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Climate change and energy

China Builds One of the World’s Largest Geoengineering Research Programs

Backed by $3 million in federal funds, scientists are assessing how geoengineering would impact agriculture, glaciers, sea levels and more.
August 2, 2017

During the last three years, China has assembled one of the largest federally funded geoengineering research programs in the world, marking another area where it's forging ahead of other nations on climate matters (see "The Growing Case for Geoengineering").

The approximately $3 million program, funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology, incorporates around 15 faculty members and 40 students across three institutions. The researchers are assessing the impact of employing technological means of altering the climate, and exploring related policy and governance issues. The effort explicitly does not include technology development, or outdoor experiments, in contrast with emerging U.S. research programs at Harvard and the University of Washington (see "Scientists Consider Brighter Clouds to Preserve the Great Barrier Reef").

“They don’t want to be seen as the bad guys, so there’s a reluctance to do that among some groups,” says John Moore, a British expatriate, glaciologist, and climate modeler who is overseeing the program.

Moore, a long-term resident of China, serves as chief scientist at Beijing Normal University's College of Global Change and Earth System Science. He provided an update on the research efforts, which also include Zhejiang University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, at the prestigious Gordon Research Conference in Newry, Maine, last week. It's an off-the-record event, but Moore spoke with MIT Technology Review after his presentation.

Geoengineering is a blanket term for a number of proposed methods for counteracting climate change. Among other approaches, scientists have explored the possibility of spraying particles into the stratosphere to scatter sunlight, or making coastal clouds more reflective. It’s generally believed such methods could offset temperature increases, but there are considerable concerns about potential environmental side effects, the tricky political challenges it raises, and the ethics of deploying a technology that could alter climate on a global scale.

Given these challenges and the rising threat of climate change, a growing number of scientists argue there should be far more research and debate on all of these issues. And since geoengineering would generally affect all countries, regardless of which ones deploy it, the more nations that take part the better, says Douglas MacMartin, a senior research associate in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, who has advised on the Chinese program.

Moore says their current research focus areas include analyzing the potential impacts of geoengineering on polar ice sheets, sea levels, agriculture, and human health. Atmospheric scientist Long Cao, the program’s primary researcher at Zhejiang, co-authored a paper published last week on “cocktail engineering.” The study, a collaboration with prominent climate scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, explored the potential of using two types of geoengineering to balance out negative environmental effects. Other recently produced papers assessed the effect on regional glaciers, desert irrigation, and ocean circulation.

There have been several government-funded geoengineering research efforts in Europe, including the German Research Foundation Priority Programme, and the European Union-backed Implications and Risks of Engineering Solar Radiation to Limit Climate Change project. The biggest U.S. research effort so far is Harvard's new multidisciplinary Solar Geoengineering Research Program, which has raised around $7.5 million. But it mostly came from private sources, including Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and the Hewlett Foundation. Scientists at Harvard and elsewhere in the United States have struggled to raise significant funds from public sources, largely due to the still controversial nature of the subject. 

Because China is increasingly influential on climate issues, the broader significance of the geoengineering program may be the international example that it sets, says Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative.

Notably, it could compel other nations to make similar investments into exploring regional impacts and policy implications of geoengineering, or at least to engage on the subject. In fact, the program has already taken steps to incorporate poor nations like the Philippines and Bangladesh into discussions on the issue, hosting a workshop on geoengineering in the developing world several weeks ago.

But are there any risks to China, with its mixed history on human rights and lack of democratic institutions, establishing itself as a scientific leader in a field with the power to alter the entire globe, for better or worse?

To the degree that the science is openly published, and there’s a lot left to learn, “it doesn’t matter which country understands first,” Pasztor says.

But over the long-term, there could be risks to any single nation dominating the research on this issue, because it could also come to dominate the debate on how, when, and whether to ultimately deploy such technology, Cornell’s MacMartin says. He adds he would prefer that the United States government also funds research in this area, coupled with dedicated efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

"It is essential for the U.S. to continue to have a seat at the table in any decision that affects the entire planet," he says.

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