Geo-engineering has been on the fringes of the debate of how to handle the threat of climate change for a number of years now. But it has always been seen by most as just a little too ‘out there’ for serious consideration. Giant reflectors in space to reflect the sun? Massive floating ships spewing salt-water into the atmosphere? Not only do ideas like these sound more like entrants for a science-fiction competition, they sound potentially more dangerous than the global warming they’re aiming to stop.
Add to that the accusation that trying to engineer the planet back to safety seems like a distraction to the task in hand – Plan A: halting greenhouse emissions. So it can be understood why most environmentalists have locked up the geoengineering ‘toolkit’ in the cupboard labeled ‘to be tried later’. But things have not been going terribly well with Plan A, over the last few years.
The global consensus on the need for cutting CO2 emissions has dribbled into the sands of late. There have been attacks on the reputation of climate scientists, in the Climategate controversy. The world has been through a devastating recession, with another possibly on the way. And there is an increasingly acrimonious debate over whether climate change is happening at all. All of these have led to action on dealing directly with emissions becoming a political football – sapping the will for controlling emissions at source.
That leaves greenhouse gas emissions on a seemingly remorseless rise, with few of the big emitters willing, or able, to take a lead. So it may be time to retrieve Plan B dossier from the cupboard, and dust it down – even if just to see whether any of the less wacky ideas may float in the real world. Such a rational is what has been behind a flutter of recent announcements of research into the practicalities of geoengineering. The various schemes can be split into two main camps.
On the one hand, some are advocating measures to reduce the amount of sunlight coming in to heat the atmosphere. The idea is that, to stop the turning up of the global thermostat from extra CO2, perhaps we should just make sure less sunlight makes it through. Discounting the idea of a space-based mirror system, the big contender here appears to be mimicking volcanoes.
That’s not as mad as it sounds. It’s already been well-proven that the sulfurous emissions of volcanoes help to cool the planet. Some even think that the sulfates kicked out by China’s notoriously dirty coal power-plants might have helped to slow global warming already this decade. This approach works because tiny sulfate particles do the opposite of CO2 – they reflect the sun’s energy back into space.
The sulfates would be injected into the atmosphere through massive pipes, or giant floating blimps. Another similar mechanism is to make clouds more reflective – instead of pumping out sulfates, seawater would be sprayed high into the clouds. It is hoped that the salt would whiten the clouds, making them reflect more of the sun’s rays.
The problems with both of these approaches – assuming that the practical issues can be solved at a low enough cost – are twofold. First, if all that is stopping the world from global meltdown are giant pipes or blimps pumping things into the atmosphere at top speed, what happens when there is a problem, and these devices stop working? We could then be seeing all of the pent-up temperature change happening in a matter of weeks, which is not an enviable prospect.
Secondly, pushing these new things into the atmosphere, whether salt or sulfates, could have unintended consequences. Mankind hasn’t got a great track record for predicting what happens we things are being pumped into the atmosphere. After all, isn’t it CO2 emissions that got us into such a mess in the first place?
The second camp seeks to tackle the problem a little more directly. If we are pumping out too much CO2, then we should try and take that CO2 out of the atmosphere. One approach could be artificial tress, that can absorb vast quantities of CO2, which is then pumped underground for storage. A simpler twist on such an idea is to create, and bury, charcoal – so called biochar. Creating charcoal doesn’t emit CO2, and the biochar adds fertility to the soil too. The good thing about removing CO2 is that it could help slow ocean acidification, one of the often overlooked consequences of our rising CO2 levels.
But one again, the experimental nature of trying to balance things up – as if the planet is a giant chemistry experiment – means there are bound to be risks to trying to sweep the CO2 under the carpet. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that the lack of action on climate change is pushing us towards such radical solutions. There again, maybe the scare factor of geoengineering is just what is needed – to focus minds back onto Plan A again.
[This guest post is contributed by Wozniacki, a fitness instructor who owns a website offering fitness tips & workout plans at BuildMuscle.org]