What is geoengineering – and can it save the planet?

The failure of world leaders to reach major agreements at Cop27 has spurred efforts by scientists to develop radical ways to curb global warming.

Geoengineering is “one of the most controversial and important approaches to combating climate change to date,” said Tony Ho Tran, science writer for The Daily Beast, and points to “technologies and innovations that can be used to artificially modify Earth’s climate.”

Countries around the world including the United States are exploring various forms of geoengineering. Last month, the White House announced a five-year research plan to explore solar radiation management.

What is geoengineering?

Foreign Affairs’ Robert Litan wrote that geoengineering “looks futuristic.” But the basic concept has been around since 1965, when science advisers to then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson “suggested that some kind of tinkering with the planet’s mechanics might be necessary.”

Since then, this overhaul has included developing ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and fertilizing the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton growth. Other projects range from influencing the weather to reflecting the sun’s heat.

The concept of geoengineering is becoming more prevalent, “as the pace of extreme weather events and their devastation seem to be accelerating far beyond some of the most pessimistic predictions,” Litan said. “Geoengineering may finally have its time.”

Ho Tran told The Daily Beast that the US is considering a geoengineering technique that “essentially involves spraying a fine mist into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the Earth.” Although this “sounds a little crazy,” he wrote, the world has seen “accidental management of solar radiation” before. The eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1816 dropped temperatures by as much as 3°C in Europe and North America that summer.

Last week, UNESCO held a symposium on the scientific advances and ethical challenges of climate engineering at Cop27. The UN agency said arguments were “increasingly being put forward to consider other measures to counter the warming effect of greenhouse gases”.

“However, the study of such methods raises a host of ethical concerns and questions,” UNESCO added.

Why is it controversial?

Countries around the world are “increasingly using technology to alter conditions in the atmosphere, oceans and ice to improve the weather in their favor or reduce global warming,” said Tracy Raczek, a former climate advisor to the UN Secretary-General. But in an article for London think tank Chatham House, Rajic warned that “the results of these interventions can cross borders, and what may be good for one country may not be good for its neighbours.”

“This is not a hypothetical problem,” Rachik wrote. Iran has accused Israel of stealing its water through cloud seeding, and China’s success in artificially changing the weather in some of its cities has alarmed India and other neighboring countries.

Experts say more research is needed into many forms of geoengineering. David Keith, director of the Solar Geoengineering Research Program at Harvard University, told the BBC’s Discovery podcast that “no one doubts” that global temperatures could be lowered by spraying materials into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. But the question mark hangs over potential unintended side effects and risks.

Former BP boss John Brown, now chair of climate growth contribution project BeyondNetZero, called geoengineering climate change a “Plan C.” He said in the Financial Times (Financial Times) that this approach is “undesirable and risky and does not need to be done immediately.” “But it deserves more thought and consideration.”

Can you save the planet?

Brown fears that neither reducing emissions nor mitigating climate change will be enough in the fight against climate change, as they generate “long-term, non-quantifiable, indirect returns”. So geoengineering represents our best chance for a sustainable future, he argued in the Financial Times, even though “it will take at least a decade to create the necessary scientific and bureaucratic institutions to control this activity”.

The biggest opponents of geoengineering point to problems associated with methods such as releasing sulfur into the atmosphere to form clouds.

But Keith of Harvard University wrote for the New Yorker: “The deaths from air pollution from the added sulfur in the air could be more than offset by the decrease in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times greater.” Geoengineering is also “cheap and works fast,” he said, adding, “If I were asked what method could bring temperatures down mid-century with the least environmental risk, I would say geoengineering.”

Science journalist and astrophysicist Graham Phillips echoed this sentiment in The Sydney Morning Herald. He said geoengineering methods such as spraying sulfur into the sky “seem crazy”.

Phillips concluded, “But the sound for her exploration was getting steadily louder, and serious scientific research had begun on this ground fix—because not tinkering would be madder.”

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