If climate change continues at the current rate, it is predicted to have a range of serious consequences, including significant losses of biodiversity and ecosystems. Geoengineering, the large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s environment, has been proposed as a potential solution. This challenge has given rise to a range of technical solutions, including adding nutrients to the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide, capturing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it on land or in the ocean and releasing particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight and reduce temperature on the ground.
Although such technology brings potential benefits, a CCI Horizon Scanning exercise in 2008 highlighted geoengineering as a potential future issue for conservation as the technologies being developed tend to be novel and so little is known about either their effectiveness or their impact on ecosystems and biodiversity.
In 2012, Shared Challenges funded a review of the potential impacts of geoengineering technology on biodiversity and ecosystems and to identify gaps in our knowledge that need further research. The review concentrated on two categories of geoengineering technology, or intervention:
- Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and sequestration, to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transfer it to existing or new carbon sinks on land or in the ocean.
- Solar Radiation Management, which uses technology to reflect a small proportion of sunlight away from earth to offset warming from greenhouse gases
Work on this review is ongoing, and it will provide a very useful reference guide for those seeking to research or respond to developments in geoengineering. It will also help people to access the latest information on twenty of the geoengineering techniques currently being discussed and their potential positive or negative impacts on biodiversity.
A further study which builds on the output of this review is now being undertaken. This second project, by the University of Cambridge Conservation Science Group and funded and supported by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, will use an approach of ‘impact scanning’ and formal expert consultation with a group of international scientists in order to assess:
a) Which of an extensive list of potential environmental changes resulting from geo-engineering techniques are the most important for biodiversity and ecosystems (in terms of magnitude, intensity, etc.)
b) Where priority knowledge gaps exist about the biodiversity and ecosystem effects of these changes
c) Specific priority research questions
This will help form a basis for a future research agenda, encouraging timely investigation of the potential biodiversity and ecosystem effects of geo-engineering. It is critical that the effects are incorporated into policy discussions and intervention design at an early stage so that detrimental effects to biodiversity and ecosystems are considered and avoided.