which is scientifically much more important.”

 

Dr Jane Long, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said:

“The vast majority of the proposed SPICE experiment is critical research that will help us understand the potential utility and possible dangers of geoengineering with aerosols. It is very important that this research continue.

“Matt Watson and his team took the difficult but wise and courageous step of cancelling the balloon part of the SPICE experiment. I support their decision and laud this action as one which represents good judgement and appropriate recognition of the public and intellectual property concerns. This action adds to the credibility of the scientists themselves to act responsibly in light of the lack of oversight that geoengineering research clearly requires. Such oversight may start as self-governance such as exhibited by Dr. Watson, but eventually, and sooner rather than later, research into intentional modification of the climate will have to be subject to governance as discussed in a number of recent reports which recommend principles and structure for oversight.

“This governance should at least include requirements for transparency, oversight and assessment of research by independent, broadly-based boards or committees, and public engagement. Until such governance is in place, we are gratified to see self-imposed good judgment on the part of the researchers themselves.”

 

Prof Peter Cox, Professor of Climate System Dynamics at the University of Exeter, said:

“The SPICE project represents a vital first-step in the research required before large-scale geoengineering on the real climate system could even be considered. I think the UK research councils, especially EPSRC, should be applauded for having the courage to support projects such as SPICE.

“SPICE concerns geoengineering through the injection of aerosols into the stratosphere, which was considered by the Royal Society in its 2009 report to be amongst the most promising approaches. The sandpit that recommended funding of SPICE also supported another geoengineering project (IAGP[4]).

“The field-trial component of SPICE was a scaled-down proof-of-principle experiment to demonstrate one proposed system for delivery of aerosols to the stratosphere. When SPICE was set up it was decided to introduce a stage-gate process, such that the field-trial could not be undertaken until sufficient public-consultation was completed. This stage-gate was never cleared, which was sufficient reason to postpone the field-trial in its own right.

“It is regrettable that the field-trial aspect of SPICE has now been cancelled, but it is vitally important that the remainder of the project, which is desk and lab based, should continue.”

[4] Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals

Dr Hugh Hunt, Senior Lecturer in Engineering at Cambridge University and member of the SPICE team, said:

“The important thing is that geoengineering is likely to be very affordable and whether we like it or not this will mean that it will be implemented somewhere/sometime even without international agreement or governance principles. I doubt we’ll even know when it is! For instance, if China is worried about its failing monsoon it might try it out. Then India’s monsoon fails and they blame China.

“My view is that we should be ahead of all this and do some sensible, level-headed research well in advance. Otherwise we’ll be doing crisis management in a few years’ time and it won’t be tidy.

On the continuing elements of SPICE:
“SPICE has three work packages (accurately described in the Wikipedia page on SPICE). The testbed is in WP2, the ‘delivery methods’ bit, being done in Cambridge. It is a small component aimed at testing the dynamics of a balloon in the wind while pumping water. We have decided not to do this until the governance process is complete, and given that we’re running out of time we’re getting on with doing tests with kites instead – no water – just looking at how wind affects the kite string. Meanwhile the rest of WP2 is going fine, computer modelling of pumping, pipe strength and balloon dynamics. In short, almost all of SPICE is going ahead as normal.

On intellectual property:
“It is completely normal for engineering projects to be protected by IP. The issue here is that in climate science there is mistrust of IP, and I understand that now. I’ve only been in geoengineering for a couple of years so I’m learning of the sensitivities. It puzzles me though: I’d be much more fearful if Big Oil got in with the patents first. We’re not expecting any revenue from any of the IP, but if there is any then it will go into a trust fund for supporting climate-change related charities etc. If Big Oil held the patents I doubt they’d do such a thing. There is no restriction on the further development of geoengineering and SPICE is not at all hindered by the presence of any patent applications.

On why the field test experiment couldn’t go ahead:
“There was a ‘stagegate’ process required of us by the EPSRC and we have not been given the go-ahead from them. It’s their money so we can’t spend it on something they’ve expressly told us not to do until we get the green light. They’ve taken a very long time and we’ve decided we’ve had enough of waiting. But I’m really pleased we’re having this discussion/debate and when the moment is right (I hope soon) we can get on with a testbed of some kind as part of this important research topic. We’ve decided though that it won’t be through SPICE.

“I’m not at all keen on geoengineering, and I hope we never have to implement it. If we do it will be because we failed to reduce CO2 emissions by sensible means. I fear we’re heading that way, but that’s just my personal view. So I think we have to be ready with whatever geoengineering techniques are quick to develop, reversible, affordable and safe. If SPICE leads to such a technology then surely that’s a good insurance policy to have in the back pocket.

“Geoengineering will have unintended side effects, almost certainly. But if unabated climate change is going to cause worse problems then what should we do? Chemotherapy is not nice, but it’s better than dying of cancer.”

 

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