EU researcher: World needs geo-renovating rather than geo-engineering

  

People should not meddle with Earth's complex climate system by experimenting with futuristic geo-engineering options, but softer approaches have the potential to relieve the planet's climate woes, Frank Raes, head of the climate change unit at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, told EurActiv in an interview.

Frank Raes is head of the climate change unit at the Joint Research Centre's (JRC) Institute for Environment and Sustainability. 

He was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Does the climate change unit at the Joint Research Centre undertake any research into different geo-engineering options that are becoming more fashionable as climate change accelerates?

With geo-engineering, there are ideas around that people have to slow down global warming. There are what we call hard geo-engineering ideas and soft geo-engineering ideas.

Among the soft ones, for example, the use of forests to take up CO2 from the atmosphere is a geo-engineering approach. Under the Kyoto Protocol, people can use issues like afforestation and avoided deforestation as a way to take up CO2 from the atmosphere or to avoid releasing more CO2 in the atmosphere.

We as a unit work a lot together with DG Environment, the policymakers, to see how we can best use what we call land-use change and forestry issues to, let's say engineer the atmosphere to take more CO2 out of it and to do it in a way that CO2 really is taken out.

There are aspects here that I call geo-engineering, because if we, for instance, have more plantations to take up more CO2, we have to be more careful. If you just cut down one forest and replace it by another one, that's maybe not too bad. But if you start from a desert and you plant forests, you have to be careful because – and here comes the geo-engineering and earth system analysis into play – you change the reflectivity of the surface.

So you start from a desert which is reflecting light – sand is white and reflects light – which leads to a cooling of the system. Now all of a sudden, you plant trees, and as trees are dark, the light from the sun is absorbed nearly immediately. 

So as soon as you start planting trees, you absorb sunlight and heat up the system. Only in the long term, maybe in 10 or 15 years when the trees are growing, will you have the benefit of tree planting and have CO2 taken out of the atmosphere. 

So just to show that even a policy that we have today – afforestation for instance which countries can do to get credits under the Kyoto Protocol – you're basically touching the processes within the earth system. You're engineering the whole system and there are things that go in the right direction. Indeed, you take out CO2 from the atmosphere, but by the same token, other things are happening that work against climate change mitigation.

So we have already geo-engineering, but we have to stay very careful about how to use afforestation and deforestation so that we really have a benefit for the climate. So that's an area we look at very carefully together with policymakers at the moment.

How do you think including the REDD mechanism (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) in a new climate treaty in Copenhagen would impact on climate efforts?

That's all open for the negotiation at the moment: how we can use REDD and how we pay for it. I don't think I can say a lot about that.

At the JRC, we are very much looking into the methodologies to monitor deforestation or avoided deforestation. If people in a country say they avoided deforestation, they have to be able to prove that by satellite measurements, for example.

We are examining the techniques to use satellites to monitor forests around the world and to check whether they really avoid deforestation. A problem is, for instance, that they may say they do not cut down forests, but they may have cut down every second tree. You might not see that from a satellite but still see forest cover, although they have reduced a half of their forest.

So we are studying those sort of issues to see how we really can make sure that we can monitor whether forest is left intact or whether there is some degradation taking place.

Could you imagine that upgrading the EU's emissions reduction target from 20% by 2020 to 30% could have adverse climate impacts if it leads to more use of reforestation mechanisms?

This whole issue of land-use and land-use change, forestry and REDD is very important in the negotiations because it’s the kind of mechanism that countries might like to use instead of cutting down emissions from fossil fuel burning. But we have to be careful that they do it in an environmentally effective way.

When people negotiate, we – and this is the role of the JRC – have to make sure that if they come to a conclusion to accept a REDD in one way or another, we are able to say whether it's a good one, leading to a reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, or not a good one because of other reasons.

So it's up to the negotiators and the politicians to decide on the rules of how they will do it. We, scientists, study what real impact it will have for the environment, for climate, for forests and so on.

You also mention hard geo-engineering options. What do you mean by those?

There is scientific literature that says it is difficult for the moment to reduce fossil fuels so we have to do something else.

One easy idea is to put satellites in space with mirrors that reflect the sunlight. So you would prevent sunrays from entering the atmosphere and warming up the earth. That's a very futuristic idea about doing ge-oengineering.

Let's make a comparison between the earth system and the human body. All organs in the body - the heart, the lungs, the brain - work on their own but they also work together as a system. It's the same thing with the earth. The forests, the oceans, the atmosphere, the ice caps, all have their own internal dynamics, but they also work together as a system, the earth system.

Now, you can compare geo-engineering to giving drugs or medicines to a human body or to applying lotion. There are two problems with that.

A medicine very often doesn't take away the cause of your illness but is maybe just a temporary relief. It’s the same with geo-engineering.

Most of the geo-engineering proposals don't stop CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning but just give you temporary relief from the problem.

If you put some mirrors in space, you will stop sunlight from coming into the system, but CO2 emissions in the meantime go on, which we cannot allow.

Another thing with the human body again is that if you give drugs to people, these must first be tested. But we cannot do that with the earth because we only have one earth. 

So we have to do very careful experiments and research. And this is what people are doing to see whether certain ideas for geo-engineering will work or not.

Is this something the EU is looking into as well?

I think that in the DG Research part, they look at some ideas of earth system modelling, modelling not just the atmosphere but the whole system – atmosphere, oceans, biosphere – to test in this framework some ideas of geo-engineering. And we are involved in that at the JRC as well.

An idea that was popularised by one European researcher Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize winner who explained the ozone hole in the 70s, was to launch rockets into the higher atmosphere to release some sulphide particles, dust particles. That would create a mist in the stratosphere at 15 kilometres, which would bloc the incoming sunlight. 

So each mist particle would work as a little mirror and reflect the sunlight back, which would lead to a cooling.

The idea comes from the fact that we know that if there is a volcanic eruption, like in the 90s we had Pinatubo, which put a lot of sulphur into the stratosphere at 50 km, which produced a mist. And then we saw that indeed temperature globally went down a couple of degrees.

So he launched the idea of geo-engineering this: putting sulphur particles up there to create the mist and temporarily cool the atmosphere. There was a lot of discussion in the top journals 'Nature' and 'Science' about this, and some calculations were done.

I had a chance to talk to him about this, and he basically launched the idea to show how stupid it is. You would have to launch rockets every week to have these sulphur particles in the upper atmosphere, and it would cost a lot.

But at the same time, he said that as scientists we have to consider these ideas. If they are around, we have to study them to show whether they are feasible or not.

A researcher has an important role to play and has to research based on an integrated approach that treats the atmosphere, the biosphere, the oceans and the earth system as a whole.

What is your stance on geo-engineering?

Basically, we are not very fond of it for the reasons that I mentioned. One is that it's a temporary cure and doesn't solve anything and the second thing is that we don't know the earth system enough to start playing with it.

So we'd rather go with what I call geo-renovating. So if I can compare the world with a house, we have the house in a bad shape after 200 years of burning fossil fuels.

We can fix it with some geo-engineering temporarily, but what we really want to do is to renovate the house. We don't have to restore the house and go back to the Middle Ages. 

But renovation means making the house fit for the future, which will be 2°C warmer for sure. And maybe we have to do this by very sophisticated policies.

At the moment, climate mitigation is very much focused on policies on reducing CO2, N2O and methane emissions.

But there are other gases in the atmosphere that have an impact on climate. These are the regular air pollutants like ozone, and black carbon smoke particles.

They have an immediate impact on climate so if we do something about them, we will get an immediate benefit. If we do something about CO2 we will get benefits a hundred years from now because the CO2 cycle in the atmosphere is very long.

They have a strong impact on climate and they are discussed in another forum, by air pollution policymakers, whereas the climate change people talk about CO2 emissions and the energy system.

So when I talk about geo-renovation, it is about integrating these policies better and looking for a win-win situation. It is about discussing very sophisticated ways of solving the problems of climate change and air pollution rather than resorting to hard geo-engineering. 

Do you think there is any more potential in geo-engineering options where CO2 is captured from the atmosphere and buried underground?

Again, if you use trees to soak up CO2, we call it soft engineering, which is also very much under study as I mentioned. 

And some of these things might be feasible. We have cut trees in the past so planting them again should be an option to get CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Another issue that we look at in the JRC is biochar technology. We are involved in the International Biochar Initiative, and the European Soil Bureau is very much involved in that.

It's about gasifying agricultural waste instead of burning it so that you get charcoal. You put this charcoal back to the soil, which is a good thing for the soil and the water, and you can use the gases that come out from the gasification as fuel. So it's basically a win-win situation.

That's something that is certainly of interest for developing countries that still live from agriculture and have a lot of agricultural waste. If they just burnt this waste, it would release CO2 into the atmosphere. If they just let it rot on their fields, it would release methane in the atmosphere. 

But if they applied this biochar technology, they would keep the carbon in the charcoal and use it for their fields and they could even have fuel.

At what point is that research at the moment?

There is a big push now. It's being applied at local levels via experimental prototypes.

So this is soft geoengineering: you engineer the natural system where things would burn or rot and try to intervene to control CO2 emissions. I'm not an expert on that, but I think it's a rather straightforward technology. 

And it could be applied extensively in developing countries. I know that they have made submissions to the UNFCCC to bring that technology to the forefront like we now are openly discussing carbon capture and sequestration or REDD at the UNFCCC.

There may be some special rules in the protocol to make biochar technology part of the CDM [Clean Development Mechanism], or something like that, so that such a project can be accounted for in the CDM. That is usually what they would like to have.

Do you think that the political negotiations for a new climate treaty in Copenhagen are sufficiently informed by science?

I think very much so.

I've been following UNFCCC and the COP since the COP 9 and then it was never clear what the basis was to move forward. 

Now, really, they keep referring to the 4th IPCC report, for instance. There is a table there which says that if you reduce your CO2 concentration below 450 ppm, you have a chance to stay under 2°C. If you go to 550 ppm, you go to 3°C and so on. So they all refer to this table.

Also, the IPCC figured out what the developed world should do and what the developing world should do. If you want to get to 450 ppm, we know that rich countries have to reduce emissions by somewhere between 25% and 40% by 2020.

So these values are there and they are based on science. It is really the whole scientific community and also linked with economists that have come out with these sorts of numbers.

And they are now very widely used, at least by the European negotiators. So far even the developed countries are not committed to go to minus 25% let alone 30%-40%. We're falling short there, so in the next months before Copenhagen we want to know that we get these values.

Also in terms of adaptation, science has produced a lot of data on what climate change means in terms of impacts. That's the reason why we target 2°C because if you go further, you have some impacts that you can't manage anymore.

So the policy is very much informed by science also on the adaptation side.

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