Geoengineering May Represent Earth's Best 'Plan B'

  • by Matthew O. Berger (washington)
  • Inter Press Service

As many countries continue to refuse to cap their greenhouse gas emissions and climate change-induced emergencies become increasing likely — or frequent — some researchers are saying it is time to seriously look in to developing a plan B for stopping climate change. This plan B would consist of 'geoengineering' whereby carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, the amount of solar radiation heating the planet is reduced, or both.

There are several proposals that fit into these broad categories, and they vary greatly both in terms of their acceptance and in the likely feasibility that they can be done on a large enough scale. For now, though, the plans are still largely thin on specifics and relegated to the outskirts of climate discussions.

That is especially true for the category of geoengineering called solar radiation management, or SRM. This category includes, in decreasing order of likely feasibility at a large scale, according to researcher David Keith, spraying aerosols high in the atmosphere, whitening marine clouds, placing satellites with mirrors in space, and whitening the surface of the oceans.

The other category of geoengineering fixes, carbon dioxide removal (CRM), includes such accepted measures as planting forests to serve as carbon sinks or burning biomass in place of fossil fuels like coal. More novel CRM approaches would include growing large amounts of algae from which a biofuel can then be derived and, most controversially, sprinkling minerals like iron or limestone over parts of the ocean.

Researchers like Keith, an environmental scientist at the University of Calgary and leading geoengineering thinker, are quick to note that these technical solutions to climate change should not be thought of as substitutes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

They also note that most of these technologies are not close to ready for deployment and that more than anything further research is needed to determine both what adverse consequences such technical solutions might have and whether these solutions even work — that is, whether they can really be thought of as a plan B.

For now, many fears remain over the possible ecological implications of engineering the planet's climate. And these scientific issues, as well as political and legal issues, will need to be sorted out if research in the field is going to advance much further.

Brad Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, is concerned that a single-minded focus on solving climate change might overlook possible spill-over effects of those solutions on other phenomena, such as weather patterns or the nitrogen cycle.

'These are important technologies but we need to understand a lot more, particularly about scale…When do I put enough material into the stratosphere that I change monsoon patterns?' Allenby said at a conference here Monday.

He says we need to stop thinking of geoengineering measures as solely 'climate-change technologies'.

'Climate change is part of the sweep of issues that need to be dealt with. These issues are not going to decouple just because we don't think we're smart enough to understand the coupling,' he said.

Beyond these conceptual and ecological problems, this potential technology also poses thorny questions for international law and governance.

Jason Blackstock, an international governance fellow at the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, thinks that the deployment of geoengineering technologies might ultimately come down to political narratives and unilateral action. A developing country that feels it is being slighted by the lack of action on emissions reductions by the wealthy countries that have contributed the most to climate change might decide to undertake some geoengineering measure itself, he says.

'If I had to place a bet now, I would give at least even odds that [the country that deploys geoengineering measures first] won't be the U.S. and that it would more likely be an emerging economy simply because of the alignment of politics and incentive structure,' both in the U.S. and in emerging economies, he says.

There is also the prospect of private corporations or individuals using geoengineering technology to combat climate change on their own. But, as Dan Bodansky, a professor of law, ethics and sustainability at Arizona State University, pointed out Monday, 'It wouldn't be a single act; it would be a continuous activity over time, which, I assume, would be possible to detect and respond to,' making it difficult for geoengineering measures to be taken without the knowledge of governments.

Still, many questions would remain, Bodansky says, including who has jurisdiction and what governments or entities should respond.

The other fear is political: if geoengineering options become readily available, would the incentive to significantly reduce emissions still exist?

But Blackstone says that incentive works two ways. It is conceivable, he says, that by 2015 geoengineering options could be used as a negotiation tactic in global climate summits like last year's in Copenhagen and this year's in Cancún.

Island states or other countries that face an existential threat from rising seas, for instance, could band together and 'build a little red button and go to the negotiations and say, 'Are you guys going to mitigate? Well, I have a red button to inject sulphur aerosols [into the atmosphere, expected to reflect solar radiation]. Are you guys going to mitigate now?'' says Blackstone.

For now, Keith and other geoengineering researchers are just hoping there will be further research into both the technologies and the contentious questions it raises.

They admit their planet-scale measures have large risks, but also know that the time may come when the risk of climate change-induced emergencies outweighs the risks that geoengineering may bring - and hope they have answered enough of the questions about the technologies that it is known whether it has a role to play in staving off the worst of climate change's effects.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service